Data’s Power to Drive Better Plant Performance

Data can make a major difference to plant efficiency without causing the manufacturer major upheaval

Eric Stoop

October 21, 2020

Data can transform manufacturing. It’s also a term that continues to prompt discussions within the industry. People have been saying it for years now, and there is plenty of empirical evidence: Data are the way forward in business generally and manufacturing in particular.

But right now, when people talk about data, they often mean either data analytics or automation using artificial intelligence (AI), a technology that is ‘fed’ with data. Often, these discussions focus on marketing and the customer experience, or on cutting business costs by automating specific processes.

All of these things are important, and many of them can be useful to manufacturing businesses, but they don’t entirely represent the potential of data in manufacturing.

What’s more, amidst talk of crunching numbers and automation, it has become too easy to lose track of the human element. But most plants still rely heavily on human behavior, and on processes undertaken by people. If these aren’t done correctly, the business will become inefficient at best, and catastrophically dysfunctional or dangerous at worst.

That’s why manufacturers must document, track, and audit their numerous processes frequently. These actions make the business efficient, reduce risk, and maintain quality, to name just a few benefits.

The Covid-19 pandemic, for example, is a thoroughly human crisis that is also having massive economic effects and impacts on business processes. Many countries have put restrictions in place, and manufacturers have had to change working processes to comply. Now that many countries are in a recovery phase, audits are giving those manufacturers crucial data about how their people are complying (or not) with the new requirements, and the effects these changes are having on efficiency and thus, business performance. Evidence is now emerging that shows how those audits are helping to drive economic recovery in various parts of the world.

If these sound like common-sense steps to manufacturing efficiency, that’s because they are. Common sense has not been replaced by data. But by leveraging data, manufacturers can make their audit, quality management, process management oversight, and regulatory compliance vastly more efficient and, consequently, respond with greater precision and effect.

Manufacturers also can use data tech to make their auditing more effective and focused, and to remind staff members to complete auditing processes promptly and comprehensively.

And that is how manufacturing data can really have an impact on the bottom line—especially in tough times.

Using data to drive plant quality and efficiency

Manufacturing has, in many parts of the world, a reputation for being slow to adopt new technologies. There can be many reasons for this but often cited are resistance to change, lack of funding, and challenges with integrating new applications with legacy plant equipment. Although all of these barriers are understandable, it is actually pretty easy for manufacturers to make data work for them on the plant floor.

For example, you can use layered process audit software to schedule plant audits for months ahead, conduct audits using everyday mobile devices (even without an internet connection), deliver reports automatically (making regulatory compliance documentation much easier), and feed data into a dashboard that aggregates them and provides a deep-dive intelligence into the entire workforce’s activity.

In other words, software will enable manufacturers to generate and visualize the “holy grail” of big data so beloved of industry commentators, and those insights enable the streamlining of processes, training, recruitment, and management. This in turn drives up efficiency and profit.

As an example, an automotive manufacturer that uses the EASE plant floor audit platform will use data, generated from layered process audits on the plant floor, to quickly identify systemic problems hidden across a plant or even multiple plants. The manufacturer achieves this through a combination of question randomization, focus questions, and question tagging—none of which would be achievable with nondigital process audits. This strategy allows the manufacturer to immediately assess whether a nonconformance is a one-off incident or a systemic problem.

Even better, because these data are available in the cloud, they are visible to everybody who needs to see them, whenever they need to, from any location. This is perfectly possible, even if the data are highly sensitive, and this capacity has two prime effects. First, a cloud-based dashboard makes the data visible all the time, to whoever needs to see them. Second, it makes staff members accountable to each other because it clarifies exactly who has (and who hasn’t) done what.

This is a giant leap forward from the traditional, paper-based and manual approach to process management and audits. When scheduling, aggregating, and visualizing the audit information using quality software, manufacturers can quickly identify—and thus, fix—shortcomings, risk, and waste. When these are fixed, product quality is improved and resources are made available, which can then be used to make more product.

Over time, this becomes an iterative process, and for manufacturers, the benefits really start to stack up. Not only can an audit platform improve product quality, reduce waste and scrap, free up capacity to grow new product lines, and increase general productivity, but it also can build a company’s enviable reputation for quality.

Manufacturing data without barriers

The barriers to technology adoption or upgrade within manufacturing plants are well-known and, in many cases, not unreasonable. It costs money and downtime to upgrade manufacturing equipment and infrastructure, and there often is a lack of appropriately skilled personnel to carry it out.

However, there are ways in which data can make a major difference to plant efficiency without causing the manufacturer major upheaval. By automating appropriate business areas—like process audits and 5S audits—and using those data to generate valuable business intelligence, manufacturers can quickly and easily join the big data revolution and gain just as much benefit from it as other sectors do.

About The Author

Eric Stoop’s picture

Eric Stoop

As Chief Executive Officer of Ease Inc., Eric Stoop leads the development and execution of Ease’s vision and long-term strategy, ensuring company growth through the delivery of innovative products and solutions.