Guest post written by Dr. Werner Smekal, a technical consultant with many years of expertise in production, change management and supply chain management.
What’s holding manufacturing back from going digital? In the first part of this two-part series, we discussed why many small to mid-sized production organizations are still drowning in paper. Even in companies that have embraced digitalization, there is often a huge digital gap between production and the rest of the organization. The very physical nature of manufacturing, and the culture commonly surrounding it, put up huge barriers to digital transformation. In particular, organizations that produce a variety of different products are challenged to find adequate software to meet their special needs – and at the same time, they have the most to gain from digital solutions. Now in part two we’ll explore several use cases for digitalization that address common low-hanging fruit in manufacturing organizations, and we’ll talk about how a relatively new technology known as low code development can help production departments to finally bridge the digital gap.
Why production needs to go digital
Digital transformation of production activities can bring huge benefits in terms of increased productivity and efficiency. If done in a user-friendly manner it can also relieve employees of tedious manual processing, thus increasing employee satisfaction. By eliminating paper processes, the risk of human error is reduced, for instance by someone in the back office performing data entry of paper forms.
And finally, the value of real time data cannot be ignored. Paper processes and face-to-face reporting result in lags in information flow. In today’s increasingly data-driven, just-in-time world, purchasing should know right away if a batch of parts has to be scrapped and an additional batch pulled from the warehouse. Sales and scheduling need to know if something caused a slowdown, so that they don’t commit to a delivery that is suddenly no longer possible.
The needs of production workers are generally pretty simple. They aren’t doing complex data analysis; they just want to get simple tasks done fast. What they do need is low-barrier solutions that let them focus on what’s important. Solutions they can use immediately, wherever they are on the shop floor, without hunting down a computer. As we said in part one: if it’s not easy, it won’t get used.
As we mentioned, these people don’t tend to be screen junkies – but they almost certainly all have smartphones. Rather than complex desktop solutions, they will be more effective with mobile apps they can use on their phone or on a tablet. So what specific use cases are there for such mobile apps? Which manufacturing processes could most benefit from digital transformation?
Everyday production processes
A production employee’s daily routine includes a variety of mundane administrative tasks. Simple, targeted apps could streamline these processes, resulting in greater efficiency and letting employees focus on what’s truly important.
Inventory: An obvious problem to be solved is basic inventory checking. ERP systems tend to have overly complicated masks; just to find out if a part is in stock, a production worker might have to sift through 50 fields, which is frustrating, time-consuming and error-prone. Instead, a mobile tool could talk to the ERP system, but with simpler masks for routine tasks like looking up stock in the warehouse, or pulling up a bill of materials for a product.
Scheduling: Instead of paper production schedules handed out to each workstation, workers can pull up the day’s or week’s schedule for their workstation on their mobile device. If a rush order is added in the last minute, the schedule can be updated in real time and a notification sent.
Booking production activities: One of the key tasks of a production worker is to track their work. How many units went through their station? What steps did they complete? How much time did it take? How heavily is a certain machine being utilized? In one company, production workers were given an Excel-based solution; it was too complicated and they refused to use it. A simpler data entry tool would have helped, but in this case the company took the extra step of implementing QR codes. Workers could simply scan them with their mobile devices and the reporting was done.
Work instructions: Imagine you have 200 different products. Engineering makes a change that affects 10 of them. At every workstation there is a binder full of work instructions for each product; someone has to print out and distribute copies. Yet 5 of these 10 products are never actually ordered before the next change requires yet another update. Digital work instructions would eliminate this huge source of waste, putting the full up-to-date documentation library literally at workers’ fingertips. Instructions could even be supplemented with videos.
Quality assurance and exception-handling
In a production organization, quality assurance is top priority. Production processes must be followed, and equipment must be kept reliably in tune. A number of quality-related processes can also easily be digitalized for greater efficiency:
Deviation management: Any deviation from standard production procedures (for instance, manual work due to equipment failure) must be documented. Instead of writing up a lengthy report, a deviation reporting tool could allow the worker to simply name the machine, fetch the component number automatically and snap a few pictures or take a short video. The report can then be instantly forwarded to engineering for approval.
Calibration and maintenance: Equipment must be maintained and calibrated on a set schedule. Instead of tracking these manually, a mobile app can notify when maintenance is due, and paper checklists can be replaced with a simple electronic form.
5S audits: In a lean production environment, 5S audits check that 5S principles – sort, set in order, shine, standardize and sustain – are being followed, ensuring that each workstation is set up efficiently. Digitalizing these audits makes the process more efficient and also enables easy tracking of progress or problems. Other lean processes can be similarly digitalized, streamlining your lean transformation.
QA and product testing: If customers require a test report to be shipped with the product, it can be filled out electronically in a simple app and then printed along with the packing slip. The camera can even be used to provide visual proof of test results.
Issue reporting: If you’re in production, what do you do when you discover that a machine is making an unusual noise, or a fire exit is blocked? You don’t have email, and you can’t drop what you’re doing to hunt down the person responsible. So maybe you tell someone at lunch, or maybe you mention it in the weekly team meeting three days later. With a simple issue reporting app, however, you could write it up, take a picture and have it immediately sent to someone who can correct the problem, and you can even get notified of status. And by the way, if you’re thinking, “But we have a ticketing system”: Jira and other tools aren’t that intuitive to someone who doesn’t spend their day in front of a screen.
But as we discussed in part one, manufacturing organizations are often challenged to get IT resources to support such projects. So how can they create apps like these? A new breed of tools known as low code platforms may be the answer.
Bridging the gap with low code
Low code development platforms make it possible for business users with no coding experience to create highly professional custom apps. Through intuitive visual development tools, these “citizen developers” can drag-and-drop their way to greater efficiency.
Now you might be thinking, “If production workers tend to be less IT-savvy, who in my organization is suited to be a citizen developer?” This is a good question. Visual development still requires basic IT skills. A good low code platform, however, will provide not only visual tools but also pre-built components with common functionality, making it easy to put together custom solutions.
Digital natives, who grew up with smartphones and apps, are strong contenders, as are employees in with some IT know-how (for instance production planners). The reduced effort required for low code development also means that your IT department might be able to handle it with a limited budget. Alternatively, consultants can help with specification or development; such projects are much more affordable than typical custom software development. Finally, in the end this is not an either-or decision. The right low code platform should allow business users and developers to collaborate closely on projects.
So if you’re ready to bring your manufacturing organization into the digital age but are struggling to make it happen, low code development may be the way forward. Our VisionX low code platform is trusted in the manufacturing industry and is ideally suited for quick and easy development of highly professional, easy to use business apps.
Ready to take your manufacturing digital? Get a demo and find out how low code development can help you ease into the transformation.
Dr. Werner Smekal is an independent technical and management consultant with many years of experience in the semi-conductor industry. He advises manufacturing companies, helping them to improve production, research & development, engineering and supply chain management.