Episode cover art


Episode 3 Season 2020

Integrated E-commerce for On-Demand Print Manufacturing with Darren Joint (Viking Signs)

Length: 53 minutes

Using e-commerce and fully integrated data to enable same-day shipping of print-on-demand custom products. Corporate-turned-entrepreneur Darren Joint shares his story and biggest lesson learned becoming a small but mighty digital manufacturer.




Guest(s)

Darren Joint
Managing Director
– Viking Signs

Host(s)

Chad Perry

Published

28 January 2020

References

https://www.vikingmanufacturing.co.uk



Read the Transcript



[General intro omitted.]

Chad Perry:

Today, we’re speaking with Darren Joint, Managing Director of Viking Signs out of Lincolnshire, United Kingdom. Viking is a cutting edge small business serving the automotive OEM market with on demand manufacturing of safety signs, machine labels and instrument panels. Darren has been largely responsible for turning this small operation into a leader in digital manufacturing that other businesses are now looking to duplicate for its reliability and ability to scale up to handle evermore work. Darren thanks for joining us.

Darren Joint:

Good morning.

Chad Perry:

So tell us a little bit more about Viking so that we can understand the context of what it is that you’ve been doing to go digital and why.

Darren Joint:

Oh, okay. So it’s a family owned and operated business that I’ve been involved with now for 12 years and we are 100% on-demand manufacturer. We don’t hold any stock of finished items. We have the largest range of safety signs in the UK, so it’s coming up to 40,000 end-item products now that are all our assets for those if you like. Our stock holding is the digital artwork files and no finished products on the shelf and we’re shipping everything now same day going from making things to dispatching them the same day.

Chad Perry:

Okay, so you’re very much a just in time manufacturing operation.

Darren Joint:

Yeah, that’s right. We started with e-commerce before it was even called e-commerce around 2005 or 2006 with the first website selling things and that’s how we started. At the time we were actually buying in someone else’s product and reselling that and quite quickly realized that actually we could bring it in house and make it ourselves and really digital print technology was just coming to the fall and kind of capable and it was fast enough to be able to deliver that in particular. At that stage we were relatively small volumes and that’s how we then started making ourselves and then as we’ve sold more and more over time, really our capabilities and our speed of response just got better and better.

Chad Perry:

Okay. So take me back to the very beginning and maybe you, this was before you were in the business, but if you can maybe clarify that, what did that look like? You were running an e-commerce or it just started as an idea to resell somebody else’s signs and so you had this website that was just the easiest way to get started.

Darren Joint:

Yeah, my background before here was working for Ford and then in what became the spin out of the past group Visteon. I had an automotive engineering and manufacturing background in a large corporate and never really thought I would get involved in the family business, but took a career break and kind of started thinking about what I would do. The original intention was to go back into Ford and kind of carry on with corporate life, but had an opportunity to come and see a little bit about the business at the time was what you would think of it kind of. It was literally Mom and Pop Business as the local sign company, generally making bespoke products in that way it was digital because that’s the way you produced things but it was relatively low volume but my father also had a kind of engineering manufacturing background.

Darren Joint:

I always wanted to do more of that. He had the idea to start selling safety signs and to start doing e-commerce, but didn’t really know how to realize that, that was really when I first started working with them. My first job was to create a website and sell things. At the time there were no platforms available. There was no Amazon, Shopify these days or Magento, those didn’t exist. To make an e-commerce site, we had to write it from scratch and we had relatively little experience to involve that many people, companies actually providing that service that we literally get it from the ground up. If you look at that now, it was pretty clunky and definitely not what you would choose to do but it worked.

Darren Joint:

We had our first website order and in those days, you built a website and somebody found it and he bought something from it. Compared to how in some ways how easy it is to launch a website now. Actually starting anything through a website is much harder because there’s so much more competition so you end up … One of the first things we had to really learn about being priced quite quickly, it was paid advertising. Google pay per click and there I think through that kind of growth of that industry, there’s a lot of people who were offering services that weren’t all that great. One of the things we learned quite quickly is to try and understand enough technical detail about that to be able to choose a good partner to work with and not be.

Darren Joint:

My experience in automotive industry was working with technical suppliers, but having to understand enough technical detail to be able to arbitrate decisions about that. I learned that working actually with displaced companies, I have realized I had to know enough about displace to be able to make sensible choices working with companies that were really true experts. The same was true in choosing providers of first paid advertising and then later on search engine optimization services. I think a lot of people struggled in that. They wanted to outsource that completely and weren’t prepared to know enough about it to be able to make good decisions.

