Investment in a Smart Shop Floor is Well Worth the Effort

Tablet computers, smartphones, and other communications technologies are rapidly changing the way we do our business. And this doesn’t just apply to the office. Studies from analyst firms like Gartner have shown that some manufacturing businesses are also successfully boosting efficiency by adopting this technology on the shop floor.

That said, looking at the way traditional ERP solutions are deployed, we see that these businesses clearly make up an ‘early adoption’ minority. In the vast majority of cases, enterprise software is mainly focused on back office operations where it was designed to have the most impact. The ability to mobilize it, to take it out into the operation and the heart of the processes it manages, is not something that has yet become mainstream.

The change is coming though, albeit slowly. The relatively lower costs of the necessary hardware has at least placed the idea of mobile ERP on the radar of many more companies. The concept of employees having direct, real-time access to their business data whilst in the midst of the operation is attractive, it not hard to envision the potential efficiency it could uncover. After all, it’s these operational staff that can really add value to the product by having the tools on hand to drive down lead times.

Manufacturers considering branching out should look to early adopters of mobile ERP technology in other businesses, and the wins achieved in other operations away from the financial administration. Warehouse order pickers, for example, can now be armed with barcode scanners to view the picking lists, see where goods are stored, register goods picked and immediately process the picking order to auto print the required delivery documents. With these scanners, these people are directly connected to the ERP solution in real time.

Furthermore, we already find it quite normal that Service engineers use mobile devices to register hours and materials while on the job – even getting an electronic sign off from the customer when the work has been completed.

Despite the ease with which these developments have been accepted, Aberdeen’s research from July 2013 reports that the adoption of automated time and attendance registration on the shop floor remains limited. Almost a third of the organizations reviewed still had manual registration at their workplace. Aberdeen also states clearly their belief that automation is critical for improving productivity, freeing up significant time for office personnel to focus more on strategic, value-adding activities.

So, with the adoption of mobile technology growing outside of the back office, and clear wins being reported from comparable industries, here are five key reasons why the manufacturer’s shop floor should also become a focus.

#1 More output with the same resources; Many manufacturing companies are adopting lean principles. They deploy initiatives to improve customer satisfaction and gain efficiency by reducing waste and eliminating non added value processes. Investing in digital and smart tools for the shop floor reduces waste and gives manufacturing companies the possibility to grow without increasing personnel-related overhead.

#2 Reduce errors; Place the responsibility for proper and accurate registration within the process itself (i.e. with the employees on the shop floor) instead of in a staff department. Capturing data directly in the process and minimizing paper work between office and shop floor improves the accuracy of the data. Paperwork can get lost or quickly becomes out of date. Typing over data from handwritten paperwork leads to errors being made. By replacing paper work with digital data capturing, you ensure the shop floor is always working with the latest, fully updated product order information.

#3. Reduce overall lead time; Reduce your Manufacturing Critical Time (MCT) by limiting the time wasted between the jobs being done and the systems being updated accordingly. For more information on reducing your lead times, have a look at my previous post (http://www.the-biz-box.com/2013/08/compete-on-speed-why-lead-times-need-your-attention/).

#4 Improving product quality; Besides capturing production progress and actual system information, improving quality is another benefit of digitizing the shop floor. IDC have revealed that organizations in Europe are focussing more and more on quality control, in addition to productivity improvement and the streamlining of business processes. Mobile IT solutions are able to support businesses in complying with legal regulations, enabling mandatory checks on predefined criteria to be conducted on the spot.

#5 Up to date planning; Using Shop Floor Control or Manufacturing Execution systems you can get real time information from the shop floor and act upon it accordingly. For example, update the planning schedule based on the latest progress updates. Or if a scrap product is causing delays on the shop floor, empower management to react immediately and avoid escalations. Making the information available on a mobile device enables the production supervisor to take the key information with him when racing to the shop floor to resolve the issue.

With the potential wins clearly significant, I believe it’s now time for every manufacturer to consider deploying mobile technology and smart solutions on the shop floor. It’s an initial investment that can deliver major returns in efficiency and control.

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