Often, when I am discussing project with clients, I tell them that this is similar to a man who comes home and discovers that he lost all the money in his pocket due to a hole that he hadn’t noticed. Recognizing the hole allows him to sew the pocket and avoid losing his money on the following day. But it would have been different if he had heard some money fall and he had moved the money to a safer place, or at least had kept one hand on the pocket until he came home, to avoid losing the rest of the money. If he had recognized the problem before, he could have immediately taken action to reduce the losses.

Exactly the same reasoning can be transferred and adapted to any production company. It is definitely important to analyze production data to understand what factors caused loss of quality, production or efficiency. However, it is much more useful to be able to recognize in real time the onset of any problem and be able to intervene and reduce the possibility of compromising the production target.

So in my experience, those are the main reasons why real time information can improve operations in manufacturing. Real time information mean… that management is always informed of what is happening in production, being able to take better, faster decisions. If in the past, in fact, the competition took place mainly on the basis of the product’s features, companies now have to equally compete on the business model of the organization and its processes, whether they are production, distribution or management.

The quality of the product, while still being a key element, is not sufficient to gain or maintain market share. It’s the company as a whole, with the ability to move in a more or less coordinated way and to adapt to the changing needs of the market, which is evaluated and determines the competitiveness of the product. For this reason, the traditional MES systems, ie those focused only on the support of production management, are often less effective today than in the past. In fact, they are focused, as the name suggests (Manufacturing Execution Systems) to ensure that the production process takes place in the most correct and effective possible way, not covering the wider needs of the “Operations” as a whole.

In this context a tool already known in the business , suitably adapted, are beginning to be adopted in manufacturing to fill the “gaps” suffered by traditional MES. I am talking about the “Business Intelligence” solution that become “Manufacturing Intelligence”. With a Manufacturing Intelligence tool, everything that happens in production will be available to the management whenever it happens, and, if in combination with mobile solutions, everywhere. This allow the C level to interact with the shop floor as never before.

Things change in the operation 10 times faster. Any strategic or market change managed on the ERP level generates a volume of change about 10 times higher on production level. The production management system therefore must be specifically designed and implemented to manage both the amount and the speed of change. The ERP is not designed to reach the shop floor. Even if many could be surprised by how many features related to the execution of the production are in an ERP, no machine that produces a piece per cycle will ever communicate to the ERP that it completed a cycle. Simply, the two systems travel on a different “real time,” one typical of the strategic management of the business, the other associated with the punctual execution of the process. This leads to a gap, which, however small, is unacceptable today. The systems must communicate and act as a seamless whole to allow the manufacturing industry to meet the dynamic demands coming from customers, regulators, suppliers and even internal staff.

Real time information means… that you can act on the problem while it is happening, saving big money. This is particularly evident when manufacturing execution systems (MES) and manufacturing operations management (MOM) projects are “bottom-up” compared with those that are “top-down”. Top-down projects, by their nature, focus on gathering information that can be analyzed to make operational decisions. Bottom-up projects, which are normally directly related to production lines and the causes of problems, provide granular information that can be made available in real time to allow all the operators to know how things are going and not how they went. This allows them to take action before the problem affects production results and thus leads to an immediate savings.

Those are just three short thoughts about how the availability of real time information could help a manufacturer in improving its operations. There are many more on which we could pause, maybe from a technical perspective, but I believe these sufficiently highlight how real time is a concept with different meaning depending on the context but also that the trend is to be always ready to take faster decisions that flexible systems should rapidly apply. In my personal experience I get constant confirmations of how the adoption of an MES or manufacturing operations management (MOM) system make this process more efficient.

Published on Automation.com – Aug. 12th 2014  

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