A conversation with Steven Garbrecht, vice president of product marketing at Invensys.
Asked to pinpoint some major challenges for manufacturers today, Garbrecht had no difficulty labeling an aging workforce and the spiraling cost of energy for transportation as particularly troublesome. He was was equally quick to name three technologies he feels address those problem areas quite well: mobile devices and mobile computing, workflow software, and object-oriented systems.
The following conversation took place at ARC Advisory Group's Annual World Industry Forum.
Q: What are the main challenges to their supply chains that manufacturers face today?
A: Garbrecht: There are a lot of challenges today, but the top two are the aging workforce and the cost of energy involved in transporting their goods and raw materials, and their finished goods to market.
Q: So what technologies are the best for addressing those challenges?
A: Garbrecht: There are three really important technologies available today. One is mobile devices and mobile computing, the second is workflow software, and the third is object-oriented systems and technology. All of those contribute to helping with an aging workforce and also the cost of energy in transportation.
Q: So walk us through them and explain how they address those issues.
A: Garbrecht: Mobile technologies are used very much inside of everyday life. Everybody has cell phones, they have different things they carry around to check email and to communicate with each other. Those aspects of mobile have now been applied to industrial processes, and more importantly, inside the issue of the aging workforce.
Q: How do you mean?
A: Garbrecht: So for example, I can use a combination of systems and mobile devices to capture the knowledge of existing workers; people who have worked in plants for 40 or 50 years have massive amounts of information on how things work. I can capture that knowledge and once I do, I can apply it inside of the system and deploy out through mobile devices how people should be acting in the plant, how they do their job from day to day, guiding them safely through different processes.
You can also link more people in the organization to the supply chain, so it's not just about plant floor workers. I can notify people via their mobile devices of alerts, of raw materials not being available - maybe a customer order is being delayed or raw materials are having a problem or maybe a piece of equipment is having problems. It frees up more people inside the organization to participate in the overall running of the organization. It also helps guide people who are new to the industry in how to do the job more efficiently and safely.
Q: Object-oriented systems - what's the role there?
A: Garbrecht: Object-oriented design is really important for manufacturers. It's been used inside of control systems for many years now, but the problem has always been, do I do all my manufacturing at one site and completely ignore the cost of transportation? Because what I'm doing is creating products with the idea of getting them to my customers out there. Maybe, instead of producing everything at one central site, I should be dispersing my manufacturing. If I'm producing cereal, for example, maybe I produce all of it, put it on a truck and transport all of it to the actual place where it's going to be warehoused and packaged. So I'm taking a production system, which typically would have everything at a single plant, and dispersing the activities across the supply chain.
So why are object-oriented systems so important for that? If I have a system that's very modular in the way it's put together - and that's the way these systems are - I can find little discrete pieces of functionality and piece them together so they work as a system at a central plant. You can also take pieces of that application and remove them and put them at remote locations. You can do the same thing with process equipment - so I can have a system and the equipment that may be running inside the central plant and can take it and disperse that equipment across a geographically dispersed area.
The savings are on transportation fuel. Maybe instead of two trucks, maybe only one is needed to transport that material out there. Maybe it's cheaper for me to actually produce out there at that remote location. So object-oriented systems give the flexibility to be able to break up what you do at one central location and disperse across the geographic supply chain.
Q: Workflow technology is the third element you mentioned. How does that help?
A: Garbrecht: It is one of the most exciting pieces because with it I can have people participate with manufacturing operations more efficiently. I can take the activities that are going on inside the production plant and share them with logistical systems more easily. It all boils down to steps or sequence of steps that need to execute in order for people to get their job done. There is a series of things that need to happen across the supply chain to actually get that product out of the factory into the supply chain. Typically, orders about those steps are sent via telephone or email, and there's a period of time in between one step to another that is a delay. I want to tighten up that delay so everything happens as quickly as it can. That's what workflow does for me.
I can fire up workflow through a computerized system, and as one person completes one step, the next gets alerted to do the next step - and the next step and the next step. So I'm closing the gap in the amount of time it takes to execute a process. And that means savings to me as a customer.
The other thing that workflow is really good for is, if I want to have things happen at a certain time because it's the most cost effective time to do that - say there's a particular thing I'm producing and it's very energy intensive - I want to start that process to make that particular thing when energy is most cost effective. Workflow can notify me of when to start that.
Maybe there's a raw material that's coming in that's actually very dependent on when I'm buying it, how much it will cost me. I can also have that workflow event tell me about that particular activity or that particular material - when it is available, when it's at the best price - and I can coordinate my production along with that. So I'm coordinating my raw materials, I'm coordinating my energy usage to be optimal for how much it costs me to make that product and therefore saving money over time.
Q: Elaborate a little on the savings here.
A: Garbrecht: The savings we're finding are actually in several areas. One is with the aging workforce, where we can bring people up to speed probably in half the time that it would take to in a normal system. We bring them in and do little bit of training with them and then they are out there practicing what they've learned inside the classroom in the production environment. So that guidance provided by a combination of workflow and the mobile devices really cuts down on the training time.
With object-oriented systems, we find that people will build systems and then when they replicate them - when they break up that system to run it at another location - they can use object-oriented systems and save development time up to 40 to 70 percent as part of that.
And then in workflow, we're seeing a condensing of the amount of time it takes to execute tasks out there in the workplace, and that really results in some significant savings for the overall company.
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