Smart Manufacturing and Lean

We hadn’t quite figured out how to use our ERP systems effectively when we started our lean journeys. Not sure how to integrate the two, we stumble, but keep trying. We’ve been told so many times that both are critical to success that we know we shouldn’t kick either of them out of our business.

Now we’re told that “smart manufacturing,” heavy with still-developing technology is required for success. Do we just lay that on top of ERP and lean, or drop one of them, or just ignore this whole Industry 4.0 thing as long as possible?

As we should do with ERP and lean, smart manufacturing is only smart for your organization as a means to meet business goals. Just slapping any of the three on existing operations and hoping for the best is self-destruction.

Your customers are demanding more from you. Smart manufacturing can help, if you are clear on the question you want to answer, data types that will help you do that, and who will review and/or analyze the data to actually use it. If you aren’t effectively using the small data you already have, incorporating big data will simply create a bigger more expensive mess.

Start with: “what critical information do I need but not have to best meet customer needs?” Don’t tell me a good forecast from them. Let’s address our glass houses before throwing stones.

Equipment reliability? Simple sensors can be programmed to flash lights, blow horns, or shut down equipment if the measured value (e.g. oil level, air pressure…) go out of operating zones. But do you want to know when the values began drifting? Do you want to know how many times? That’s a different set of questions requiring a different set of data, and someone to review it and make decisions accordingly.

Sure, you can use the lean method of color coding the gauges so that anyone walking by can detect a yellow or red operating status. And that’s better than nothing. It presumes someone will look, notify the right people, and that they’ll take quick action to review and fix the situation. But there’s nothing there to help you get to root cause. Data can help with that.

Remote field service has been around for years. Perhaps that’s not capturing the information you need to improve the design of your product. Or perhaps no one is looking at that data until there’s a problem. You may have manual visual boards that show the number of field failures by type, or by month, or by customer use. That’s good information. Again, it’s not enough to get to root cause.

Lean’s simple manual visual aids are extremely valuable. That doesn’t mean you should continue to use an abacus for number crunching.

The railroad industry once suffered from lack of reliable information about the location of cars. Which meant customers couldn’t know where their product was, or when it would arrive at its destination. That industry has progressed from a bar-code type reader to a radio transponder, each read by trackside readers. That’s huge improvement using smart technologies. But next steps are needed for more granular information that customers want. GPS devices are logical, but expensive-a problem that will no doubt be solved soon. Spreadsheets are no longer acceptable tracking devices.

Smart manufacturing is smart when it is designed to meet business needs and support the efforts of your people to make good decisions and serve the customer better. It’s a lot like lean in that regard.

As published in AME’s Target Online