Chad Perry:

Man, I mean starting an e-commerce site from scratch back at that time, around 2005/ 2006. I was actually in the e-commerce industry. We were building e-commerce systems for medium-sized companies and that’s a substantial risk to build something like that from scratch. Did you have any idea what kind of risk you were taking by doing that?

Darren Joint:

No, probably not but that’s probably a good thing. I think the fact that we just got on and did it and that was the first situation we want to see. We’ve developed at least three different iterations since then and got better and better at understanding how to do that and what to do and what not to do so no probably not. I mean really that was a way of generating the market for these products. Within about two years after launching that we decided to bring the production in-house because traditionally the products are screen-printed stocks. That’s how the industry traditionally delivers the products because on a kind of unit cost basis, that’s the lowest cost way of doing it.

Darren Joint:

It does mean you have to be batch producing and stocking and it means you have to be very careful about the number of end-items because you want to provide because everyone is, you’ve got to stock in reasonable quantity and be able to service that stock, to be able to never run out whereas quite quickly, we realized that we didn’t have to be constrained like that. Initially, the range, if you like, was the same as it was from the supplier we bought them from but then as we learned more about making those on demand, we realized that actually it didn’t matter how many variants we offered as long as we could control the data.

Darren Joint:

We quite quickly ended up expanding the range of every base design to include everything, every single size and material, which previously would have had to be limited.

Chad Perry:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). If you don’t mind me asking, what kind of margin improvement were you looking at going from having this produced by somebody else, selling somebody else’s product and, of course, having to stock it to now you’re completely on demand. I mean clearly that would represent a huge competitive advantage, but if you are actually running the numbers on that, what would that look like?

Darren Joint:

Yeah, I mean it wasn’t really so much about margin improvement; it was more about service enhancement. The problem we had with buying it externally was time was paced. There would be a lag obviously because we were buying them for somewhere else to be able to deliver it out to our end customer and even then the service expectation of online was higher than what it would traditionally have been, five to seven days. If you think about a catalog-type business it would have been normal then. From the very start we were trying to be awfully fast and that we were offering three to five days. With buying it externally, we had relatively little time to turn it around and then ship it back out again. Equally, there were often problems with the orders coming in and out of stock, which we then had to explain to our customer why you are loading it and we don’t have it in stock in our supply.

Darren Joint:

It really was about the logistics of being able to provide that, solve those problems quickly and have it within our own control. Previously, the only way we would’ve been able to offer an even faster kind of premium express service, which pretty quickly we were looking to try to do a next-day service. It would be to get our supplier to ship it direct to our customer, in which case we had no control over the quality and it just wasn’t a good enough service. We more than anything else, it became about delivering right first time and quickly and that’s really what we were ahead of the game with. Because e-commerce drove that kind of expectation, it meant that our operations would get up to be doing that very quickly for non-e-commerce sales if you like.

Darren Joint:

All of our production, because a portion of the business from the start was supplying to other manufacturers, components, machine panels, those kinds of things generally are not sold online but because of the service demands of the online business, it raised the bar in terms of what we could offer to non-online customers. On our expectations with three to five working days as the worst case with express next day being offered on about 15% of the orders, but equally we could offer that service to manufacturers using our products as components, which really at the time was I’d say revolutionary.

Darren Joint:

What’s happened over time is that the demands of the e-commerce market have driven up everyone’s expectations as a consumer, where Amazon Prime now you know you are free next day and even free same day coming. Those expectations continue to rise.

Chad Perry:

Right. If I could sum it up. It sounds like what you’ve done is just by virtue of trying to get control of the level of service that you’re providing. You have somewhat intentionally and unintentionally aligned the whole process to where now you have control and visibility over things like the data and the information, about stock and manufacturing and obviously you don’t have stock anymore. What you can do is you don’t even have to address the issue of, well that’s on back order or that’s not available, but a consumer is going to be looking at your website and expecting that you have some sort of real time visibility into what you can do and so via on-demand manufacturing, you don’t even necessarily need to worry about the data.

Darren Joint:

No, I mean obviously you’ve got to know that you can cope with normal demand and even relatively abnormal demand and be able to still because effectively we’re selling capacity and we have to have that capacity protected. I’m not selling stock. I don’t have stock, but I’ve already presold the capacity to make it effectively. It means we’ve got to have really robust manufacturing processes with good support of the machines. I don’t have redundancy in some cases so that I know I can still deliver that. That’s over the 10 years we’ve been doing it in-house or more, we’ve developed a really good understanding of what normal demand looks like and how to make sure that we can always service that.

