GE Aviation in Hooksett, N.H., continues to transform the factory floor of a 2015 expansion it undertook to produce blisks for the LEAP aircraft engine.

Transforming the Factory Floor

June 15, 2017
Changes in technology, processes and talent are taking place today to create the manufacturing production floor of tomorrow.

The only constant in life is change.

Those words, or similar ones, are most frequently attributed to Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher who very likely wasn’t looking at a factory floor when he made this observation. Nevertheless, it is a fitting comment on the state of manufacturing. Successful manufacturing enterprises don’t stand still. By definition, neither do their production floors.

Toyota, for example, has introduced its Toyota New Global Architecture. While it is a comprehensive approach to developing new vehicles, TNGA has a strong plant-floor component. Flexibility is the key, with elements including compact equipment, smaller paint booths and production lines that can be easily lengthened or shortened as needs dictate. In another example, L.B. Foster completely reimagined its Magnolia, Texas, production site, introducing single-piece flow as its centerpiece. 

In short, changes in technology, processes and talent are taking place today to create the factory floor of tomorrow. IndustryWeek takes a look at three examples.

Smart Phone, Smart Factory

“The factory floor is becoming like a phone, a smartphone. A smartphone is a GPS; a smart phone is a video, a television, a phone. It’s a camera. It’s everything. We should learn from that example.”

So advises Amit Agarwal, senior manager, automation engineering & MIS at Gentex Optics, a manufacturer of lenses for eyeglasses and a business of France’s Essilor International, which annually produces more than 500 million lenses worldwide.

Agarwal’s Gentex Optics has taken heed of the smartphone example. The manufacturer has been moving forward with a multimillion-dollar smart manufacturing initiative at its Dudley, Mass., production site. And it’s not alone. According to a recent report from technology consulting firm Capgemini, smart factories could add $500 billion in annual value added to the global economy in the next five years, driven by a 27% increase in manufacturing efficiency. Moreover, Capgemini suggests the $500 billion is a conservative forecast, with $1.5 trillion possible on the high end.

Lessons Learned at Gentex Optics

At Gentex Optics, Industry 4.0 is in the midst of transforming the factory floor from islands of automation to integrated, highly automated processes that speak to each other and perform a wide variety of tasks with little human intervention. About 60% of the factory is automated at this stage of the project.

The goal of the transformation is straightforward, explains Agarwal: improved productivity and efficiency. And those gains are occurring, he says.

Agarwal shared lessons learned from the Dudley site’s more than five-year (and ongoing) transformation journey during the recent MESA International North American Conference and in a follow-up interview with IndustryWeek, where the focus of the conversation was the human side of a digital transformation.

Accenture’s Five Tips for Success

A successful factory floor transformation doesn’t happen by accident. Russ Rasmus, managing director at Accenture Strategy, offers five tips to improve your company’s chances for success:

1. Understand the most critical business challenges you are trying to alleviate and focus on business value. … This is not an OpEx program rollout.

2. Connect the factory level value to your company’s goals; plant workers need to know they impact the big picture.

3. Coordinate centrally across the business, but own and execute at the plant level.

4. Engage the right measures and transparency to drive the performance you desire—you manage what you measure.

5. Recognize how digital enablers can complement or accelerate shop floor improvement efforts. Digital is the future of the plant.

Interestingly, one key point he emphasized had little to do with technology at all.

“Culture and leadership is more important even though it is a technological project. Without those you cannot do such a project,” he says.

Agarwal brings an interesting perspective to a smart manufacturing transformation project. His background is not in IT. Instead Agarwal has a master’s degree in plastics engineering and an MBA in entrepreneurship and finance. He also has 15 years of experience in manufacturing operations and engineering, with recent work in lean and Six Sigma, and automation program management.

The IT/OT Convergence

That varied background may explain why Agarwal speaks frequently about eliminating silos when it comes to advancing a transformational project. In this instance he is speaking of the traditional manufacturing silos of IT and OT as two separate business domains, with interaction between the two functions most kindly described as less than efficient.

Early in its Industry 4.0 project, Gentex Optics worked to eliminate those silos by bringing the engineering and MIS/IT group under a single reporting structure at the Dudley site, thus driving improved IT/OT collaboration.

“You can’t do this project group without that (collaboration),” Agarwal says. “It’s impossible.

“We worked as a team. People had no egos then. It was one project, one success,” Agarwal explains.  “I think people, as they work together, they learn to respect each other and find the strength so that they can work together.”

