Last week, we introduced our SCALE framework, a roadmap for manufacturing, engineering, and treatment companies to grow through digital technology. This article will focus on the “S” of the SCALE journey and explore how you can Streamline manufacturing operations.
What is Streamlining with Digital?
Streamlining operations is a crucial first step in your digital transformation. However, even if you are not using digital tools, you need to standardise business processes to set you up for success.
We are essentially looking to reduce the total time to perform each project or task to streamline operations. In digital, this often involves automation.
Streamling a process
The example below shows how we streamline the process of walking into a dark room. With the manual method, you walk into the room, walk over to the light switch, and turn it on before going to sit in the chair.
With the automated process, you walk into the dark room, but a sensor is installed instead of the light switch. That sensor detects when someone entered the room and turns on the light. This means that you can walk directly over to sit in the chair.
Of course, this example is very rudimentary. Still, already you can see that the automated process is more convenient for the user as it requires less effort, and the overall process is faster (even if only marginally).
However, streamlining a process isn’t always about removing steps. Instead, sometimes it can be beneficial to add steps that save time later in the process. For example, in many cases, if you spend more time and add steps into the planning phase, you can save time later on as you will avoid potential pitfalls which impede your progress.
Using a CNC machine is an example of a commonly automated task in modern manufacturing, where the milling process is automated and completed by a machine. It can do this task faster and with more consistent high-quality output than doing the operation manually. However, you need to do a bit more work at the start with programming the machine than you would do if you were milling it manually.
The benefits of streamlining manufacturing operations
So, it’s pretty clear to see the benefits of streamlining operations from the example above and thinking about processes in your factory.
- More efficient processes: By streamlining processes, you remove the unecessary steps or rework the process to save time in execution. This will ensure processes are leaner and more efficient so you can increase capacity and take on more work with the same resources.
- Reduced administrative tasks: When you have highly skilled workers, you want them to use their time to perform value-added tasks as much as possible. By streamlining processes – especially with digital – you reduce the number of rudimentary tasks they have to do, like filling in paperwork, ticking boxes, and sending emails. This helps you focus on product quality and delivering excellent customer service.
- Repeatable, high-quality execution of tasks: When incorporating automation into your processes, you ensure you complete jobs the same way each time. This provides the same level of quality output for every task.
- Increased capacity: By reducing the inefficiencies in processes, you can increase capacity. As each task takes less time, you will find each person, machine and resource has increased capacity.
However, one benefit is often overlooked when considering the benefits of streamlining operations, and that is how it provides the foundation for digital transformation.
Streamlining is the foundation of digital transformation
Streamlining operations is an essential first step on the digitalisation journey. People often look at technology to solve problems or plug gaps, but you can sometimes solve the issue by improving the underlying process without technology.
If you don’t put in processes first, you may purchase a system you think you need and then realise that the root cause of the problem is elsewhere. Then, when you fix that problem, the first solution is no longer needed. By looking at the processes first, you can ensure that you’re putting technology in the appropriate places.
Additionally, digital processes are the foundations for your smart factory. So much of industry 4.0 and digitalisation is dependent on data, and digital processes can generate much of the data and information you need.
If you think back to the light switch example, the sensor not only automates the process, but it will also record the exact time you turn the light switch on, when you turn it off, how long it was on for, and how many times the light was on during each day. It may even be able to detect who was in the room.
Just imagine what you could do with all of that data! Imagine you had a high energy bill one month. You could use this data to identify the cost of the lights and the wastage incurred when lights are on unnecessarily.
If you’re trying to find ways to reduce your energy bill with the manual process, you have no idea what may have caused the spike in price (I know it’s probably not the rogue light bulb… but still).
Which operations should you streamline?
When we talk about manufacturing operations, you can choose from a few. By having a clear roadmap and strategy, it’s easy to identify where to start.
You have two options: the “low-hanging fruit” or your core operations
1. Start with the low-hanging fruit
By “low-hanging fruit”, I mean the most inefficient processes, the ones that involve a great deal of paperwork, often accompanied by a frustrated employee.
This option is great for making progress quickly and at a low cost. It can be particularly effective if your team isn’t very tech-savvy or a bit cautious about the move to digital.
Any technology adoption is a combination of people, technology and process – and there’s a reason that “people” is first. If they are not on board with the new technology, they won’t use it, and you will not see the expected benefits.
By targeting problem processes or quick wins, you can demonstrate the benefits of digitalisation and ease your team into the transition. After seeing the positive effects here, they will be more willing to accept more substantial changes.
