MODERN manufacturing doesn’t necessarily mean a shiny factory floor with robotic assembly lines and state-of-the-art technology. Instead, it is usually a mix of equipment and machinery built years or even decades ago—and still running perfectly well, says Lauren Dunford, co-founder and CEO of Guidewheel, which provides a factory operations platform.

“The most effective way to improve performance may not be replacing what’s already working well,” Dunford writes in SupplyChainBrain. What most companies need, she adds, is technology that can help get older and newer machines to optimal performance — and potentially solve just a few of the supply chain issues plaguing the world today.

This can start with how manufacturers track and manage their machines.

“For most factories, this is still a largely manual process that includes personnel walking the factory floor, checking logbooks and entering data into spreadsheets. That takes a lot of time, and involves a lot of information sitting in silos that don’t connect, which ultimately all adds up to a lack of ability to react quickly to problems or reliably drive improvement,” Dunford says.

“What machines are sitting idle, and why? Where and when are there production delays and downtimes? How long are changeovers from product to product taking away from production time on machines? In the context of the pandemic — where demand can change in an instant — the consequences of a manufacturer not having accurate, actionable information on the factory floor could be devastating.”

Cloud technology can bring any machine online, into a connected network that simply and cost-effectively gives every factory team the tools to reach manufacturing excellence, she says.

With access to the cloud, Dunford says, manufacturers can better prepare for the supply chain issues still to come in three ways:

Increase capacity by optimizing changeovers. When demand exceeds capacity, the best area to quickly create additional capacity is often in changeovers from one product to another. In addition to opening up additional capacity, being able to quickly shift a machine from one product to another can allow manufacturers to confidently run smaller batches or product just-in-time, and represents a huge opportunity for manufacturers to adapt to changing market conditions.

In the case of one small metal products manufacturer, frequent changeovers to accommodate special orders created tremendous delays, missed deadlines and expensive overtime costs — even before the pandemic. Leveraging cloud technology, the team was able to track the duration of changeovers and run-time for every shift and machine, hone in on what factors enabled the fastest changeover for each product, and replicate those factors throughout the plant. In just three months, they were able to decrease lost production time from changeovers by 26 percent. Manufacturers that can optimize the changeover process will be better poised to respond to future fluctuations in supply and demand — whether it’s to reduce batch size or create more capacity to sell.

Protect existing investments. This uncertain environment is not the time to invest millions in replacing equipment that’s been working well for decades. The key is to find a low lift, high return opportunity to get more out of a company’s existing machines. Enterprises everywhere have embraced the cloud to get systems both old and new into a centralized dashboard for real time management and insights — why not manufacturers? Bringing older machines as well as newer ones into the cloud means you can not only keep machines that continue to work well, but also empower your teams to further optimize them as they assess, analyze and improve them in real-time.

Navigate labor shortages. Even before the pandemic, the manufacturing industry was no stranger to talent gaps, with high employee turnover rates combined with the high costs of training new employees. Talent gaps are not only painful, but also costly. When plants are not fully staffed, production can suffer. To help manufacturers bridge that gap, cloud technology is already proving useful. With machines and context brought from the plant floor into the cloud, even a small team can essentially be in multiple places at once — seeing at a glance what to act on, whether they’re onsite or hours away, and respond immediately to breakdowns or problems. For one plastics manufacturer, for example, a production manager has been able to simultaneously run production for two factories 10+ hours apart from each other from a single plant floor, while simultaneously achieving a 41 percent improvement in overall equipment effectiveness.

“It’s critical for manufacturers to put in place the tools they need to ensure they can flexibly adapt to whatever new challenges come their way — starting with the factory floor,” Dunford concludes.. “The power of the cloud can democratize access to these tools and give every manufacturer an opportunity to thrive in the post-pandemic landscape.”

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