Chad Perry:

Yeah. My next question is, it’s relatively simple now to be competitive with in terms of setting up an e-commerce website, right? You can go out to your Shopify, but there’s still this competitive advantage in terms of being able to have this feedback loop. In your case specifically you have to manage your demand or your capacity just like you would your stock. What have you done in terms of implementing technology to do that? What came after the simple e-commerce site? Feel free to get into more of the manufacturing specifics.

Darren Joint:

Sure. Even as a tiny business we had, I’ll call it the ERP system. It wasn’t really; it was an account system that I was able to find a way to use as a kind of manufacturing process system. Unfortunately the people operating that decided to change it and didn’t allow us, so we had to move. We had to change ERP systems probably seven years ago now that was a key kind of enabler for us. We already, as a very small business, had better digital systems and data about customers and things than most of our competitors at that time, I’m sure, would have had papers files and we always had a digital system behind the business. We moved to a more powerful digital system, actually a system that was designed more for people who were stocking products and then shipping them.

Darren Joint:

But what it had behind and the reason we chose it was a really powerful mechanism for managing product data. Because it was designed as a multichannel kind of retail system with access to able to make listings on Amazon and eBay and other marketplaces as well as websites. It had a really good interface and powerful way of controlling product data, which even then I think we started to realize that was the asset, that’s the stock holding we have. Is the data about our products? We’d started using that system to manage the demand by material.

Darren Joint:

What we do is we take all of the demand from a range of customers that are going to be produced that day or in that run and the system interpret it, knows what materials those are and it gives us a demand requirement by material because that’s how the sign is from probably each 12 different safety sign materials. I did about eight converts that into a demand. Initially, it didn’t do anything else with that other than tell us what it was. What we’ve developed over time is that system also now knows the detailed product data. The artwork for that product, it knows for every single product where the artwork exactly is for that and we can keep an up to date. It actually feeds out.

Darren Joint:

e-commerce orders and tell you, it will always come directly into that ERP system which is called chaos control and it then flips that effectively pivots it into by material demand and it feeds all print production systems with the demand requirements by material. The print system knows sheet sizes for example of a particular material like a 3-mm PVC Foamex and all the products that are demanded for that by various customers for that material are then accumulated by the print system because the ERP system is continually adding that information to it. It’s adding the artwork and the quantities, which then is optimized for that sheet size. We run separate print and digital cut systems so there’s the print system.

Darren Joint:

Then once a sufficient demand is accumulated for it and it’s optimized, it moves the things around and adds them to the sheet in order to make best use of the material and best use of the production time because that actually is in most cases more important is the efficiency of the production time and then is sending. It generates all of the cut parts for that product as a unique job and the print data for that accumulation of products and sends it then to a digital flatbed printer or several of which we have and then it adds optical registration marks, automatically adds a unique barcode to that print job, which then it’s producing the cut data for that and that’s unique effectively soft tooling cup path for that accumulation of products, which will never happen again. It is sent to a digital flatbed cutter again with a unique bar coded job reference that sends the scan on the machine, then the sheets printed moves from the printer to the cutter. It’s cut out and product comes off the end to fulfill the demand from the customers.

Chad Perry:

Yeah, that’s very much a production line. We’re not just talking about a physical production line now. You have essentially integrated the front end of your business all the way from the sales to the delivery of the product to where now you’re getting the order in in a digital format. It’s going through the standard steps, I would say that you would find in a manufacturing process but it sounds like it’s doing so in a very controlled manner. I’m curious. Is there any intervention in a production planning or the capacity planning or is it just going through automatically to the production?

Darren Joint:

It goes automatically through to production possibly responding very quickly. We were just about to actually launch a phone enhance service where, previously up until recently, the standard service within three to five working days. We are launching now, everything shipped the same day. Every order we were on a 1:00 PM cutoff the same day. We are now going to move to 4:00 PM cutoff for same day, and every single job is going to go the same day. We were already running that now. We are going to launch that as an external promise in the New Year that all orders placed before 4:00 PM will be produced and shipped the same day.

Chad Perry:

Wow. I’m imagining a factory that essentially has humans doing the artwork, loading in the information that’s necessary and then perhaps at the end dealing with some sort of dispatch or shipping. Is that actually how it’s working?

Darren Joint:

The standard products? It is completely hands off. There’s no intervention from our front end. A customer placing an order on the website, all literature production. We offered standard and customized safety signs. It is a templated customization. At the moment, there’s a manual intervention. A customer can place an order for a customized product and they see a preview of it that then flows in the same way except that the artwork has to be manually created and then we’re really developing system at the moment to automate that as well. The customized products range included in that [inaudible 00:18:24] by the way. Not only is standard products shipping same day for next day, customized product as well and that part is a real competitive advantage.

