The Role of Technology in Manufacturing
Ah–technology! That word sends some scurrying and others start salivating. We are all impacted on a personal level by technology. But, start putting the word with “and manufacturing” and there’s often less current impact. Why is something so transformative often absent on the production floor? I think there are two reasons.
First, there’s the origin of most current technology– Silicon Valley. The focus is on consumer tech, not manufacturing tech. In fact, I’ve told several VC partners that if they would just start marketing their technology to manufacturers, they could increase the price and see a windfall. But, too many still just don’t understand the world of 3-D–dirty, dangerous, and difficult.
Operations teams must also bear some of the blame. We’re too busy to look up and see what’s out there. Additionally, IT is often happily distracted by corporate functions and doesn’t step up to the plate. What a situation, everyone ignoring the opportunities and leaving cash on the table.
Fortunately, there are changes to this mindset. The utter ubiquity of smart phones and tablets means that people are walking around on the shop floor with more computing power than most data centers had in the past. Networks are walking around with them as well. People are growing tired of writing machine readings on paper, then transcribing them to Excel or some real system the next shift or day. The ability to read the data directly from the machine into the system and analyze that in near real time starts whetting the appetite of many people.
So, technology is really there to make a difference. What we as technologists must do is to be the bridge between the startup world and operations. It’s our responsibility to bring options to the table. I will review a couple of these options.
Smart phones are a true underpinning to what we can do. They can allow collaboration and provide location awareness. Two startups–WorkJam and Mist leverage these two components. WorkJam allows the worker who’s not tied to a computer the ability to see work schedules, alerts, etc. from the company securely. Now, a plant manager can communicate with her staff–and since anyone who can afford a smart phone has one, the coverage is almost universal. Mist (among many other things) allows the individual to be tracked within a facility–think about the option to warn someone when they are approaching a hazardous piece of equipment or entering a portion of a plant that is off limits.
What we as technologists must do is to be the bridge between the startup world and operations
That’s just the people side of the equation. It gets really interesting when you start working with the equipment in the facility. We’ve been connecting to the production side of equipment for years, the side where we count how many widgets are being produced, was the appropriate torque applied, etc. What’s newer is the connection to the operating side of the equipment – what’s the oil temperature or pressure, etc. And then once we collect that data, we can start to analyze it for trends and anomalies. Sight Machine is one company that is doing that. We use Sight Machine to capture data on a production line and then build a big data environment to analyze performance and trends. They are also generating documentation for production lots to show the parameters of production–things that used to take a lot of manual time. Imagine tying environmental parameters such as ambient temperature and humidity to quality data to predict when you expect problems to occur on the line.
Add large screen TV’s and very cheap computers from people like Raspberry PI to run a web browser and now you have visibility to production in real time on the shop floor. This management by eye capability has been around for some time, but the cost to provide it has dropped to the point where it is feasible to put it almost everywhere. Not we are displaying a combination of ERP and Manufacturing Execution System (MES) data on one screen. The production team can see where they stand on numbers and why they are there.
Now, add the cloud and Software as a Service (SaaS). These licensing and connectivity models simplify access to allow suppliers and customers into the company’s extended value stream. Small suppliers can get into portals to print labels that can be read once in the facility rather than forcing the receiving team to print the labels on site. FIFO utilization can be supported at the customer level by providing screens and requirements directly in their warehouse. All of these capabilities reduce waste and effort and save money.
I’ve just scratched the surface in what is available technically. The teams and teamwork between Operations, Engineering, and IT are what can really drive this forward. We can all provide great insight–when we combine them we can develop great results. I am very fortunate to have people in my IT organization that have spent a number of years in Operations. This insight brings new ideas to our team. In a number of our plants, we have developed new interfaces and applications and various ways of implementing and exploiting them due to our diverse backgrounds.
For you leading edge folks and fast followers, you’re probably already doing much of this. I’m really speaking to the rest of the manufacturing space. We tend to be a little behind in technology implementation due to inertia within the business and thin budgets. But, these are areas where you should be able to show an improvement to the bottom line of the company. Test the waters!