Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Transitioning from paper to real-time operations

August 29, 2014
By Roy Thomas

Aug. 29, 2014 – One of the primary challenges most manufacturers face is driving efficiency in meaningful ways to positively impact cost per unit, schedule adherence and the other individual factors that determine productivity. Many factory employees still rely on outdated paper-based methods to monitor shop floor processes, which further decrease productivity.

The reality is that using paper or collating numbers on an Excel spreadsheet to collect performance information will always leave factories with data that is subjective and out of date. In addition, it is far too easy to spend excessive amounts of time collating and understanding your data from manual systems, using valuable work time on non-value-added administrative tasks.

So what options exist to make the transition from paper to real-time (paperless)? Typically there are five different approaches.

1. Replace paper with an in-house built system. This may seem like a good idea at first, but it is only valuable for a short time. With changing trends and needs, it’s hard to keep them updated and regularly maintained. Moreover, in most cases, in-house systems are built by one person, which means that when and if that employee leaves an organization, that institutional know-how goes with them.


2. Hire consultants that can provide some version of a system. It’s no secret that the consulting model is built around getting hired by a company, then delivering quick wins to secure further engagement. In the end, you end up with what seems like an unlimited engagement that typically doesn’t maximize your returns.

3. Use the equipment manufacturer’s HMI displays. For this option, all that’s needed are the metrics that come with the equipment. However, just because you can rely on an equipment manufacturer’s HMI displays doesn’t mean you should. For starters, this won’t produce a holistic view of product lines. More importantly, this limited machine view won’t contain all the information necessary to make line-based decisions.

4. Deploy a full-control Manufacturing Execution System (MES). This option is an expensive one, as it involves a lot of hardware and controls systems engineering as a prerequisite. While it may produce data and reports, an MES can be complex and aimed at very technical individuals (i.e., systems engineers). Very rarely does it help you gain any insight into your operations. In other words, it fails at turning data into actionable intelligence for those that need to consume the information. As well, it limits your ability to drive efficiency improvements on the shop floor.

5. Deploy an out-of-the-box MES solution specific to your industry. While manufacturers across different verticals face similar business challenges, tackling unique issues within a specific industry calls for a solution configured with domain knowledge of that industry. Food manufacturing companies, for example, require an MES solution that addresses the specific needs of food processing and packaging “out-of-the-box.”

Choosing the right solution
The landscape is very complex, and it’s not always easy to know what the optimal choice may be. Many wonder how to improve operational efficiency, yet not embark on a complex and lengthy project that may prove costly. Below are some of the most important items to consider when choosing a solution:
• Cost – Is this something you and your business can afford?
• Timing – How long will it take to implement?
• Return on Investment – When will you start seeing results? Are we talking weeks, months or years?
• Results – Think about the resources you will need. Do you need to hire separately or are there current resources that can do this as a side project?
• Configurability – Is your choice an out-of-box solution that’s designed for your vertical? Can it be configured for your specific business requirements?

While there is certainly a lot to consider, at the end of the day, your chosen solution should provide the maximum return on your investment while positively impacting efficiencies.

Roy Thomas is vice-president of solutions at Aptean.  

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