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Automation in Moderation (Software) | Lessons from the Shop Floor - Part 3

Going along with our previous lesson on the need for moderation in hardware automation, this applies just as well to software automation and integration. Too often the overzealous desire to push all operations and functionality into a software solution ends up creating a bloated, rigid and inflexible solution that only works for certain conditions. This creates limited ability to adjust for other processes and all together fails when certain corner cases are hit.

However, this doesn't diminish the overall demand/requirement for digitalization of processes. The need for internal visibility and efficiency together with the demand from customers requiring live data for just-in-time manufacturing and quality control traceability audits will only grow over time. Therefore, the need to automate and streamline the digitalization process is fundamental to a manufacturer's competitive advantage in the future.

It's common during scoping workshops prior to kicking off a digital initiative that folks gather in a conference room for days on end to map out the touch points they'd like to include into a customized software solution. This is a critical path in terms of mapping and scoping the processes, but folks tend to forget that the production process doesn't happen in the conference room, it happens on the shop floor. The age old method of industrial engineers conducting time studies right on the shop floor is still as relevant today as it was decades ago. This is the best way to catch corner cases or certain scenarios that won't surface in a conference room.

It's impossible to catch all cases and process flows even on the shop floor but being physically there with the whole team will dramatically help reduce hiccups. For example, in the conference room there may have been a plan to ask workers to do the following:

Job A requires 2kg of Raw Material A which is in 20kg bags.
Worker heads to warehouse, takes Material A bag, scans to take out.
Worker uses 2kg of Raw Material A for Job A, updates amount on tablet.
Worker returns Material A back to warehouse and scans to check back in.

This all seems simple enough, is easy to follow, and helps to provide the digital records necessary to trace, track and integrate with warehouse and production. If the software development team was to proceed with the above customization for all the screens and interfaces for the workers, it would be a simple process.

However, if the team was to head down to the shop floor, they might notice that the actual process is executed more like this:

Job A requires 2kg of Raw Material A which is in 20kg bags.
Worker heads to warehouse, takes Material A bag, scans to take out, but also scans out bags for Material Y and Material Z as he knows that later today these materials will be needed for Job Y and Job Z, respectively.
Worker uses 2kg of Raw Material A for Job A, updates amount on tablet.
Worker decides to keep Raw Material A at his station as he knows Raw Material A will be used again tomorrow for Job T and doesn't want to have to head back to the warehouse again.
Even though Job Y is required to be produced before Job Z and Job Y uses Material Y and Job Z uses Material Z, the Worker weighs out Material Z before Material Y. That's because Material Z is lighter in color than Material Y so when it goes into the blender, it won't cause discoloration. Whereas if he weighs Material Y first for Job Y, he would have to clean the container prior to weighing Material Z.

As you can see, actual operations on the shop floor may be miles apart from what may be expected in a conference room. This can create misalignment, costly overruns in customization rework and a major morale hit when it reaches the shop floor when Workers can't use the solution to properly do their work. In order to help avoid this, below are a few guide posts and best practice points in this digital automation adventure:

Scope well now or pay the price later

  1. Spend time on the shop floor to truly understand the flow of operations.

  2. Draw out sample interfaces on Post-it notes (or you can use a digital prototyping solution as well) and flip through them with workers to get feedback and update accordingly.

  3. Work with the entire team to understand corner cases and special scenarios and brainstorm on what could go wrong or go differently in the processes.

An extra click vs. flexibility

  1. Avoid over automating processes to "save an extra click" on a interface if there could be scenarios or chances in the future that a different flow may be applied.

  2. Processes are usually never as rigid as you think, don't over automate a flow by forcing users to only go by one path, enable flexibility through multiple screens or processes to account for process changes in the future.

Iterate & integrate in phases

  1. Don't try to link your ERP, WMS, LIMS, Accounting System, Outlook Calendar, etc. all at once, pace it out and determine what is critical for a minimum viable product (MVP) and stagger the rest of the integration in phases.

  2. All features and functionality need not be in place in the first version. Get something out first to get proper feedback and iterate on it. You may find that certain features you thought you needed were not needed at all once folks had a chance to use Version 1.

  3. Spend the effort and time to invest in APIs when integrating. Don't perform hard coded/back-end database integration or any other haphazard method that isn't through a clear Web API or Service that is fully documented and secure from Day 1.

Process change vs. software customization

  • Identify physical processes that can be changed or adjusted to prevent the need for software customization.

  • Focus on software configurability instead of locking software processes/flows into place.

Never too early nor too late to start the digitalization journey

There isn't a common best path for everyone to follow in this digital automation journey. So much depends on processes, culture, skill-sets, management, etc. that even if we have two identical facilities that produce the exact same products, the journey may end up being very different. Don't let this be a barrier to anyone getting started or to continuing the push forward. The necessity of digital/software automation and integration will soon be non-negotiable as customers demand solutions at cheaper prices, faster speeds, better quality and higher sustainability. The only way to achieve this and remain competitive is to automate both your hardware and software solutions in moderation!


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