2. Start with your core operations
Alternatively, if your team is driving the digital initiative, then you should start where you will see the most significant impact and benefit: your core operations.
Your core operations will be different depending on your capabilities, but generally, it is your process of producing your product or service at both the planning and management levels.
For example, if you do subcontract engineering, your core process is to manufacture parts to specification. CNC machines already automate the milling process, but you can look at the operations around that, including taking orders, ordering materials, production planning, shop floor operations, quality management, and delivery.
Using an MRP system, you could plan jobs into a production schedule and allocate tasks against shop floor operators and machines based on required delivery dates and capacity availability. Then, those shop floor operators can log when they start and finish operations – or you could link directly with machines via sensors to automate recording these details. The MRP system stores this information for you. Additionally, by tracking how long is spent on each job, you gain accurate job costings, which helps you produce accurate quotes more quickly. Furthermore, this will automatically generate documentation for quality approvals and automatically send real-time updates to customers when a job reaches a milestone.
Start as you mean to go on
Whichever route you choose, it is essential to consider how this first step impacts your overall digital strategy. Any investment should generate returns that funds further investments. These returns could be in terms of reduced operating costs or increased capacity to help you win and take on more work.
How to select the right technology
Once you’ve decided where to begin, you may already have an idea of how you could do it. However, whether you’re aware of what you need at this stage or not, you will need to find the right technology and the right technology provider to help you achieve your goals.
1. Does the technology fit your strategy?
Firstly, you need to consider how this will fit into your overall strategy (I know I’ve been harping on about this, but it’s important!). Are you implementing something for now that you will need to replace in 3 years? Or will you stick with this long term? If you have planned technology investments over the coming years, it may not be practical to replace your initial system alongside those continuous improvements.
So, if you want to have something that lasts, you need to know if it can do everything you will need it to do in the future – or at least have the capacity to grow into that and have continued investment in development. Especially as an SME, a flexible system is vital as you make changes to your processes and grow your business. Therefore, you need a system that adapts to your changing needs.
2. Is it a scalable foundation?
As mentioned, you can gain significant insights into your business by adopting digital processes. However, MRP/ERP systems often struggle to allow you to utilise the data they capture. So, before choosing a system, you need to ensure you can analyse all the information within it – not just via a built-in reporting system, but you need to be able to get the information out so you can combine it with other data sources you may have.
Similarly, you should ensure it has the capacity to integrate with future systems you plan to use. While you may not know exactly what technology you will need in the future, ask your provider about their plans to integrate with IoT or ask if their system has an open API or Rest API that will allow integrations in the future.
3. The right system for your industry and capabilities
Additionally, it was the case about 5-10 years ago that MRP systems were generic one-size-fits-all for manufacturing businesses and that ERP systems are only for multi-national corporations or large SMEs. However, a wide variety of technologies now cater to specific capabilities, industries, and other niches. For example, Fitfactory offer an MRP system for SME heat treatment companies that offers full Nadcap traceability – this was almost unheard of 5 years ago. Alternatively, systems are available that specialise in additive manufacturing, milling, fabrications, make-to-stock, make-to-order, and pretty much anything you need.
There are also MRP/ERP systems that are better for different sectors. For example, if you aspire to gain AS9100 accreditation, you should consider that for your system—similarly, some options perfect for the medical, automotive, oil & gas, and nuclear sectors.
4. The right system for your industry and capabilities
Finally, you need to know you can trust the company providing this product or service. Who is in their team? What is their background? And how long have they been providing this technology? Make sure you speak to their existing customers directly rather than relying on their sales team, website, and case studies.
Streamline with Fitfactory
At Fitfactory, we have more than 25 years of experience delivering technology to streamline and digitalise manufacturing processes. We are a leading provider of modular MRP systems for engineering, manufacturing and treatments companies that is ideal for highly regulated sectors such as aerospace, automotive and oil & gas.
Now, we support more than 350 companies to streamline operations from Sales, RFQ, Planning and Scheduling, Shop Floor Operations, Quality management, and delivery.
Finally, our SCALE model enables companies to build an end-to-end roadmap for digital transformation success. From streamlining operations to analysing performance and extending your supply chain ecosystem, we help you identify the right technologies for your business and implement them at the right time to achieve your goals.
Learn how to SCALE your business
You can learn more about SCALE by subscribing to our blog. We provide weekly updates to support your digital transformation journey, including interviews with our in house experts, highlights of funding opportunities, and blogs like this one. Next week we will look ahead to Connect, Analyse, Level-up and Extend.