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Manufacturing Innovations Company Encourages Inclusion of Factory Personnel and; Forethought in Transition to “Smart Manufacturing”

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Manufacturing initiatives such as Industry 4.0, IIoT, and Lean Six Sigma offer the potential of far greater productivity, quality, on-time delivery, and full documentation and traceability. VersaCall Technologies, a leader in manufacturing communication and production monitoring through the use of its Andon Systems, offers some insight into the implementation of these “smart manufacturing” methods and how they can impact the health of the business, including the health and wellbeing of its factory workers.

According to Bjorn Dahle, CEO of VersaCall Technologies, as companies strive to incorporate these methods into their production, they should assess three fundamental aspects of their business in terms of how they relate to these industry trends:

  • These methods are a means to an end. Make sure you understand the end goals you are striving to accomplish through these initiatives.
  • Implementation will take time–even years or decades.
  • Implementing these methods can have a significant impact on your staff and company culture.

Bjorn shares his thoughts below

Manufacturers are not in the business of buying machines, material, or productivity software. They are in the business of producing goods at an agreed-upon quality and price within a given timeframe and cost that promotes a sustainable business. In order to achieve a sustainable business, however, manufacturing companies must rely on these machines and software to optimize efficiency.

It’s important to note that the definition of quality is expanding, and products are now often expected to include features such as full documentation and product and process traceability. If a product fails in the future, for example, the swipe of a barcode should be able to provide complete BOM, genealogy, process data, and more. This feature is becoming a common addition in the manufacturing industry because of its ability to often fix the root cause of latent defects, verify authenticity of parts, prove adherence to process specs, and more.

In the automotive industry, for example, it is not uncommon that each single electronic component is tracked to its original source and each process step documented. For moisture-sensitive components, barcodes may include a timestamp of when the component left its protected environment and verification that the process limits where not breached and that the shelf-live was not exceeded during production. This data should be accessible throughout the lifespan of the product.

In other words, as technology develops and product quality evolves to include more comprehensive features, your company must adapt. Outlining your end goals and how you will achieve them is key because those business goals drive your manufacturing investments.

Specific planning in terms of how you will use methods such as Six Sigma to improve your manufacturing process can help you answer several important questions to help continually improve your processes. For example, is your priority to improve profitability and reduce production cost, or is your goal to improve on-time delivery? Are you positioning the company to enter into a new market with higher demands for quality, documentation, and traceability? Are you modernizing your factory to appeal to new customers? Do you have problems finding enough skilled or semi-skilled labor? Are you poised to expand? Do you require consistent quality from all your plants around the country or the world? Your goals dictate the tools you will need to implement manufacturing methods and help you determine strategies for the long-term.

Implementing Lean methods and technologies can take months or even years to complete, depending on the goals you’re striving to achieve. Developing IIoT, for example, will likely take decades. Continuous improvement occurs over a company’s lifespan–it’s a process with which you’re never truly finished. Manufacturing companies, after all, live in a dynamic world where goals, customer requirements, technology, and people are constantly changing. Implementing manufacturing initiatives is more about a journey than a finish line.

As companies implement these methods, it’s important to stay up-to-date with the newest manufacturing machines and technology. A new generation of smart machines and MES (Manufacturing Execution Systems) software are now available to support the vision of ultra-efficient smart factories.

The reality, however, is that existing factories still own trillions of dollars’ worth of older legacy machines and manual work-stations that they are unwilling to replace anytime soon. Many companies assume that automation of manual tasks will eventually take over. However, there is current manufacturing technology that exists for the purpose of connecting older machines, manual workstations, and operators to each other as well as to all relevant personnel in the factory and to ERP and MES software. Staying up-to-date on these advancements can be crucial to company growth and productivity.

With these existing technologies, operators receive work instruction and relevant BOM from the ERP system, and they can immediately communicate with relevant supervisors and support personnel to address any issue such as missing parts or broken machine. Bolt-on adaptors for older automatic machines and workstations can retrieve and share information such as product count and barcode information, duration, and reason for downtime.

From there, the data are shared and stored with relevant databases and enterprise-wide software systems. Real-time dashboards display status, cycle times, and progress towards preset goals for every workstation in the factory. When you measure and visualize your relevant production, data improvements follow. Reports provide insight that enable the responsible engineers to proactively fix repeat issues in order to eliminate downtime in the future. In other words, today’s technology is available to make workstations connected and smart and enable operators to become far more productive. You don’t have to wait for the “lights-out” factory to start adapting to the smart factory trend.

The success of implementing such manufacturing initiatives is highly dependent on your goals for your staff. Each employee, not just the managers, will be affected by the integration of these methods and technologies into your production process, often for the better, if approached correctly.

