Industryweek 3977 Communication

Bringing Manufacturing Up to Speed

March 20, 2013
On the factory floor -- where immediacy should matter the most -- real-time communication has too often been ignored in the endless iterations of lean projects and efficiency programs.

Business today runs at the speed of now.

The days of "while you were out" memos, of messages and notes, of even voicemails and emails -- and all of the missed connections they reflect -- are long passed.

Business today requires real time contact, immediate updates and zero missed opportunities. This is the time of of text messages, of push notifications, of alarms and alerts, of immediacy -- of now.

On the factory floor, however, communication is stuck in the past. Only there, oddly, can critical information -- downtime events, product defects, maintenance and alarms -- still rely on paging systems of bygone centuries, of one-way communication systems and radios barking against the roar of machines and through the hush of ear protection.

On the factory floor -- where immediacy should matter the most -- real-time communication has too often been ignored in the endless iterations of lean projects and efficiency programs.

However, it is becoming ever clearer that a communication system consistent with the pace of life today, one capable of alerting the right people at the right time about these critical issues, can be one of the most effective efficiency investments a plant can make.

Nation Pizza and Foods

For the past 65 years, Ill.-based Nation Pizza and Food has slowly climbed to the top of the prepared food industry using a passive, last-century paging system to keep its facilities running.

As it expands into its new 190,000-square-foot plant -- with 600 employees across its six production lines throwing off two million products a day -- that 20th century system has fallen far short of the company's 21st century demands.

"One of the issues Nation Pizza and Food was facing was not being able to get that fast response time, to alert the correct person with the skill set necessary to address the problem and get the production equipment back on line," said June Ruby, director of manufacturing solutions group at Motorola Solutions (IW 500/123).

Furthermore, adds, Julian Bauer, process improvement supervisor at Nation, "Many times you would hear several pages for the same downtime issues over and over again... The response time could be up to ten minutes."

Taking this from a process improvement perspective, the efficiency problem is easy to spot.

To remedy it, the company equipped its key production staff with wireless devices -- Motorola MOTOTRBO radios -- to bring communication up to speed.

With the radios, allowing two-way communication through the noise filter, bypassing both the sound and silence issues of the old system in a single step.

 "Now operators can initiate a call from a machine to tell a mechanic exactly where to go, what tools to bring,” Motorola's Ruby said. “They can plan ahead before making that trip out to the production room."

This alone has allowed the company to trim an enormous chunk of unexplored waste from it's facility, which amounted to an impressive 10% increase in overall plant efficiency, according to COO Mike Alagna.

Wipro Technologies

To N.S. Bala, senior vice president and global head of the Manufacturing and High-Tech business unit at global information technology consulting company, Wipro Technologies, even this simple improvement at Nation Pizza and Food underscores the basic advantage wireless systems offer the production environment.

"Being able to make the decisions faster right there and collaborate is a big deal," he said. "It's a big, big plus for all lean companies because now you are cutting the waste of movement, cutting the waste of time."

This is a benefit that ripples through the supply chain, he said.

"If a shop floor supervisor is walking and suddenly sees a line stopped and he then knows there are parts that are not being produces,” he explained. “Now he can quickly determine which customer is getting impacted, not just that the line is down.”

The result of that development is profound.

"That information was already there, but now you can get that right there, right when you need it. That typically used to take two to three hours,” he said.

“Very simply put,” he added, “The focus in mobility and mobile devices has been to improve excellence on the factory floor. Increasing efficiency has everything to do with making sure that the different work teams can communicate.”

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