He makes another point about the benefits of IT/OT collaboration: learning from all data your automation is collecting in real time. “At the end of the day your systems need to connect, so your production floor needs to connect with SCADA. SCADA needs to connect with MES, and MES needs to connect with ERP. And all the data that is generated, you need to learn from that—do your BI and AI—and then infuse the learnings back into the system. That also cannot happen without IT and OT.”

Making the LEAP

One state north of the Gentex Optics facility, GE Aviation in Hooksett, N.H., continues to transform the factory floor of a 2015 expansion it undertook to produce integrated bladed disks, called blisks, for the new LEAP aircraft engine.

Walk onto the production floor of the Building 2 expansion today and you would see several types of machinery, dominated by approximately 13 Liechti milling machines. That number is expected to grow to about 30 as product demand rises. You might also notice oddly-placed gaps between pieces of equipment and wonder why they are there.

The reason, explains Rohit Saldanha, lean leader for GE Aviation’s Building 1 in Hooksett, lies in the overall vision for the factory layout, coupled with increasing production rates. In short, the machines are being placed today where they will be needed in the future.

“The LEAP program is growing, so demand in 2017, 2018, 2019, keeps increasing every year. We’re going to bring machines in in time to support that increased demand, but when we laid out the factory floor, we did what we call a 3P event,” Saldanha says.  “We looked at what our demand would be in 2020 and planned for that. So all the machines [that come in] will be positioned where they will need to be in 2020.”

Rather than install equipment and move it in two years, “we just put it in the way we want it to be in 2020.”

To illustrate how quickly production is growing, in September 2016 the Hooksett plant was producing four engine sets per week. By the end of 2017 that rate is expected to double to eight sets per week, Saldanha said.

The lean leader noted another significant effort underway to improve blisk production – the introduction of a pull system. “Engine assembly would pull from us; we would pull from another plant that supplies us with near net shape forging, and they would pull from their raw material supplier.” Significant work on the project has been conducted. Saldanha suggested the pull system could be up and running in about a month.

Johnson & Johnson Takes a Mobile Approach

How transformational is mobile technology on the factory floor? For Johnson & Johnson, the answer is “very.”

“It’s changed the way we do business, that’s the big message,” says Kieran Byrne, execution systems MD lead.

What mobile technology has done for Johnson & Johnson is introduce a level of quick access to documentation that had been missing. For example, say “I’m a technician in manufacturing and I’m repairing a machine and I open the back of the machine and there are a whole bunch of wires,” outlines Lada Kecman, Johnson & Johnson vice president of systems deployment. “To have quick access to an electrical diagram of this machine is extremely important to me, and it is important also that I don’t have to exit the manufacturing space and come back again with a whole folder of information.”

These days, that machine is likely to have a QR code attached to it. With one scan by his handheld mobile device—an iPad or iPhone—the technician has the information he needs, immediately, where he needs it and in the manner in which he needs it. But such ease was not always the case.

Johnson & Johnson’s journey to mobility began in 2013 when a J&J system engineer at the manufacturer’s Jacksonville, Fla., contact lens plant explored the idea that QR codes–which he had used in non-work environments–perhaps had manufacturing applications. With no readily available solutions on the market, he found a method to bring to the QR reader the ability to access validated documents.

A small pilot project at the Jacksonville plant, where documentation access was old-fashioned and cumbersome, was quickly deployed and embraced by associates. The snowball effect continued and today the QR codes are used in more than 80 sites. Mobility solutions have also moved beyond the QR codes.

Johnson & Johnson’s Kecman outlined an unexpected benefit: Staff began finding other uses for the mobile devices. If they were troubleshooting, they began to snap pictures of the problem, send emails or Facetime with appropriate team members or vendors. “So they began to use the mobile device itself to create yet another set of business value and realization of the business value,” she said.

The pipeline of new ideas for mobility sounds full.

“We are continuously developing new applications or new use cases. In Jacksonville at the moment, we’re developing an augmented-reality type experience for the mobility users that are overlaying a layer of virtual information on the physical, so if you hold up your iPad in front of the injection molding machine or a piece of equipment, you can see with your eyes, but you can also see other information that is tied to that specific location,” Byrne says.

“We’re currently running a project on changeovers. We’re now using mobility to provide optimum positioning, optimum sequence of tasks in the changeover, and also some instructions, even video pictures that guide those activities on the changeovers.”

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