Facing Down Uncertainty in Uncertain Times

If there’s one thing over everything else that’s going to ruin your plans for manufacturing excellence, it’s uncertainty. And that is something we have in abundance right now. In the supply chain, in demand, in available personnel, in every aspect of the manufacturing landscape there are multiple challenges competing to give you the next unexpected jolt into the unknown.

If you allow them to, these challenges will push you into a corner where you’re no longer able to compete and from where you’ll be unable to fully recover when the manufacturing world is cranking back up.

Prospering Through Adaptation

The key to overcoming these challenges is to remain flexible and to adapt in real-time to changes. There are many ways this can be achieved within a company as a whole, by adjusting business processes or modifying the supply chain, but within manufacturing itself the key is digitalization.

Let’s look at four areas of manufacturing that the pandemic has affected:

  • Personnel
  • Planning and scheduling
  • Monitoring operations
  • New Product Introduction (NPI)

Personnel

The Coronavirus has forced us to separate in a way that is incompatible with many working environments where personnel are required to work in close proximity and move between different areas of the plant. This has meant that large numbers of workers have been furloughed simply because the working conditions are impractical.

A digitalized approach can reduce the number of people required on the factory floor. Plant automation can mean that personnel can move from laborious repetitive tasks to essential skilled jobs with fewer people working shoulder to shoulder.

This can also help to maintain business continuity when the number of people on the plant floor has to be absolutely minimized for a limited amount of time. Remote monitoring of systems and processes mean that operators may be able to carry out some of their work from home. More on that later.

Planning and Scheduling

A related subject to that of your personnel is Planning and Scheduling. This is already a complex process, but it becomes even more complex when you consider the supply chain, demand and workforce disruption caused by the pandemic.

No doubt, if you are carrying out your scheduling using spreadsheets, you are quite possibly already feeling the pain of not being able to fully optimise your resources and capacity. A spreadsheet is a fine and wonderful thing and, with enough equations to fill a University textbook it can be made to carry out some moderate planning within fixed parameters.

But how quickly can it give you an optimised production schedule when your supplies become less reliable and part of your workforce is furloughed while demand for your products has spiked overnight?

By utilizing Advanced Planning and Scheduling software (APS) you can greatly increase your flexibility. This flexibility comes with the speed at which you’re able to react to each change. Instead of manual updates to a spreadsheet the required information can be automatically imported from PLM and ERP systems and even from suppliers and production orders can be automatically generated. The most advantageous plan can then be calculated at the click of a button.

Most APS software will also allow you to carry out scenario comparisons so that you can use your own knowledge of the situation and test out alternative strategies to get the best result for your plant.

New Product Introduction (NPI)

Many plants around the world have helped to fight back against the Coronavirus by completely changing their production lines to produce Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), ventilators and other essential items needed on the front line of the pandemic. The speed with which these plants were able to switch was due to the digitalization of their production processes.

And this is not merely a trick they’ve pulled out of their hat for this one occasion – they benefit on a daily basis in all circumstances. A common way for them to gain this flexibility is by having a digital twin of their production lines.

By utilizing a digital twin, they can replicate the planned production process of each new product and explore different scenarios so that they can see what could go wrong even before they start to make changes to their production line. This prevents costly adjustments later on when physical, rather than digital equipment, needs to be adjusted.

Business continuity is strengthened when you can quickly adapt to changing demands and a digital transformation of your manufacturing processes allows you to do just that.

Monitoring Operations

As mentioned earlier, the digital twin concept can also help in the day-to-day running of the plant when personnel can’t access the plant floor as they used to. With a digital twin, remote monitoring doesn’t just become possible, it becomes preferable.

Big data analytics can provide you with insights that weren’t previously available and enables you to predict when maintenance should be performed or when equipment should be replaced. With social distancing in place these important tasks need to be timed when they will lead to the least interaction on the shop floor.

And with enough data from your equipment, processes and products you can calculate whether making adjustments to your manufacturing process are financially viable. If you run that piece of equipment 10% faster will the benefits outweigh the costs of more frequent maintenance?

The Permanent Benefits of a Digital Transformation

These aren’t just benefits for the current pandemic. Everything mentioned is simply good practice for every manufacturing operation.

There is currently a lot of talk about the “new normal” of the post-pandemic world. In reality, the changes that every manufacturer should be looking to make are the same in both the new and the old normal because the benefits are exactly the same for both.

With digitalization comes flexibility and the ability to overcome whatever challenges or changing circumstances your manufacturing plant is faced with. This pandemic will pass and companies will rise back up. Manufacturers need a digital transformation of their production processes to ensure they aren’t left behind when that happens.

Path to the Autonomous Factory

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Tom Jenks
tomjenks@criticalmanufacturing.com

Marketing Specialist and Technical Author at ATS Global

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