Manufacturing is becoming increasingly complex. Not only do we have to figure out how to constantly improve performance and the value we provide, we now have to add consideration of new technologies way outside our comfort zones. The techniques to reduce setup times we get. But augmented reality (AR), edge computing and data analytics? This isn’t your dad’s manufacturing!
We didn’t give much thought to changeover times and now we can master them. Similarly, we haven’t emphasized the power of data technologies but in a few short years many of these capabilities will be second nature to us.
So how do we proceed through the overwhelm to figure out what matters most to our specific businesses right now? Here’s a quick trip through some of the choices:
• First and foremost, security has to be a significant consideration as you begin to utilize these new technologies. Don’t expect your IT guy to handle this alone. It’s a whole different ballgame and specialized expert support is invaluable.
• Internet of Things (IoT) sounds like a big deal but each of you is already using this capability. Your phone is a “thing” that is connected to the Internet and can interact with other “things”, ergo, Internet of things. When we talk about the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) we’re simply referring to “things” in your business connected to the Internet. You can also limit your IoT to internal computing that is NOT connected to the Internet. The limitation there is that access to the data can only happen inside with devices NOT connected to the Internet. That means no looking at your phone or laptop to know current status.
• Why would you consider this technology in your operations? Because your equipment is putting out tons of valuable information that you are not listening to. Cheap sensors can measure temperature, pressure, vibration, and myriad other operating variables. If you’re looking for preventive maintenance excellence to eliminate unplanned downtown, this technology is for you.
This is also immensely valuable in some products. If you want to understand performance variation in use, schedule maintenance visits in advance of an emergency or capture data to better design your products, this technology could be a priority.
• Intranet WIKI (What I Know Is) is another way of capturing information and making it available to employees whenever they need it. About a decade ago one of my small tool and die clients put iPads with every machine. Operators could easily see information about the equipment, from maintenance to operating conditions, and about jobs. No more walking away and holding up drawings to try to get the setup right. The iPads paid for themselves in about a week.
This a capable internal IT resource can build for you. Loading the information will take longer and you’ll want a process to keep the information current. As your workforce ages, this is a great way to capture expertise before it walks out the door.
• Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are two related but different technologies. For many of you AR could help in the near future. For example, installing wiring could be faster and more accurate by providing glasses for the operator to wear through which he can see the actual product/machine augmented by computer generated wiring. He simply puts the red wires where the AR device shows them, etc. In more complicated assembly operations this, too, can pay for itself quickly.
VR has a more narrow application range for most manufacturers, at least for now. Some companies are using this capability to “see” the insides of equipment or walk through a layout design. Process industries can benefit quickly, as can those operations too dangerous to have people enter.
• Automated guided vehicles (AGV) have been around for a long time in the material handling environment. But there are important lessons from that to consider not only in those implementations, but in all these technologies.
Many businesses hardwired the sensors and guiding devices in the floor. That seems to make sense until you realize that limits the flexibility of the system. Most companies over time discover more efficient warehousing and product layouts, which are a pain if your AGV system isn’t flexible. The same will happen with everything else you’re working on. Assume that everything will move and/or be eliminated and/or expanded when designing the systems.
• I’ve already explained blockchain in a prior Target article. It will be a priority for any industry in which traceability is paramount. For the rest of you, focus on other technologies with more immediate value to you and your constituencies.
Now many of you may ask what any of this has to do with lean. We know that automating a bad process simply makes it fast and bad. Notice that most of what is described above is designed to improve information flow to the right people at the right time to improve quality and value to the customer. Sounds pretty lean-oriented to me.
Let’s say you’re not really into the lean thing. Advancing technologies doesn’t really care about that. If something can help your company reduce costs, speed decision-making and increase quality and help you bring value to the market, it’s worth some thought. This article is intended to help you with that.
Becky Morgan is an operations strategist working with leaders of mid-sized manufacturing companies. Her book Start Smart, Finish Strong: Forging Your Path to Operational Excellence and Long-Term Success in the Manufacturing World is a great resource to use with your leaders.