Chad Perry:

What I’m hearing you describe is really a series of very tightly connected individual systems that now operate on your behalf very efficiently. What I’m wondering is if I’m a small business owner out there, who, I understand what you’re saying. I understand the value. I looked at your business at Viking Signs and I say, man, I can see where I can take my business in that direction as well but you’re talking about multiple pieces. You’re talking about having the ability to sell digitally to sell more easily on the front end to congest these orders online through e-commerce and then you’re also talking about having an ERP system that’s capable of managing the data in a way that is advantageous to you and then sending it through to your production. When I hear that as an engineer, I think, okay, there’s a lot of integration work that needs to happen there. They are off the shelf products that you purchase. You need to have the ability to be integrated externally. They need to have these interfaces called APIs.

Chad Perry:

For all small business owners out there who want to actually take steps to start setting up these systems and integrate them. I’m curious. Did you have any challenges with that? If you can take me all the way back to your early e-commerce days, if you were using vendors or you tried in house or how did that work for you?

Darren Joint:

Okay, so initially it was outsourced. We’ve had both successes and failures in this and where we’ve seen the most success is where we’ve kind of adopted a lean approach to it and tried to do something to fail fast effectively. To put something out there, to see in a customer facing way to make and see it as successful and be able to deliver the result of that even if there were manual intervention steps in the short term. Not to try and integrate everything from the outset perhaps because that ends up being kind of massive IT project, which doesn’t come to fruition very quickly and you don’t then start learning what works and what doesn’t work.

Darren Joint:

The most successful things we’ve done have been where we’ve made it work and found out which things are demanded by customers and therefore cause us a problem in terms of the volume of manual intervention and then sold that integration in order to be able to progress with the volume of things or data before we move on to the next thing. So we’ve had examples of that, for example, where we launched product on Amazon vendor while ago. We’re selling to Amazon and you have to be careful about launching something that you can’t necessarily integrate. You wait until you’re ready to integrate it. You don’t find out whether or not it’s going to work or not.

Darren Joint:

Often we’re now better at choosing okay. We are going to do it. We are going to put resources into them. The manual data transfer initially, and then when it becomes burdensome, fix that integration and that’s what we’ve intended to do and tended to be good at.

Chad Perry:

Right. So you mentioned fail fast and that’s something that actually, that wording, that specific wording is something that William Bridgman of Warren Services who I had the opportunity to speak with a couple of weeks ago. He used that terminology. It’s actually something that you see a lot in the tech field and you’ve seen over the last 20 years this idea of agile or this idea of constant rapid iteration, which ironically came from the lean manufacturing movement started by Toyota. This idea is very much integrated into the fabric of engineering, but it seems like it’s kind of coming back as this, “Oh yeah that’s actually a good idea” and especially for small manufacturers, you really can’t do it any other way without losing your shirt.

Darren Joint:

Yes. I guess my corporate experience though in Ford. Ford was strongly, particularly the kind of lead manufacturing in Toyota methodology has absolutely embraced that but didn’t always because it’s always a big business and got a lot of resources. Didn’t necessarily take it to the full degree that you have to as a small business. You find out quite quickly whether or not it’s works. Whereas in a much bigger business, the effect is sometimes masked, that definitely when I am the resource that has to do the intervention if it’s not working on absolutely motivated to solve that because I don’t want to carry on doing data entry. I can’t keep up with the demand.

Darren Joint:

I can’t keep adding more people to do that, which is what sometimes happens in bigger businesses is you have a kind of an anomaly of a problem that should be solved by integration but you throw more resources at it cause you can rather than actually going and fixing it. I mean, I guess it does rely on some technical architectural systematic thinking, which engineers tend to be good at. I guess I’ve managed to make good connections with good external resources that we’ve used on an adult basis that have helped me be able to do that.

Darren Joint:

Also, thinking about whenever we specified either software platforms or pieces of equipment, one of the primary things I’m thinking about is not only the integration that comes with it, but the openness of the vendor to working and having data integration with other platforms. That’s part of the, I don’t put things into our factory that won’t integrate into the workflow and I try not to have to work with businesses that aren’t thinking like that unless you now have sort of a closed mindset. This is our domain and nobody can see what’s going on inside. The best providers that we work with, the opposite of that there might be absolutely. We recognize that we have to be not only technically integrated the kind of thinking that way, that’s the way to add the most value to the business you’ll put in the kit into all the system into.

