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Ed Potoczak

Quality and on-time delivery are the top factors that drive success in the eyes of manufacturing customers, according to a recent survey of 125 North American manufacturers conducted by IQMS. Given the opportunity to list multiple factors, 92 percent of respondents cited product quality, while 51 percent identified on-time delivery. However, gaining real-time insights into how quality and on-time delivery can be improved is a challenge for many manufacturers who rely on manual monitoring.

Not only is manual data capture and processing too time-consuming for today’s rapid production cycles; it frequently gets relegated to a second priority by understaffed teams already stretched thin covering multiple facilities. The result is inaccurate, incomplete data that leads to less than optimal decisions from the shop floor to the top floor.

To address this challenge, manufacturing firms increasingly are turning to remote monitoring of production rates, uptime, overtime, scrap, equipment, process characteristics, product quality and delivery performance. Fortunately, the industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) as a foundation for smart manufacturing now makes remote monitoring feasible and affordable — whether providing insights to stakeholders across the building or around the globe.

This article examines approaches to remote monitoring being employed by manufacturers, as well as best practices to apply when introducing remote monitoring to the organization.

Remote Monitoring for Better Decision-Making

Remote monitoring can take several forms. At a basic level, manufacturers install monitors around their plant floors to display common performance metrics, such as pieces made, scrap and shipments, making this information available to all employees. This helps create a common terminology, understanding, and even trust to foster a team approach to process ownership. Important to the effectiveness of this monitoring is ensuring the display of relevant key performance indicators (KPIs) based on accurate, timely data.

A more advanced approach is to make KPIs available to managers in the front office and enable email or smartphone alerts when KPIs and underlying data are trending out of bounds. This approach can significantly shorten the time required to engage the people who need to make important decisions guiding the day-to-day rhythms of a production facility.

Some companies have implemented systems to make KPIs and transaction details available on key employees’ smartphones and tablets as mobile apps. This strategy has empowered program managers, operations leaders, sales account managers, and executives to stay aware of how their plants and supply chains are performing at any given moment. Now, even if they are traveling, they have the facts needed to deal with customers, prospects, and suppliers effectively.

An example of this monitoring inside production plants and remotely from headquarters is a plastics manufacturer based in the Southeast. Because the company operates multiple plants in North America, its executives decided several years ago to create an automated monitoring system.

As a first step, the company connected its production equipment controllers, tool rooms, warehouses, and maintenance activities, integrating the real-time data captured from these sources with its enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. The management team then built “Production Information Centers” in central locations on their shop floors to inform technicians, workers, and operations managers about the status of tooling, scheduled production jobs, equipment status, and available inventory.

The manufacturer’s leaders hoped that, by having common metrics and displays across its plants and offices, they could accelerate sound decision-making by their onsite teams. They achieved their goal as team members at all levels began to trust the real-time information provided to them, strengthening their confidence in the team’s data-driven decision approach. This in turn enabled a new culture of “let’s decide together now” to flourish.

Remote Monitoring for "Lights Out” Plants

At the next level are early innovators who have adopted schemes to deeply monitor activities and KPIs inside one or more facilities located across town, the country, and even international borders. For some manufacturers, the motivation has been to expand to new plants monitor and support new workers and inexperienced staff. Others are pushing the envelope of technology by building brownfield and greenfield “lights-out” highly automated plants that can operate with very few people.

One example is a US plastics molder in the mid-west that purchased an empty building across town, retrofitted it with modern communications infrastructure, and installed highly automated material handling equipment and presses. For the past few years, this facility essentially has been operating without direct labor workers. Instead, operations are monitored in real-time by technicians and managers miles away in the company’s original facilities.

By planning carefully for the automation of processes along with a streamlined, automated information flow to support truly remote monitoring, manufacturers can expand their production footprint while selectively growing their workforce to attain the highest density of talent possible.

Best Practices in Pursuing Remote Monitoring

Whether implementing remote monitoring onsite or for the lights-out operation of geographically distributed facilities, there are four best practices manufacturers can apply to ensure their success.

First, identify the true key performance indicators, dashboards and alerts needed by workers, managers, and executives for effective decision making. Too many measures can create confusion over which ones are most relevant, so prioritization is critical.

Second, have the result in mind while designing the monitoring system, which means developing a laser focus on the specific kinds of raw operational data required to support the analytics that will drive the remote monitoring. Most manufacturers report that, while they gather huge amounts of raw data, they struggle to identify which information is useful.

Third, ensure that the automation technologies and processes implemented with the organization enable the near-real-time delivery of accurate performance data from people, equipment and logistics. This will give employees actionable insights and foster collaborative, data-based decision-making to address factors affecting manufacturing operations before they become issues.

Last, manufacturers should consider starting small with the end game in mind. In doing so, companies can stay focused on what is necessary, implement thoughtfully, demonstrate early success, and then expand as needed, building on the knowledge gained. In doing so, manufacturers will put in place remote monitoring systems that enable them to operate efficiently, respond nimbly and manage confidently for years to come.

Ed Potoczak is director of industry relations at IQMS.

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