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How Will Digitalization Impact Personnel on the Manufacturing Shop Floor?

Oct. 14, 2016
When the shop floor is operating poorly, the entire enterprise suffers. This is why teams who are setting priorities for digital initiatives should place a high priority on improving shop floor processes first and foremost.

Manufacturers are gearing up for change. Personnel throughout the enterprise are bound to be impacted by the digital technologies which are changing processes and re-inventing manufacturing, from the ground up. Nowhere is the impact of digitalization going to be more evident—and more welcomed--than the heart of the manufacturing enterprise: The shop floor.

Operational excellence is one of the main driving forces behind digitalization. Changes to the way goods are configured, produced, assembled, finished and packaged are being developed out of necessity. On the shop floor “new and improved” systems aren’t simply nice to have and an optional upgrade with no urgency attached. They are critical. Shop floor personnel know that meeting current expectations of customers, achieving management’s production goals, and managing the volume of ETO, MTO and change orders with traditional machinery and processes is near impossible.

Outdated shop floor machinery and cobbled together software solutions simply can’t provide the shop floor agility and visibility needed to meet today’s pressing demands. The factory floor is where profits are made or lost, where customers are pleased or disgruntled, where streamlined activities hum with precision or where they fall apart into chaotic spurts of rush jobs, unexpected delays, and stock-outs. When the shop floor is operating poorly, the entire enterprise suffers.

This is why teams who are setting priorities for digital initiatives should place a high priority on improving shop floor processes first and foremost. No one functional area can be seen as an isolated silo, though. The overall strategic priorities for the entire company must be kept in perspective.

Examining the existing core systems is a good place to start evaluating critical needs and revenue-generating opportunities. Plant managers and line of business managers know where they see gaps and current systems falling short of expectations. They know where communication is weak and when lack of data slows decision-making. Often, outdated ERP solutions, heavily modified and supplemented with various point solutions, are a stumbling point. The ERP solution, the backbone of the manufacturing enterprise, must be one that is up to the challenge of digitalization—highly flexible with cloud deployment (for the massive data storage needs) and advanced business intelligence.   

The Perspectives paper, Building a Digital Transformation Strategy, describes the need for an underlying architecture that can tie the various processes on the shop floor—and beyond—together, saying:

“Connected systems—deployed in the cloud—have made continuous innovation possible. This concept is fundamental to digital transformation. Rather than considering core solutions as separate entities, they should be viewed as a connected, value-driven ecosystem that can be used to create interrelated products, services, and software that act as value-multipliers for other parts of your organization.”

Improvements to shop floor processes, indeed, make everyone’s jobs easier. Instead of apologizing for late deliveries, sales and customer service representatives can be engaging with customers about long term goals and next purchases. Instead of guessing about production schedules and what resources will be needed, the procurement team can be working with vendors on long term pricing and just-in-time delivery plans. Shop floor teams often have a head-start over the rest of the organization in launching digital initiatives. Telemetry, RFID scanners, machine sensors, and GPS tracking of fleet vehicles are nothing new. In his blog Digitalization @ Work, Tejas R Vash makes a point that the Operations teams have already been focusing on machine-to-machine communications on the manufacturing floor, often turning to proprietary, vendor-based protocols. These early applications of sensors, switches, and routers, however, often led to security holes and inconsistent policy enforcement.

“Today, digitization, fueled by the power of IP, allows the entire manufacturing process and entire supply chain to be completely automated, secured, and managed as a global entity. This drives greater outcomes such as improved efficiencies, reduced downtime, greater resource utilization, and increased returns on investment over a shorter time horizon,” Vash says.

IP based devices can no longer be loosely managed, he goes on to say. The control engineers working on the shop floor processes must acquire new skills and work with the IT team to make sure operational processes integrate, scale globally and comply with security protocols.

Digitalization is definitely a team sport, one that requires cooperation, communication, and a collaborative mind-set across many departments.

For more on digitalization in manufacturing, check out these four videos which provide use case examples:
- Part 1 Customer centricity
- Part 2 Operational Excellence
- Part 3 Delivering with confidence
- Part 4 Advanced analytics

Mark Humphlett is the director of Industry and Solution Strategy responsible for Infor manufacturing. With 17 years of experience in technology and more than 25 years in the manufacturing and distribution industry, Humphlett joined the Infor team through an acquisition in 2006. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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