Chad Perry:

Right? You’re describing really two different mindsets that you possess simultaneously but maybe somebody starting may not necessarily have that experience or that technical mindset so you’ve described the pain point mindset, which is I’m the one doing the manual data entry and we’ve got to fix this. There’s an actual problem in the business. It has nothing to do with technology at this point. It just really has to do with the fact that something is consuming resources that has a better alternative and then the second mindset is, okay, now that you’ve decided that you need to do something about it, what do you do to actually do something about it? If you didn’t have the relationships established with your vendors that you already do now, but you know what you already know now, where would you start to address some of those pain points? How would you reach out to vendors? What would be the first questions that you ask to make sure that you’re developing a productive partnership?

Darren Joint:

I think, firstly, from my own perspective and this is the best advice I would give to other business owners is that there’s a level of detail that you need to understand and be prepared to get into. And I know that early in my career before being here, I think I assumed I had to always stay out of that and be managing something at a higher level but realized actually being able to move up and down that chunking scale of detail into very detailed in some cases, but choosing that rather than getting sucked in everywhere was a really useful skill and not being frightened of being able to dive into really quite intricate details in some cases if that’s what’s needed at that time to make a good decision but then being able to kind of bring your head back up again and also that’s when that’s the right thing to do.

Darren Joint:

From working with other partners of mine kind of forward, it was electronics modules that we were developing. It was kind of, it was a good blend of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and software engineering and learned for that about, particularly a lot of this has got the interests [inaudible 00:26:40] software and we try to develop with a customization platform provider.

Darren Joint:

What I’m nervous of when I speak to a software provider is when they say yes to everything. Can you do this? Yes. Can you do this? Yes. Can you do that? Yes. Rather than saying no some of the time, and what I’ve found is that when software providers are prepared to change bits and pieces, misdo things rather than say, “Do you know what? We’ve already got some functionality. Can you use this?” That’s a much better approach and that to me says that they’ve got some appreciation of controlling code base, not having hacks all over the place that nobody can maintain, nobody can control and nobody really understands. Actually, somebody saying that’s not how we normally do it. Can you use? Being a little bit obstructive in the sales process, not that I mean obstructive, but realistic in the sale process saying yes you can do this. Yes, we can do that. No, we can change it. I can do that. That always makes me nervous in terms of choosing partners to work with.

Chad Perry:

That’s something that I’ve been on the other hand a lot of as a software engineering provider. One of the things that was actually a pretty difficult lesson for us to learn in the early days was that you really have to say no, you have to push back and it’s not so much about you and what you’re capable of doing. It’s a matter of making sure that it’s a good fit for both sides because there’s really, it’s really not just about writing code, it’s about making sure that there is a strategy in place for your customer.

Chad Perry:

As the small business owner or the decision maker, you have to ensure that that person understands their business in detail and either is prepared to change their process to be better or that it’s opening on the table that everybody knows that the software works a particular way and either there is a conscious decision to update it and change how it works in the case of a single fixed product or that there has to be some level of pushback or adaptability on the part of the manufacturing business. Because if you go too far in either direction, it’s either not maintainable or it’s bad long term for the software partner and they’re going to have internal problems or it’s not a good fit for the manufacturing business.

Chad Perry:

As a decision maker in the manufacturing business, that’s something in my experience that you want to make sure that you feel like there is a good kind of push-pull relationship there and that there’s strategic thinking. In fact, if you go talk to someone about their negative experiences who have had multiple experiences working with a software provider. Oftentimes what you will hear is, especially in cases where they’ve gone and they’ve outsourced it, is that they didn’t get what they want and most of the time that comes down to the way that they interacted. They expected that they could just say do something and not really define it in a level of detail. And as you were talking about getting down into the weeds so that you really explain what your business is doing and what it needs and they weren’t doing that.

Darren Joint:

I guess one of the things that I hadn’t experienced very much within Ford in this job was agile development. We tended to do waterfall type of long drawn out and James, who’s my marketing director, came from other businesses running e-commerce on a much bigger scale than us and he’d use agile development methodology there and really opened my eyes to that as a way of thinking both in terms of visual management tools, but doing sprints developments over a period with visibility of the improvements and kind of customer facing outcomes in relatively short periods and that’s been really, it’s really helped us as well. I think from both my experience at Ford and here’s other big businesses, we brought some of those kind of corporate thinking tools, which in corporate world tend to get a bit bloated and used them in quite focused ways that actually deliver really good outcomes, which it has to in SME. You don’t have the extra resources to waste any time or to have too many blind alleys.

