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The power of data to drive better plant performance

(Image credit: Image Credit: Shutterstock/Sergey Nivens)

Data can transform manufacturing – a term that has continued to prompt discussions within the industry. People have been saying it for years now, and there is plenty of empirical evidence that data is 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 through the automation of 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 is more, it has become very easy to lose track of the human element, amidst talk of crunching numbers and automation. But most plants still rely heavily on human behavior, and on processes undertaken by people. If these are not done correctly, the business will become inefficient, at best, and catastrophically dysfunctional or dangerous, at worst.

That’s why manufacturers have to document their regulatory compliance, and track and audit their numerous processes frequently. These actions keep everyone in the plant safe, make the business efficient, maintain quality and optimize outcomes for all concerned.

The Covid-19 pandemic, for example, is a thoroughly human crisis that is also having massive economic effects and impacts on business process. 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 Common sense has not been replaced by data.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 can also 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 many cite a resistance to change, lack of funding and the challenge of integrating new applications with legacy plant equipment.

While 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 into a dashboard that aggregates data and provides a deep-dive intelligence into the entire workforce’s activity.

In other words, the software will enable manufacturers to generate and visualize the ‘holy grail’ big data so beloved of industry commentators, and that insight enables the streamlining of processes, training, recruitment and management, to drive up efficiency and profit.

As an example, an automotive manufacturer 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. They achieve this through a combination of question randomization, focus questions and question tagging – none of which would be achievable with non-digital process audits. This strategy allows the manufacturer to immediately assess whether a nonconformance is a one-off incident or a systemic problem.

Even better, if that data is migrated to the cloud, the data is then visible to everybody who needs to see it, whenever they need to see it, from any location. This is perfectly possible, even if the data is highly sensitive, and it has two prime effects. Firstly, a cloud-based dashboard makes the data visible all of the time, to whoever needs to see it. Secondly, 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 very quickly identify – and thus, fix – shortcomings, risk and waste. When these are fixed, product quality is improved and resource 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 improving product quality, reducing waste and scrappage, freeing up capacity to grow new product lines and general productivity, but also building an 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 is a lack of appropriately skilled personnel, in many places.

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 using that 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.

Eric Stoop, CEO, Ease Inc