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Using Slack on the Shop Floor

Sept. 16, 2019
Hardware manufacturer MBX Systems shares how the collaboration software has changed its communications.

Since its inception in 2013, Slack’s collaboration platform has transformed business communication, with more than 10 million daily active users. Adoption has been confined largely to office workers, but Slack can also help manufacturers expedite problem resolution on the shop floor, support continuous improvement activities, and even improve customer relationships.

That has been the experience for us at MBX Systems, a build-to-order server hardware manufacturer and integrator. Slack has helped us reduce production bottlenecks and ensure accurate delivery of finished product in its extreme high-variability environment.

All MBX personnel including plant employees were onboarded at the Slack rollout three years ago to facilitate cross-company collaboration about operations, including production and supply chain issues. MBX has since added customers to Slack conversations, enabling near-real-time discussion among line workers, supervisors, platform engineers, account managers, customers and other key players.

Additionally, MBX has rolled out a Slack app that allows customers to integrate hardware supply chain-related discussions into their company’s own Slack instance. Customers can now receive real-time notifications of MBX engineering changes, work in progress and order updates in their Slack data stream for fast information access.

Carl Nothnagel, MBX vice president of operations, says that Slack has made it easy to communicate both internally and with customers, “whether we’re asking a question about a component, troubleshooting an assembly or software imaging issue, or discussing an unexpected production delay.” All stakeholders can see all the messages, keeping everyone in the loop. It also allows one person to pick up where another left off, and makes it easier to track a conversation as three or four different people respond throughout the day.

Communicating by Channel

Most Slack communication takes place in persistent chat rooms called channels that are created by each organization based on their unique needs and searchable for easy knowledge-sharing. Each channel functions as a workspace for team members involved in that particular project or area of business. 

In addition to establishing conventional Slack discussion channels to expedite business communication on issues such as company announcements and project collaboration for front and back office personnel, MBX has established manufacturing-related channels dedicated to each work center, specific customers, new product introductions, production issues, corrective actions and other matters relevant to plant operation and optimization.

With this strategy, questions about build instructions, component changes, supply chain issues, production problems, line interruptions, and other manufacturing concerns are routed through the relevant channel for smoother cross-functional communication.

System builders can quickly consult with platform engineers, manufacturing supervisors or sales personnel to resolve issues without leaving the plant floor. Managers can organize team improvement events without the back-and-forth of group email. Builders can communicate with the product documentation technician to update a discrepancy in the build instructions. Abilities like these save time and increase agility.

Bringing Customers on Board

Adding customers to relevant Slack channels has yielded additional benefits for system troubleshooting, delivery, and operational transparency that helps increase customer trust and satisfaction.

One example is a customer that supplies cutting-edge simulation solutions for military aviation training. Custom hardware systems ranging from single rackmount servers to wall-sized racks with up to 36 integrated servers are manufactured and loaded with site-specific aerial images based on the end purchaser’s aircraft and geographic training needs.

On one recent full-rack build, technicians found a potential cooling issue on the manufacturing line. The manufacturing team needed a timely resolution that would require collaboration between engineering and the customer’s team.  They reached out to the customer through an open Slack channel they’d set up for them and were able to collaborate directly with the customer to solve the problem quickly.

Accelerating Information Access

The app that MBX developed for Slack brings additional efficiencies to customer interactions with the manufacturer. These stem from the app’s integration with MBX Hatch, the company’s manufacturing orchestration software toolset.

Now in its first iteration, the integration enables engineering change notices as well as shipment updates documented in Hatch to be automatically pushed to the customer’s Slack channel. This eliminates the need to check email or open the Hatch toolset. Other Hatch-based integrations that will bring manufacturing program insights into the Slack environment are on the MBX roadmap.

We have only scratched the surface of capabilities and already realized major benefits for ourselves and our customers.

Justin Formella is chief strategy officer at MBX Systems, a custom computing hardware manufacturer serving technology companies that deliver complex applications and services as integrated hardware/software platforms for turnkey deployment.

About the Author

Justin Formella | Chief Strategy Officer

Justin Formella is chief strategy officer at MBX Systems, a custom computing hardware manufacturer serving technology companies that deliver complex applications and services as integrated hardware/software platforms for turnkey deployment.

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