Chad Perry:

I’d like to go back to something that you said. You mentioned sprints and this is a really important concept that sometimes the terminology can really get a little overwhelming and especially when you start talking about what is digital smart factory technology and there are a lot of big words. I think it’s important to clarify here. A sprint is just really a small iteration of work, typically two weeks where you would define what your outcome is for that. In an IT project, if you were to work with a vendor, what you would want to do is you would want to make sure that you have an idea of your overall deliverable especially the problem you’re trying to solve. You want to be very clear about the problem you’re trying to solve, but the way you’re doing that and the way you’re controlling your costs is by saying, “Okay, two weeks from now we want to have this very small bit of functionality to either prove that it’s going to work or to be able to make adjustments.” Is that kind of how you’ve been using it as well?

Darren Joint:

Yeah, absolutely. I mean wherever possible I like for those to be a bit of usable functionality, so part of it is to be able to see it and test it, but in some cases that actually is a kind of intermediate deliverable. If you like, it that does add some function, add some value, then you start, even if it’s a bit contrived, you start to get some actual tangible value about the project relatively quickly as opposed to waiting six months, 12 months before it comes to fruition.

Chad Perry:

Right, and I’m actually thinking of two different scenarios based on where you would be as a manufacturing business leader and decision maker. One is if you’re just starting this journey and let’s say you want to implement, or let’s say you want to adopt an e-commerce system. An e-commerce site is a pretty substantial thing and a lot of times they come as a large package out of the box but even this applies, especially if you’re building a custom e-commerce system. In that case, what you might want to do is say, okay, we know that in six months we want to have this fully functional e-commerce site but what is one thing that we could do that would be useful right now? Maybe in that first two or four weeks, what you would do is say, we just want to list our products online. That’s it. We just want a picture and listing and that way in that scenario, I’m imagining that perhaps your sales team could then use that as a tool in their interactions so maybe that might reduce some of the amount of time that they’re using to send PDFs or brochures.

Darren Joint:

Yes, exactly.

Chad Perry:

And then on the other side of that, if you’ve already got an e-commerce system, got an ERP or whatever it is, and maybe you’re dealing with an old legacy ERP that doesn’t really do what you needed to do, but you find that you can install some integrations or build some integrations and get where you need to go. Those integrations typically could be a better candidate for slicing up into smaller amounts of work. What would be an example of perhaps where you could send some sort of production data from your ERP to your production system? What would be an example of something that you guys did that was a very small chunk of work?

Darren Joint:

Somewhat, I guess things like product data feeds to other marketplaces. I was thinking when you were talking them about one of the intermediate steps for us to full integrations is being comfortable manipulating things in Excel. It is still digital data. You’re not handling individual pieces. You’re finding a format to treat it in on mass but you need some kind of conversion. One of the problems with a full integration with some marketplace platform for example, is that they change the specifications of that relatively often and if you have a full integration but it’s fully automated, that has to keep pace with those changes whereas if you’re relatively comfortable manipulating the data in Excel for example, you can do that yourself. The more comfortable you are being more powerful at doing that or someone in the organization is comfortable doing that, the more like an integration you can produce.

Chad Perry:

Yeah, and that’s a really good point because that speaks to two things that I think that we tend to forget and that one is that it’s okay to have manual intervention. As you mentioned earlier in the process of going digital and in fact it’s beneficial because you can control that aspect of it for as long as necessary. If it doesn’t work out on either end of the integration in this example, you have the ability to manually go in there and change that.

Darren Joint:

It also hones specifications for any eventual integration. You learn what it is you need to do and you can describe that to somebody in order to get the data from this system to that system, I have to make this conversion and here’s what the output of that is and here’s what the input of that is, and then that becomes effectively the specification for if someone’s going to actually fully automate it.

Chad Perry:

Yeah, that’s a really good point. You really want to take this one step at a time. In fact, I would again go back to kind of the software engineering side of it. Software engineers are very much systems thinkers and a manufacturing business is a system. Every business is a system, but particularly in manufacturing, there’s very much a repeatable process, and so if you break something down into its constituent components as far as it can go, then you’ll probably find that there are little bits and pieces here and there that you can automate.

Chad Perry:

Oh, and in fact, that was the other point that I wanted to make that we tend to forget that something like Excel is a digital tool and it can be a very, very powerful digital tool, especially when coupled with this idea of getting your systems defined in such a way that you’re breaking it up into the smallest possible component. Excel can be replaced eventually by a more advanced piece of software, but you may never actually have to get to that point. You may find that your business works really well with that manual and automated hybrid approach.

