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Srivats Ramaswami
Chief Technology Officer, 42Q

Manufacturers have long embraced the concept of continuous improvement and innovation. In that spirit, what better way to kick off 2017 than with resolutions about new ways to improve?

Here are my five suggestions for manufacturers working to reach the next level in quality, throughput and overall excellence in 2017. These suggestions are based on best practices implemented in 2016 by companies who use 42Q in their factories.

1. Automation, Automation, Automation

Last year, industry research firm Gartner predicted that within three years 45 percent of the fastest-growing companies will have fewer employees than instances of smart machines. Manufacturers have been leading other industries in automation for decades, but many manufacturing professionals aren’t aware of the state-of-the-art in advanced robotics – and they should be. Uses of advanced robots go far beyond their traditional implementations, and your imagination is the only limitation.

At one of our customer’s plants, for example, component replenishment has been automated. Signals from a surface mount technology (SMT) machine are sent directly to the manufacturing execution system informing the software that a reel of components is nearly depleted; the MES sends a signal to the warehouse, where a robot picks the correct reel of components for replenishment, loads it onto an autonomous guided vehicle, and the cart then proceeds to the SMT machine and a technician is alerted via text to load the new reel into the system. All of this is tracked by serial numbers and bar codes so full traceability is tracked and stored.

Resolve to design an imaginative new use for automation in 2017, and move to implementation with at least one advanced system.

2. Analytics: Do Something with Your Data

In 2014, McKinsey & Company published a report titled How Big Data Can Improve Manufacturing, a groundbreaking analysis of how big data and new analytics technology can be used across a wide range of manufacturing industries. Industry leaders have rushed to adopt these techniques – but have you?

If one of your manufacturing engineers is still downloading data from multiple sources, “massaging” it in a spreadsheet, and then emailing his report to multiple people, you need to take a hard look at analytics. Today’s packages can automate all of your reports, simply and quickly – and better yet, can catch problems and raise alerts before issues trend out of control. The most advanced packages are getting closer and closer to true predictive analytics – warning you in advance to do maintenance on one of your systems, for example, before it breaks and lowers your throughput numbers.

Resolve to deploy advanced analytics on your most important production lines EARLY in 2017.

3. Connectivity: Connect Your Manufacturing System to Your Supply Chain Management System

By now, you’re probably in a pretty good place with regards to managing your supply chain – enabling you to make smart decisions regarding your production schedule, and avoiding the once-common mistake of mis-planning production due to incorrect inventory reports.

(Image credit: Chetan Menaria via Unsplash)

It’s time to take the next step, and connect your manufacturing system directly to your supply chain management system. This level of integration streamlines the decision-making process, enabling the smart automation systems described above to not only order components from the warehouse, but to send signals to the purchasing department and directly to suppliers regarding inventory levels. If your supply chain system is also monitoring inventory levels at your suppliers, your manufacturing planning system can automatically detect coming shortages in parts or components, enabling smart substitutions or new production schedules, as allowed.

Resolve to connect your manufacturing system to your supply chain system, and your supply chain system to your suppliers’ inventory systems, to reduce risk and eliminate production bottlenecks.

4. Embrace Industry 4.0 / The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)

Over the past year, it was impossible to escape headlines about the IIoT or Internet 4.0. These new models for technology-enabled manufacturing have already moved into the implementation phase by many of the world’s top manufacturers.

One of the hallmarks of IIoT/Industry 4.0 is removing humans from decision-making when machines are just as capable – or in many cases, more capable – of making smart decisions quickly and efficiently. One of our customers has connected their surface mount machines, their manufacturing execution system, and optical inspection equipment to watch for solder volume trends during their high-speed manufacturing processes – and the feedback from the optical inspection systems is used to adjust paste dispense volume before a process drifts outside of specifications. No engineering analysis needed – the machines make the decisions and prevent bad PCBA’s from being produced.

Resolve to educate your team on IIoT/Industry 4.0 principles, and to remove humans from decision-making where machines can do it better.

5. Productivity: Do More With Less

The past few years, we’ve been hearing a lot of complaints: about how hard it is to hire good people, how lines and plants are operating at peak efficiency and customers are still demanding more. The mantra since coming out of the Great Recession has been “do more with less” – and that’s going to continue in 2017.

It’s time to recognize that this is the new normal. Major improvements in productivity that came with the operational revolutions of the 1980s and 1990s (e.g., lean and world-class manufacturing) have been achieved, and in the future improvements are going to come at the margins - a percentage point here, another half point there.

Continued improvement in automation and systems connectivity will bring some of these gains, but manufacturers need to go searching for more. Advanced analytics can help us find opportunities for improvement that have been hidden. But as McKinsey said in their report titled “Manufacturing the future: The next era of global growth and innovation”, “…the manufacturing sector has changed — bringing both opportunities and challenges—and neither business leaders nor policy makers can rely on old responses in the new manufacturing environment.”

Resolve to continuously search for new ways to improve throughput and quality with minimal investment.

With these resolutions, you’re sure to have a happy, healthy and productive 2017. Happy New Year!

About the Author:  Srivats Ramaswami is CTO at 42Q, has worked at both OEM’s and contract manufacturers for many years, most recently as vice president of IT Operations. His expertise includes the architecture and implementation of innovative IT solutions for large OEM’s, making their global supply chains visible and more efficient. Srivats is now responsible for providing leadership in customer acquisition and engagement, technology development and deployment for 42Q.

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