The Future of Manufacturing
In business, everything starts with the customer. When the customer’s needs change, not only the product itself but also the way the product is produced becomes critical.
For decades, the dream of business leaders has been to establish operational systems without any kind of waste, in other words, to reach the “Operational Excellence Level”. Here, the key word is “Excellence”, a target that in reality cannot be achieved but which evolves along with improvements, and people come ever closer to it with every step they take. This makes people even more eager for new ideas that will shape the future. In our age, this means running more complex operations that, on the one hand, are leaner and more efficient, on the other hand that are suitable for “Digitalization”. The reason is that if we do not make the process lean, we end up digitizing a “not lean” process, which in the future will create more problems than solutions.
Inputs and Outputs
We hear so much about digitalization. But what is it? First of all, with respect to the leanness of production processes, we need to be clear about the inputs and outputs of processes. Outputs are usually defined as being zero-incident, zero-defect and zero-waste, and as having high volume and minimum inventory and lead times, all of which in theory make for the most productive operation. Thus, we know where we want to go. On the other hand, inputs are defined with reference to the machines, employees, materials, specifications and other factors specific to the industry. Frankly speaking, for a given function we mostly forget how to process the inputs when we want to yield a standard output. In the real world, logic would suggest that there are in fact two ways to achieve this:
- We should have high problem-solving capability and display continuous effort
- We should stick exactly to the standards given.
Doing both will enable a company to stand out in any industry. And this is why today there is so much talk about the 4th Industrial Revolution, a concept that reflects the dramatic changes in the way we do things in every part of our private and business lives, using multiple high-technology tools.
Data is the New Oil
We may have immaculate systems, process control systems, digital screens, machines that give us basic alerts, well-designed and actualised ERP, and even robots to do the heavy work. However good the machinery that we use is, machinery that we believe is running perfectly, what maintains standards are our daily routine in operations and the effort that we invest.
In order to maintain standards, we need to pinpoint the relevant data and collect it on a periodic basis, preferably online. Gathering data allows us to compare the deviations for simple alerts, to scrutinise inputs, outputs and specifications; indeed, to look at all the circumstances of the process. Unfortunately, collecting all of this information is not easy since most of the companies built their systems successively to deal with different needs on different platforms. This is why a company that wishes to control the entire process needs to bring all of the data sources onto a single platform reachable from anywhere, preferably a Cloud, from which they can extract information easily depending on their requirements.
Operation staff occasionally find themselves having to deal with unexpected problems. Standard procedure for well-organized companies with well-trained staff is to frequently use root cause analysis techniques to prevent the same problem from reoccurring. The question that presents itself then is whether companies should spend most of their valuable resources on developing solutions for problems or on moving forward. Of course, it is an improvement when a company is not confronted with a problem that it faced before.
However, we can never be sure whether or not this will be the case until the problem reoccurs.
In the digital world, all the reasons for something happening will leave behind a digital trace. In statistical terms, if this collection of data can be transformed into information using analytics, it can be made to give an alert before a failure takes place, which we call “Prediction”. As Sigmund Freud once said, “Analysis itself is the cure”.
Action by Prediction
Advanced analytics can support our systems in almost all the operations and processes we can think of, from a sales forecast to planning, to quality, breakdowns and even shipment delays. When we have a well-configured database containing generic data about predicted problems or results, merely knowing this data gives us information. However, when we are able to use this data to activate people, equipment or any other components in a system, we can say we have knowledge. In other words, the concept of the so-called “Internet of Things” can guide our generation to find methods that result from action. For example, when a high-potential problem is observed by the system, this can trigger an alarm or most likely change the settings of a machine so that the same product emerges at the end. Alternatively, the system may reroute an AGV (Automated Guided Vehicle) or even reinitiate material planning. Maybe there will no longer be an operator running the machine; instead, the machine will run the operator!
From Data to Wisdom
We have observed how data has been transformed into information and then into knowledge. Today, companies’ systems or minds are learning from the deviations or mistakes made by themselves or others. Each and every item of data added to the process, whether as input or at output, reconfigures the analysis that prevents the same mistake from being made again. Once a data system has been constructed effectively—that is, so it is “lean”— it will not deviate from the standard and it will improve itself constantly, eventually being able to serve the whole company. Herein lies the wisdom of continually striving to fulfil the requirements for operational excellence.
Life is the assessment of probabilities. By following the path outlined above, we can let Artificial Intelligence assess the probabilities of our business life so that we can invest our own knowledge and time in building strategies.
Nothing Comes From Nothing
For centuries, people have been building machines, methods, and robots and once again it is people who are at the forefront of the fourth industrial revolution. We need to map the logic behind the digital organism, in the same way that we may sketch the organizational structure of a company. Similar organizations can benefit from such maps, so that similar decisions can be made digitally for better, faster and more accurate results. However, the vision needs to be determined by humans. And to make humans capable of understanding the potential of such systems, they are dependent on the chief prerequisite for development: training.
If we care about the future of manufacturing, we have to consider reinforcing the future skills of constructors and operators. All team-members need to be equipped with multiple new skills that we had never heard of ten years ago. In The Future of Management, Gary Hammel says, “Not operational excellence or new business models fuel the long term business success but management innovation, new ways of mobilizing talent, allocating resources and building strategies.”
Walls or Windmills?
The winds of change are blowing faster than ever. Speed is everything. It is time for us to separate what is valuable in our processes from what is not. We can continue with what we were doing before, based on the premise that this was successful in the past, and we can block any changes that we fear may affect our “existing” success. Or we can dare to develop our team and systems with the aim of energizing the whole company with the vision of a future that may not be so clear but is certainly powerful.