When we think of modern manufacturing, some might picture a shiny factory floor with robotic assembly lines and state-of-the-art technology. More often, however, the reality is a mix of equipment and machinery built years to decades ago — and still running perfectly well.
What does digital transformation mean for facilities like these? As companies scramble to optimize operations for a post-Covid future, the most effective way to improve performance may not be replacing what’s already working well. The alternative is technology that can help get older and newer machines to optimal performance — and potentially solve just a few of the supply chain issues plaguing the world today.
To determine where technology can play a role on the factory floor, we can start with how manufacturers track and manage their machines. For most factories, this is still a largely manual process that includes personnel walking the factory floor, checking logbooks and entering data into spreadsheets. That takes a lot of time, and involves a lot of information sitting in silos that don’t connect, which ultimately all adds up to a lack of ability to react quickly to problems or reliably drive improvement. What machines are sitting idle, and why? Where and when are there production delays and downtimes? How long are changeovers from product to product taking away from production time on machines? In the context of the pandemic — where demand can change in an instant — the consequences of a manufacturer not having accurate, actionable information on the factory floor could be devastating.
It’s time for manufacturers everywhere to get their machines connected and online, and in many cases a costly equipment overhaul isn’t the best answer. Cloud technology can bring any machine online, into a connected network that simply and cost-effectively gives every factory team the tools to reach manufacturing excellence.
With access to the cloud, here are three ways manufacturers can better prepare for the supply chain issues still to come:
Increase capacity by optimizing changeovers. We heard tons of stories early in the pandemic about companies converting their liquor, textile and other factories to make much-needed PPE supplies like hand sanitizer and masks. In some cases though, demand for those badly-needed products far exceeded the machines’ production capacity. When demand exceeds capacity, the best area to quickly create additional capacity — especially when the product mix is high — is often in changeovers from one product to another. In addition to opening up additional capacity, being able to quickly shift a machine from one product to another can allow manufacturers to confidently run smaller batches or product just-in-time, and represents a huge opportunity for manufacturers to adapt to changing market conditions. Yet changeovers have room to improve in most plants.
In the case of one small metal products manufacturer, frequent changeovers to accommodate special orders created tremendous delays, missed deadlines and expensive overtime costs — even before the pandemic. Leveraging cloud technology, the team was able to track the duration of changeovers and run-time for every shift and machine, hone in on what factors enabled the fastest changeover for each product, and replicate those factors throughout the plant. In just three months, they were able to decrease lost production time from changeovers by 26%. Manufacturers that can optimize the changeover process will be better poised to respond to future fluctuations in supply and demand — whether it’s to reduce batch size, or create more capacity to sell.
Protect existing investments. Global supply chain issues have increased costs for manufacturers everywhere, which has also created a ripple effect for consumers, who are seeing prices spike for everything from pool chlorine to cereal to toys. Digitizing factory operations promises to deliver huge gains for manufacturers, but this uncertain environment is not the time to invest millions in replacing equipment that’s been working well for decades. The key is to find a low lift, high return opportunity to get more out of your existing machines.
Enterprises everywhere have embraced the cloud to get systems both old and new into a centralized dashboard for real time management and insights — why not manufacturers? Even homeowners can plug a special light bulb into an older lamp to create a connected home. Bringing older machines as well as newer ones into the cloud means you can not only keep machines that continue to work well, but also empower your teams to further optimize them as they assess, analyze and improve them in real-time.
Navigate labor shortages. Even before the pandemic, the manufacturing industry was no stranger to talent gaps, with high employee turnover rates combined with the high costs of training new employees. Talent gaps are not only painful, but also costly. When plants are not fully staffed, production can suffer.
As many as 2.1 million manufacturing jobs will be unfilled through 2030 — impacting revenue and production, and costing the U.S. economy up to $1 trillion, according to a recent study by The Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte LLP. To help manufacturers bridge that gap, cloud technology is already proving useful. With machines and context brought from the plant floor into the cloud, even a small team can essentially be in multiple places at once — seeing at a glance what to act on, whether they’re onsite or hours away, and respond immediately to breakdowns or problems. For one plastics manufacturer, for example, a production manager has been able to simultaneously run production for two factories 10+ hours apart from each other from a single plant floor, while simultaneously achieving a 41% improvement in OEE.
The impact of the pandemic has changed the supply chain forever. If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that it may be impossible to predict what will come next. It’s critical for manufacturers to put in place the tools they need to ensure they can flexibly adapt to whatever new challenges come their way — starting with the factory floor. The power of the cloud can democratize access to these tools and give every manufacturer an opportunity to thrive in the post-pandemic landscape.
Lauren Dunford is co-founder and CEO of Guidewheel, provider of a factory operations platform.
Timely, incisive articles delivered directly to your inbox.