Industry Market Trends

Digital Tools Transforming the Shop Floor

Apr 30, 2013

The proliferation of tablet computers, smartphones, and other communications technologies is rapidly changing operations on the shop floor. New research explains how factories are adopting these advances and boosting efficiency at a dramatic rate, and how enterprising industry professionals can best take advantage of groundbreaking digital tools.

Business operations are being rapidly transformed by new information technologies, such as smartphones, tablets, and cloud computing, which are swiftly overtaking older physical processes by boosting efficiency. Manufacturing firms aren't immune to this transformation, and shop floors across the country are now seeing innovative communications and collaboration (C&C) systems streamlining day-to-day production.

According to a recent webinar hosted by Aberdeen Group and sponsored by Microsoft, the world's mobile worker population is forecast to reach 1.3 billion by 2015, representing 37 percent of the total global workforce. Today, 70 percent of businesses are using or investigating cloud computing solutions and 65 percent have deployed at least one social software tool.

"We've found there's definitely a move toward getting more advanced communications tools into manufacturing...instant messaging, video chat, blogs, things like that," Kevin Prouty, vice president and group director of enterprise applications at Aberdeen, said. "From a hardware standpoint, PCs still dominate, but mobile [technology] is starting to challenge the PC as the tool of choice around some of these advanced communications techniques."

Although email remains the most ubiquitous method of digital communication in manufacturing, employed by 87 percent of industry leaders, it's closely followed by Web-based virtual meeting solutions (74 percent), secure file transfers (59 percent), live chat applications like instant messaging (56 percent), blogs (44 percent), online forums or newsgroups (44 percent), and social networks (41 percent).

In terms of hardware, 85 percent of industry-leading firms rely on traditional desktop computers, but nearly half (44 percent) also incorporate smartphones in their work processes, 40 percent use "ruggedized" handheld computers, 37 percent use room-based video systems, and 28 percent rely on tablet-based technology.

Why are these technologies finding such traction within the manufacturing space? Manufacturers explain that C&C tools shorten product time-to-market, a key business concern. They also help improve the innovation process, decrease operational costs, enhance cooperation among employees in different locations, help manage a decentralized workforce, and improve product quality.

But securing these advantages requires more than simply purchasing communications equipment or software. Aberdeen determined that top-performing shops typically encourage close partnerships between business and information technology (IT) departments within the company when developing a new digital strategy.

"Among industry leaders, there is a definite collaboration between business and IT. You don't have IT solutions driven down the throat of business, and you don't have business solutions developed outside the purview of IT," Prouty explained. "It's overlooked by many end-users just how important it is for operations and IT leadership to collaborate, to understand what's going on by having cross-functional teams to support the initiative."

When implemented properly, these C&C tools can yield benefits across key functions, including product development, manufacturing operations, supply chain and warehousing, and maintenance. A year after introducing digital technology, 10.9 percent of leading shops said they saw improvements in inventory accuracy, 10.6 percent saw improvement in overall equipment effectiveness, 10.2 percent experienced better on-time delivery rates, 8.2 percent saw better returns on assets, and 6.3 percent cut down on unscheduled asset downtime.

One of the biggest advantages of implementing a robust C&C strategy is efficient information-sharing that allows numerous processes to be streamlined.

"When I was a plant manager, we'd have Post-Its or marked-up blueprints taped to walls. That's all very unstructured information because it's very difficult to communicate that stuff back up to the engineering group to make the changes that are needed or communicate that to the next shift or the downstream processes," Prouty added. "But if you have the right C&C tools, you're able to use things like IM [instant messaging], or blogs, or an internal wiki, or online forums to actually post that type of information, and then the next shift coming in can look at it or engineering can roll it up to update the blueprints."

Most manufacturers today communicate operational performance with physical boards that have hard-copy printouts that are difficult to manage and remain static. To solve a problem, a worker must take a printout and go back to an application to do research. The process can be cumbersome. By contrast, what would a truly digital shop floor look like?

"Consider having a role-based solution that provides a simple view of access to information and collaboration tools that you need to accomplish your work," David Graff, managing director of discrete manufacturing industry at Microsoft, said while showcasing a software interface. "Under 'My Communications' you have active feeds and news about the company or competitors, under 'My Tasks and Schedules' you have a view into your schedule, who's available on your team and the projects they're actively working on.  Under 'Plant Floor Status,' you can have access to production metrics from your lines via a third-party application, like Apriso MPI or Rockwell Vantage Point."

Supervisors will also be able to designate work groups, have them form quality circles, and provide them with access to best practices information or problem-solving tools that can help them improve performance metrics or make improvements in their line. Engineers can look at parts diagrams, make real-time adjustments, and share drawings or notes with other business groups in a fast, efficient process.

"That kind of collaboration is rare on the shop floor today, but all the tools are available," Graff explained.