Darren Joint:

Yes. Developing skills within the business to be able to do that is really advantageous. As we have seen even it’s kind of factory operator, machine operator level, enhancing Excel skills is a good way to start the journey to having those people capable of doing more integration and kind of going, “Oh, there’s a problem here. This doesn’t work properly. How can I solve that?” I can do it with Excel. Actually that is about improving their digital skills because it’s relatively accessible.

Chad Perry:

And the people side of it is actually something that William Bridgman talked about as well. It’s that in his business and his experience when he started to go down this road, he actually found that his team members were eager to replace the routine monotonous parts of their jobs with automation, with technology so that it freed up their creative capabilities. Did you find something similar or how has that gone for you?

Darren Joint:

Yeah, the same thing. I mean my approach is always that, that’s what we should be doing and sometimes people tend to be more prepared to put up with monotonous things than I would be sometimes. They actually, when they’re fed up with something and there’s a roadblock in the way they get me to come and operate in that wall, “I don’t know we can’t carry on with this and not this thing. We have to solve it.” But yeah, we’ve been growing our team’s ability to do that and to recognize that we shouldn’t carry on doing that and to find ways to solve it.

Darren Joint:

I think my approach to learning new things is still to let us have the old fashioned. I think I have to go and be trained and go outside to do that. Actually, some of the younger people that work for me and I’m learning more and more that this is the way of it. If you don’t know how to do it, you look on YouTube and there’s a video of the way you should do it. I’m starting to learn from that and learning new things faster that is increasingly becoming the norm ongoing learning right now with particular skill. I can go get that, like I’m showing my age even now I like The Matrix, you know when you plug the skill in and you get that skill downloaded, it is becoming like that these days.

Chad Perry:

Yeah. I mean we’re all the better for it. I know that a lot of business owners and leaders in manufacturing are a little bit later in their career. They’re not technology first people, they didn’t grow up with Facebook and Instagram and stuff like that. If you were in that position or even if you were in your position now but you were starting from scratch, how do you have that conversation with your skilled team members who are used to doing something one way and also how do you have that conversation with people that you’re bringing in to make sure that you start to shift that mindset toward, “Hey, we’re looking for ways to free up your creativity. We’re looking for ways to be more productive so that you can do more of what you love.”

Darren Joint:

I think you have to reward the instances of that when you see it and even when that doesn’t necessarily go right the first time. I think a lot of engineering businesses tend to be quite conservative and change averse and I tried not to be. I encourage people to change things for the better and improve their own processes and see if that doesn’t necessarily go right the first time. To see that as learning opportunities so that I don’t rail or rant against if there’s a mistake or have not done something actually, no changes implemented, that means it doesn’t necessarily solve but more if that makes it worse but I still encourage the process to change with the intention of making it better, but we should learn from whatever was done to actually then make it better.

Chad Perry:

You’re rewarding the learning process and it sounds like you’re really shifting the definition of success from this idea of achieving a specific hard deliverable versus just making sure that you learn something. So this idea of failing fast, as long as you fail fast and figure out what to change, then you’ve actually done something good for the business.

Darren Joint:

Yeah. We learn a new skill that then can be implemented fixing a different problem potentially.

Chad Perry:

Yeah. I think that really shows doing in companies that are these tech companies, like you know, Elon Musk, I mean he’s kind of like the poster boy of this idea, right? He’s out there blowing up rockets and tweeting about it on Twitter and it’s exciting and I think people appreciate that and they’ve got no problem recruiting people. There are a lot of people that want to work there. They’re attracting some of the best talent in the world and I think that that is what you have to do if you want to survive this transformation.

Darren Joint:

Yeah.

Chad Perry:

So speaking of that transformation, I think that’s a good place to wrap up and what I’d like to add on is actually I’d like to wrap this up in two ways. One is I want to find out just overall based on your experience, if there was anything that you could share with either yourself when you were first getting started or anybody else who’s listening out there that you really think that needs to be heard or that you regret or anything like that, what would that be that you would want to share? And then the second would be how to get in touch with you?

Darren Joint:

Sure. I think this agile methodology is something that in my earlier career I wasn’t as exposed to and that idea of not having everything necessarily completely ready, but being prepared to go out there and find out what’s wrong with it by exposing yourself. I think it is something that’s failing fast. It’s something that I’ve had to learn and I’m not always still not always comfortable when something’s 90% there of doing it and learning what the problems are faster and having that kind of actual getting it out there in the real world to get the feedback but I’ve got better at that I guess so I would learn that faster. I think it was the main thing and using that methodology where you’re doing sprints that deliver pieces of functionality rather than lots of planning and not so much delivery. Even if the intermediate stages you do work to kind of release that, that seems inefficient because you’ve got some run. It is just being all internal and not externally facing the work that you have to put in to make it externally facing.

