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By Anna Haney, CEO of Noviqu

In a day and age where we focus so heavily on process improvement and being lean, it amazes me how outdated some of our processes actually are still. I can’t begin to count the number of manufacturing facilities I’ve toured with incredible automated machinery, advanced assembly lines and . . . three-ringed binders at every station. 

I don’t have anything in particular against binders; they’ve done a lot for manufacturing over the years. However, with technological advancements happening at an insane rate around us, it’s just surprising to still see a lot of manual data collection in the industry. (And anyone saying that manufacturing is dying, obviously hasn’t been to the Midwest.)

Manufacturing is no stranger to change

It’s not that the manufacturing industry isn’t used to change – it’s seen plenty over the years. Industry 1.0 brought water and steam, Industry 2.0 brought assembly lines and mass production, and Industry 3.0 introduced computers and automation to our lines. With Industry 4.0 upon us bringing robotics, internet of things devices (IoT) and digitization, the industry is in the midst of a huge technological change yet again.

Even with all of this change – specifically within the last 30 years – we’re still stuck using processes that predate most of us. Manufacturers are still relying on paper logs and manuals for work instructions, checklists, maintenance logs, and more, and that’s if they’ve written them down. In some cases, they rely on a senior team member who’s worked in the same position on the same machine for years, and that employee is often the only one who knows every in and out of how to run it.

Technology’s part in Industry 4.0

The manufacturing industry is changing, whether we like it or not, and technology is a large part of that change. At its core, Industry 4.0 is all about the digital connection between our processes, our machinery, and our people. It’s about making things more efficient, more transparent and more accessible, and technology is the logical way to do that.

Take something as simple as a pre-run checklist. At its core, it’s a simple list of the steps needed to take before you run the next production order, right? How does your facility track these? Is it in a binder? Do you have to check it off and save that somewhere, or is that information assumed to have been completed without any real trackability?

 

By digitizing the checklist, there’s an inherent transparency that goes with that. Manager and employee alike know what’s expected every pre-run. Management can see when it’s complete, who was the person running that machine then, and when that check was done. It’s simple, straightforward, transparency – and that is what Industry 4.0 is all about. Beyond that, there’s interconnectivity and utilizing technology to enhance processes, and while I’m not going to get into the major benefits that robotics bring (and without “replacing” humans), it’s important to know that all of this is either here, or close on the horizon for the majority of manufacturers.

Now is the time to go digital

Digitizing your processes doesn’t have to be a major sweeping change; it can be done in little bits, and in whatever order works best for you and your company.  The important thing is to start identifying all areas where your processes are not digital in some way, and transparency is an issue. Common examples are:

  • Specific employees know about specific processes/machines. Without that employee, work cannot get done.
  • Paper logs or paper processes are the main source of providing information.
  • Unnecessary time is spent inputting key metrics into outdated systems. (Usually because only a few employees know how to properly utilize the old framework/technology.)
  • Roadblocks, or hurdles, exist in what should be a seamless process due to data input, regulations, lack of knowledge or old processes.

It’s imperative to go from paper and tribal knowledge into something digital for lots of reasons, but they all boil down to this: the workforce is changing. The industry is developing. If we are going to keep up with, and thrive, in this digital age, information must be easily accessible, expectations perfectly clear, and transparency across every layer of the organization is a must.

Paper should be a medium of the past for manufacturers. Paper processes are hard to update, hard to get analytics out of, and hard to backup or maintain. When digital records are kept (and updated properly), information exists is available and provides benefits that most don’t think of until they’ve done it

Analytics of the past and for the future

With more information, and more data, analytics become an increasingly important benefit. With most digital systems, you can pull reports – or analytics – on any process or information from previous work with ease. It provides a quicker window into reality, and allows managers to rely not just on hunches and hearsay, but actual data.

Beyond better insight into the past, analytics can provide a solid view into the future as well. Digital systems can use things like machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) to note patterns in workflows, and suggest changes. A simple example is preventative maintenance. If a company lubricates a specific asset once a month, but consistently has problems in the last week before lubrication, a machine learning application can determine that lubrication may be best performed at the end of the third week.

Analytics provide an avenue for the human brain to tackle the kinds of problems that are best suited to our capabilities, and leave simple computing, data entry, and analytics to the computers. That is, after all, what they were built for.

Start future-proofing your company now

Getting to the point of robotics, ML/AI and full on Industry 4.0 capabilities is a process, and not something that can happen now. If you and your company are ready to begin the journey, there are a few things you can start doing now to ensure easier adoption of new technologies and easier transitions into this technologically advanced future we’re headed for.

Start building the right company culture

I’m a huge proponent of company culture in general and making sure your company and all its employees are on the same ship headed toward the same goal. However, with manufacturing it’s common to find the “we’ve always done it this way” mentality, and people who don’t embrace change. Start tackling this mindset, and build a company culture that welcomes and embraces change. Adoption of new technology has to be company-wide, and that stems from the bottom as much as it does the top.

Take small technological steps

Sure, IoT devices sounds like the next best thing to happen to manufacturing since Henry Ford made the moving assembly line, but it’s not something that will happen overnight. Start by taking small steps towards digitization, such as finding a framework (like Noviqu) to put all of your processes in. Start by getting all tribal knowledge out of your employees’ heads, and somewhere where others can learn from that information. Everyone benefits when knowledge is shared.

Find or create communities

Often an underrated strategy, finding or creating a community of like-minded individuals with similar interests or jobs is a phenomenal way to learn from your peers and build a community of better managers and employees. Attend groups – like SME in Kansas City, or the Advanced Manufacturing Group in Iowa – and get to know the other people in your area struggling with the same workforce issues. (Millennials are a different beast, amirite?)

Manufacturing has come a long way since the early 1900s, and we have a long way to go still. Innovation and change are what makes the world go ‘round, and if we aren’t ready, we’ll be left behind. Make sure that you, and your company, are ready for the next level of Industry 4.0 by digitizing your processes and creating a better, more future-proofed work environment.  

Contact your Area Business Manager today to schedule an assessment for your manufacturing company. Start preparing now for the industry of tomorrow.