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How You Can Embrace the Full Potential of Paperless Manufacturing

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An MES is more than a list of features.  Maximize the impact of a new system by embracing positive changes it will encourage in your shop floor culture. 

By Kristin McLane, President of CIMx Software 

Manufacturers often ask how to unlock the full potential of a digital shop floor.  Many think it’s a cool feature, innovative function, or special training session.
My answer, always, is to look at the shop floor culture.  Consider the human element.  No software system, special feature, nifty function, automated process, extraordinary lesson, KPI, or analysis tool will get you where you need to be.  The software provides the foundation for process improvement and will immediately deliver benefits, but to unlock the full potential of the system, you need to develop the human element – study how the people, processes, system, tools and material interact, then focus on how the software will support the human element. 

Looking Beyond Features and Functions 

Consider this scenario – accidents happen on the shop floor.  Most will be errors in production builds, scrap in the making, but sometimes an operator or machine will fail to perform a task correctly.  What do you do then? 
Most times, we simply solve the issue as quickly as possible.  We fix the machine, seek medical attention for injuries, and red tag the scrap.  After all, product is backing up and customers are waiting.  At that point, information on the error is sent to Quality Engineering or a safety board.  Problem is, once production is flowing again and the issue is no longer critical, no one is in a hurry to find a solution and whatever documentation you have is aging. 
Without a permanent solution, the error will likely occur again, continuing to plague production like an itch you just can’t reach. 

The Paperless Manufacturing Solution

 Military pilots utilize a post-flight debriefing process to eliminate errors.  They will cover, replay, reconstruct, reflect and redirect every action on a flight.  It’s the most effective way to determine everything that went wrong and right during a session of work, and ensures improvement for the next flight.
During cover and replay, the pilot talks through the entire flight.  Through visualization, they will review each step of the flight plan.  Rather than simply listing what went right and wrong, offering a snap judgment of each action, they discuss the work, leaving more room for discussion and reflection.
A paperless manufacturing system provides an immediate “discussion board” for manufacturing.  The shop floor operator can describe the work done prior to the error.  This immediate feedback provides invaluable insight, offering creative solutions an engineer may not be able to deliver in the  weeks after the error occurred.
Evaluative tools like this may not be practical after every shift, but a paperless system can create a feedback loop between the shop floor operators and engineers.  Operators can leave a message attached to an order, which the engineers can retrieve and review as needed.  The paperless system enables the reflection and reconstruction used so effectively by pilots.  Continuous improvement systems such as Lean, also rely heavily on continuous feedback and giving end-users a voice in improvement.
Redirection, the final step in flight analysis, has the pilot leap from the previous flight to the next.  It asks what he or she would do differently.  Through visualization, they work to see the steps in their mind.  Visual learning is a powerful tool, helping bring the lessons learned to life.  A paperless system utilizes visual learning to improve work instructions with videos and multi-media tools, helping eliminate mistakes. The system can even track users who open and watch a video, giving you an idea of how effective each learning tool is. 

Paperless Manufacturing and the Human Element 

Granted, the shop floor isn’t an airplane, and your operators may not be pilots, but consider the pilot culture, where every mistake can mean death, and how they go about eliminating errors and constantly improving.  Consider what a culture like that would mean for your business.
Paperless manufacturing and MES provides tools that eliminate errors and enable improvement, but to maximize the solution you need more than tools.  You need a culture that embraces the solution and is ready for improvement.  You need to not only implement the software, but integrate it with your culture.  Don’t focus solely on the tools the software provides, but how you use the tools.  Spend time to understand the human element and how it will fit with the software tools.  Look for solutions that are adaptable, supporting your shop floor culture and processes instead of demanding conformity.  The software should grow with your company as you implement changes to the culture.
The best solutions are ones that support your work process, and can adapt when and how you need it.  Look beyond the list of features and functions, because every company can provide those, and consider the human element.