If your goal is to transition into a lights-out factory run by intelligent machines and Artificial Intelligence rather than people and standard machines, you are likely looking at a 10+ year timeline. But you’re employees won’t be blind to this goal, so it’s important to ask yourself what will incentivize your staff to help you move toward this initiative. How will you get your staff to implement lean manufacturing now when the results lead to little or no overtime an income they have come to depend on? How do you get the operators to cooperate on Industry 4.0 projects if they believe that they will eventually be out of a job?

These are questions any industry has to ask itself as they make goals to rely less on people and more on machines. The angriest person I met this year was an Uber driver ranting about his employer not paying him adequately, a result of the company’s investing billions of dollars in autonomous driving to eventually get rid of their drivers. That was not a pleasant ride, and that is not a formula for a productive employer-employee relationship, nor customer satisfaction.

The answers to these difficult questions, however, may not be as complicated as they seem. I recently asked one of our customers whether he had experienced any push-back from his factory personnel when implementing Lean technologies and the connected factory. He said he really hadn’t. I specifically asked about maintenance personnel, since our products rely on an operator to call maintenance or the parts department for support while timing their response and resolve times. Again, he stated that there was no pushback, but rather the opposite.

According to this customer, the maintenance team felt that their performance was better than their reputation, and sure enough as Lean manufacturing methods were introduced, the data proved their point. By improving instant communication and visibility through Lean manufacturing, the culture in the company started changing.

Today, their staff has a newfound sense of teamwork where everybody actively cooperates to improve productivity. Overtime hours dropped significantly, but their income did not. Every employee receives a quarterly bonus based on productivity numbers. Rather than spend extra time on the production floor, employees received the same income during regular work hours alone and had more personal time to enjoy with family and friends. Whatever your end goal may be–even if it will eventually rely on fewer staff members–your employees want to see improvements in their working environment now, and Lean manufacturing can accomplish that.

Another manufacturer explained how their company culture changed in large part by giving more responsibility to the machine and workstation operators. These operators are now charged with stopping production, elevating issues, and participating in continuous improvements. By becoming more involved in these processes, operators felt a greater sense of fulfilment in their job duties.

Now, there is clearly a notable difference between an advanced Andon system and automation in terms of the risk to jobs, but the key again is to secure cooperation among the factory personnel now to achieve goals in the future. Point out to your staff that more productive factories become more competitive, which tends to lead to more business, which tends to lead to more jobs in spite of productivity gains and greater machine reliance.

Our first customer’s experience illustrates this point perfectly. As they implemented Lean manufacturing methods, their company increased production 500% while adding only half of the planned increase in new positions. And that’s the point–they needed more staff because they became more successful. Even though the ratio of jobs to production technically decreased, ironically, when they improved productivity, they became more successful and even added more jobs. By continuing to rely on outdated methods and machines, on the other hand, you will likely lose your staff to more efficient competitors.

Technology and automation do indeed lead to reduced need of labor per unit of output, and the nature of jobs will change over time. But while this may be a negative side effect to a select number of affected staff members, smart factory methods also open up other significant job opportunities that many staff members may be able to adapt to.

In any case, implementing new technologies and methods will almost assuredly lead to some impact among your staff, especially since many future jobs will require new skill sets. It’s important that, even given the many benefits of implementing these initiatives and technologies, companies consider how these changes will affect their staff in the long run. Companies should determine how they can reduce job loss and help their staff make the smoothest transition possible into future positions, otherwise there will be little buy-in from employees.

Another critical impact of these manufacturing methods on factory personnel is the potential friction between the IT and OT (Operational Technology) engineers and technicians. IT personnel tend to be more conservative and risk-averse, and for good reason. They are tasked with keeping data safe by defending against viruses and ransomware, breaches, and loss or corruption of data.

OT team members, however, usually have a greater appetite for risk. They want to take advantage of the latest technologies and trends to achieve results never before seen. Yet the OT data needs to use the IT infrastructure, so how do you reconcile two such different cultures and goals? The answer will likely mean top executive-level involvement (to whom both OT and IT report), clear company goals for the future, and a one-step-a-time approach. I personally believe that many companies are resisting adoption of smart factory technologies (as opposed to Lean technologies and procedures) in part because of these differing opinions.

In conclusion, implementing Lean or Industry 4.0 requires change, and change will always impact your company as a whole. But when management can include the manufacturing personnel in the planning of these initiatives, and if they incentivize them not solely based on hours worked but also on results, then there is a higher likelihood of buy-in and success. The factory culture becomes more united and productive. The journey to a smarter factory is full of potholes, but the promise of a new level of productivity and competitive capabilities make the trek not only worthwhile but likely necessary.

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