The Importance Of Basic Operational Processes In The Digital Dialogue

Is the need for improved efficiency getting lost in the digital dialogue? Basics still count in manufacturing.

Digitalization is monopolizing our attention these days. This makes sense on many levels due to the high potential and high stakes involved. But digital dialogues often focus exclusively on the exciting new capabilities, like machines talking to each other, leveraging artificial intelligence, or predicting the future. The tried and true basics, like shop floor efficiency, also need to remain in the cross hairs as manufacturers modernize. Operational improvements can provide the early wins and incremental savings to fund larger scale, disruptive strategies.

Start With What You Know
Operational processes and systems are still the heart of manufacturing, no matter whether make-to-stock or engineer-to-order or another manufacturing model. These are the systems you know well, for better or worse, and the ones which define your manufacturing operations. Here is where your distinctive engineering breakthroughs become tangible and your competitive edge is honed into sharp, clear reality. Don’t overlook these systems right in front of you and the potential they offer.

Often shop floor machinery is designed, built, and installed one piece at a time, one function at a time, as specific design features are added to a product and new process requirements are identified. The end-to-end integration of departments or processes, from assembling to finishing to packaging, may not connect. Each gap has the potential to cause disconnects, missed communications or roadblocks. Priorities may vary from one team to another, causing conflicting decisions.

For example, the finishing department may be focusing on quality and testing high-end coatings that take longer to dry. If that message never reaches other teams, there is likely to be disconnects and inefficiencies. Forklifts may be sitting idle as there are fewer pallets of finished and approved goods ready to move to packaging. Each delay or wasted hour means money lost. Multiply lost time across multiple locations or operational steps and you can quickly have a sizable drain on profitability.

Your teams may have a long list of gripes about particular machines, workflows, or disconnects among disparate systems. They may be eagerly waiting for management to ask them what needs to be fixed, improved, or scrapped and built over. Those “little things” often add up to big improvements. As you plan your digital processes be sure to take time to survey your personnel for process improvement ideas. Putting some of those hands-on users on the innovation teams will also help capture practical ideas. 

How do digital technologies apply to the shop floor? In many cases, operational processes can be improved through better visibility and communication — the cornerstone of digital transformation. Integration and connectivity lead to enterprise-wide visibility. Integration and access to the various systems and processes is just the beginning. Personnel must understand how to use this system-wide view to find nuggets of information valuable to their department or role.

LOB reporting and analytics. Contextual analytics and role based dashboards turn Line of Business managers into power players who can set their sights on success. These tools of modern ERP solutions translate data into insights a user can understand and apply to daily activities. The advanced functionality, often applied as part of a digital transformation, turns users on the shop floor into super-users who can easily access answers to questions and quickly view Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) without having to search for the data or fumble with complex reporting tools, or, worse yet, submit a request to the IT team for a custom report. Those days need to be put in the historical archives and quickly. In the era of digital manufacturing, each line of business manager needs to be fully equipped to run the business unit autonomously — but also as part of the end-to-end network.

Front line personnel. Personnel on the line implementing change orders, driving forklifts, picking/packing SKUs, or generating billing all need — at times — to be able to engage with the ERP system in some way. Usability makes a difference. Digital transformation relies on data, accuracy of data, and the ability to apply the data. No matter the degree of automation, users still enter data, record transactions, and document hours, activities and results.

For users’ entries to be reliable and accurate, the user interface must be intuitive, much like the consumer-grade technology people use in their personal lives. Digital systems make this human engagement as enjoyable and productive as possible, giving users devices such as scanners, voice recognitions, wearable devices, sensor-enabled tracking of assets, GPS location, and AI assistants that can answer questions or look up specific quotes or customer accounts. These digital tools can be used to enhance your existing operational processes.

Controlling quality and minimizing scrap. These have been important considerations since day-one of manufacturing when the Stone Age supervisor told the stone technician that his square wheel didn’t meet specs. Having to rework product because of shoddy quality control, missed change orders, outdated specifics or errors in calibration or alignment cause a huge waste of resources — material and time. These types of quality issues should all be preventable. Technology that is often deployed as part of a digital upgrade can be used to create critical milestones for quality checks and signoffs.

Product Lifecycles Management solutions are just one of the tools that can be deployed to help formulate milestones in design and determine how to translate that to the production process, from defining specs to designing packaging. Then, solutions to manage continuous quality control can be used to track and manage quality criteria and how to define and enforce acceptable parameters.

Reimagining product design and workflows. The digital dialogue always come around to innovation, as “out of the box” thinking is one of the hallmarks of a digital agenda. Manufacturers need to reimagine revenue streams and business models. But, just as importantly, they also need to reimagine production cycles, and workflows for existing processes and products. This especially applies to re-thinking how products can be assembled using modular design or components in order to offer customers highly personalized products. Manufacturers have been experimenting with late stage assembly, assemble on demand, and configured variations for some time. Systems still need perfecting. There is still room for improvement in this critical area that is important to customer satisfaction. Manufacturers should continue pushing the envelope in designing and implementing systems that can quickly be retooled and reconfigured in order to produce small batches or even batches of one.

Technology can help here, too. Predictive tools will help manufacturers foresee design trends and accurately predict resources needed, even when the audience is a narrow niche market. Advanced Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and Digital Marketing tools help manufacturers align with customers and prospects. Collaboration tools, online portals, and ecommerce solutions provide additional tools to help manage this relationship and apply sound science principles to predicting the future.

These are some of the ways you can apply digital technologies to shop floor operations and enhance efficiency among current processes. These operational systems are the heart of your operation and need to be a part of your digital strategy. Don’t let the dialogue take you far from the core of your business — the shop floor, where ideas become reality and you create products customers love. Start your digital strategy by fine-tuning the operations in front of you and at the foundation of your business.      

Mark Humphlett is Senior Director of Industry and Solution Strategy at Infor.

More in Operations