Darren Joint:

Therefore, visible pays dividends in the end because you know whether you’re heading in the right direction and you can see whether you’re really upstage, you think you are. So that’s the thing I think I would have learned faster and I tried to remember to implement now even though it’s sometimes difficult.

Chad Perry:

Yeah, and I think you’re echoing Will Bridgman there as well. His advice was just get started and just fail fast. Learn as much as you can and the worst thing to do is nothing at all.

Darren Joint:

Yeah.

Chad Perry:

Okay. Well thank you so much. For anyone out there who wants to get in touch with you, to work with you in some way or to maybe do what you are doing, what’s the best way for them to get in touch with you?

Darren Joint:

Let me give you my direct email, which is Darren D-A- double R-E-N at Viking Signs, darren@vikingsigns.gov.uk. You can also look at the website really, we’ve got a number of websites, the one which explains this methodology in most detail and might be of interest to some of your listeners would be vikingmanufacturing.gov.uk.

Chad Perry:

Okay, and this is something that you’re sharing. You’re actively out there sharing your methodology.

Darren Joint:

Not training in particular, but I’m part of Make UK, which is the manufacturer’s organization for the UK and part of my long-term vision is to have more people adopting manufacturing on demand because I think as a way for the UK to have a competitive advantage really in the manufacturing world, then I think manufacturing on demand and distributed manufacturing and the conversion of digital information into end product in different places is really the way that we will survive as a manufacturing economy. I’m passionate about that and I guess trying to share our journey to be able to help others and help the manufacturing future.

Darren Joint:

The only bit we didn’t talk about if you got two more minutes would be our next challenge is about the digital data behind that. In terms of real-world output, we’ve been digital from the start. Like I said earlier, what we’ve grown is our inventory of digital information that represents the products. The next thing we’re thinking about now is how to control that and how to, rather than have many discrete pieces of data have a proper architecture of that product information and

Darren Joint:

I think that’s the challenge. The next challenge for industry for that’s, I don’t know if it’s industry 4.1 or industry 5, but the next challenge is coming once everyone has adopted digital manufacturing in terms of outputs is the architecture of that product data.

Chad Perry:

Yeah and that’s a rabbit hole. Yeah. That’s a huge Pandora’s box too because really what you’re talking about is digitally connecting the entire supply chain. Man, I mean I can talk about that with you for hours, but there’s a lot of efficiencies to be had, not only internally in the business as well, but as you said, once everybody goes digital, this idea of kind of making the interactions more efficient and to do that there is a major challenge and getting the data architecture to be consistent. Is that what you were referring to?

Darren Joint:

Yes. You can think about that in 3D modeling type of sense if you like that’s what that means to most people. For example, assign products; we’ll have a symbol on it for us so a safety sign, a warning sign would have, I don’t know, an electrical warning symbol for example that symbol is present in many children product effectively so there’s a parent child relationship where at the moment if that symbol changes, I’ve got 5,000, 10,000 pieces of discrete data that got that symbol in it. At the moment they’re not in our world, they’re not connected.

Darren Joint:

I can’t change the high-level symbol for something slightly different and have it see directly into the children but you know, that’s what I’m thinking about but that’s equally true. I don’t know, a point bend feature hailing in a 3D architecture of something that the feature might need to change by one degree and if you haven’t thought about how that relationship works is that a child of this on a product, you wouldn’t have to try and change and maintain the control and the pattern that within every single product was actually a child of it.

Chad Perry:

Right. And I think the ironic thing there is that if you go back to the example of something like SpaceX. SpaceX, it’s building rockets with thousands, probably tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of parts. There are a lot of efforts on the parts of these larger companies to get those supply chains oriented and aligned and working together so that changes like that propagate throughout the system. You would think that that would actually be easier to do in a smaller business but really the challenges are the same because if you can get a parent-child relationship structured in your own data, and you can get that structured in a way that interacts with your external suppliers or your customers, then it’s still, once those pipes are there for that data to flow, then it works. But now we’re talking about small businesses trying to fix that, so to speak, or address that on their own and as you said, that’s a real challenge. So Darren, thank you so much. Really appreciate it.

Darren Joint:

All right. Thanks a lot. Bye for now.

Chad Perry:

All right. Bye-bye.

[General outro omitted.]