Communications and Technology
Manufacturing businesses generate not only consumer products but also a hefty portion of the nation's economy. As more vendors outsource production overseas, manufacturers continue to restructure their operations to remain competitive and profitable.
Today's global manufacturers rely on a growing array of software applications to manage nearly every phase of product development, production and distribution.
Since many manufacturers take on multiple projects at one time, most find it vital to keep a running record of where each job stands in the production process. Some software companies offer manufacturing execution suites geared toward managing operations from start to finish.
These packages provide real-time reports, data and analysis as the shop floor accomplishes volume goals. Other features usually included in manufacturing execution suites are:
- Work in progress (WIP) monitors every step in the production cycle to boost productivity and quality product yield. This technology relies on barcodes or serial numbers, which are scanned at each assembly point to provide product traceability. As a result, management can oversee the workflow and receive real-time data on delays, bottlenecks and damaged products.
- Production scheduling generates development sequences, analyzes the impact of schedule changes, and provides realistic delivery dates based on volume and project complexity. Ultimately, this feature aims to reduce cycle times and inventory, while also increasing resource utilization.
- Flexible routing provides solutions that let the manufacturer adapt to changes in production demands. This feature essentially routes inventory receiving, assembly, quality control and operations throughout the whole development process.
- Production control provides invaluable information on inventory levels, assembly and quality control, so the manufacturer is always prepared for the next phase.
- An electronic traveler is a Web-based, paperless production order that circulates from one workstation computer to the next. It requires each operator to sign off when a work phase is finished, ensuring the product is ready to proceed. Most electronic travelers store a timeline showing each step of an item's production.
Wireless has come to manufacturing in a big way, with radio frequency identification (RFID) data-capture tools tracking parts, materials and finished items through the production cycle. The ability to track the factory floor wirelessly reduces production time while also improving inventory management, order fulfillment, labor usage, asset tracking and maintenance, and more.
Wireless barcode scanners, for instance, help production workers identify and manage materials as soon as they come off the loading truck. Knowing what's on hand and where it's stored is critical for just-in-time manufacturing operations, and valuable information in other instances as well.
RFID tags and scanners offer another convenient solution for material tracking. The tags, which are attached to product parts, pallets, packaging and other items, provide work-in-progress data when scanned by the reader. In addition, most scanners are designed to be mounted on rolling equipment or used portably. RFID scanners also interact with workstation monitors to post project statistics and reports, which can also be printed.
Wireless networking can also bring productivity benefits to production floors that may not have the room, or offer a suitable environment, for wired networks or connections. Data cables can be exposed to wear and tear if they're deployed near moving machinery. In addition, the installation of network cables creates safety concerns about preventing tripping or tangling hazards.
Creating a wireless network allows manufacturers to deploy information resources exactly where they're needed, avoiding the need to reconfigure networks or wires as a job or production run is completed.
Wireless sensors and security are also being deployed to monitor a wide range of conditions that can lead to safety hazards or economic losses. Security cameras can detect and deter unauthorized access into materials storage areas, or the removal of tools or equipment from the production floor.
Wireless sensors can help plant supervisors monitor operating conditions and identify potential or imminent problems. Getting immediate notification of a water or gas leak, or a rising temperature in a critical cooling equipment pump, can provide immediate benefits in reducing losses and maintaining production capabilities.
Even manufacturers that haven't invested in full-featured production suites are using technological assistance with at least some portion of their operations.
Material programs, for instance, help manufacturers determine what supplies to purchase, how much to buy, and which vendor best suits a particular project. Moreover, this software usually identifies production requirements and the timeframe of manufacturing supply orders.
Resource programs help manufacturers get the most out of workers, materials and more by better organizing the scheduling of work centers, machines, tools and labor.
Shop floor control programs record production data directly from the site of operation using barcodes, shop terminals and touch screen technologies. In any manufacturing enterprise, being able to view what is happening on the factory floor is crucial to managing business operations.
Simulation and modeling programs allow manufacturers to coordinate equipment layout on the floor, workflow process and resource allocation before starting a particular job.
Many software companies offer pricing programs designed to help manufacturers establish operation costs based on volume, item, client and more. In addition, this software usually features templates for contract design, customer price lists and promotions. Some packages even allow price comparison across product groups, allowing the manufacturer to identify the most profitable items to develop.
Through unified communication (UC), today's manufacturers continue to shake up how they perform everyday tasks like plant floor monitoring, reviewing production status with clients, sharing data and more. UC solutions integrate a manufacturer's communication systems by using digital voice and data technologies to link a firm's current private branch exchange (PBX) telephone network, computers, mobile devices, faxes and Internet access.
Some of the benefits of a unified system include:
Click to call - By simply selecting a contact in an email address book, the user can immediately call a person from their desktop or portable laptop.
Digital data sharing - UC solution packages allow users to view faxes via email, not to mention listen to voicemail as well. These messages can be forwarded to others in seconds.
View operation in real time - With a few clicks of the keyboard, an operation manager can use any device with Wi-Fi capabilities to view exactly what's taking place on the production floor.
Video conferencing that can be coordinated instantly by simply selecting the participants' names from a contact list.
CRM Builds Bonds
Distributors and product developers regularly contact manufacturing operations, requesting order status, turn-around time, material changes and other key data. Responding to these customers quickly and efficiently usually means the difference between a smoothly running operation and client frustration. There are quite a few customer relationship management (CRM) solutions brimming with functions for enhancing communications.
CRM solutions are designed to store important data about a client or product run in one, easy to access location. This allows customer support agents to assist the client much faster and with confidence that the information is correct. Moreover, sales representatives in the field can view the latest client data using any device with Internet access.
Some features of a strong CRM solution include:
- Order tracking, allowing the manufacturer to quickly view all details about the status of an individual product purchase, outlining its path from placement to delivery.
- Customer feedback reports, which let the manufacturer review and organize client complaints, compliments and suggestions.
- Fast access to a client's purchase history, allowing sales teams to form strategies based on past order patterns.
- Warning reports when client feedback trends in certain areas.
- Some CRM solutions include online interfaces that let the client access project-related data.
While manufacturers have traditionally relied on the phone and call centers for transmitting such details, today's operations have become much more user-friendly by incorporating Internet technology.