Does Modern Technology lead to Performance Optimisation?

Image source @TheCyberSecHub

No, People Do! Technology Alone is Not Enough

It is impossible nowadays to open a technical journal or even a mainstream newspaper without being hit with a plethora of technical terms, new technologies and techniques and in some cases old technologies rehashed and renamed as if they are new.

The Internet of Things, Industry 4.0, OPC, RS232, USB, OEE, Wi-Fi, Cyber Security, Web Service, Cloud Storage, Power Over Ethernet, Lean Manufacturing, Lean Six Sigma, SMED, AI, AR, to list just a few.

Far from making our lives simpler, the sheer quantity of these techniques and technologies can be confusing for the unwary, or those wishing to embark upon a journey of performance improvement towards optimisation (i.e. lowest production unit cost with minimal waste, minimal energy consumption and consequently lowest possible carbon footprint).

Right Tools, Right Place

In our experience, all the above technologies and techniques have their own rightful place, but in the wrong hands or used sub-optimally, they can do more harm than good.

Don’t get me wrong! I am not against modern technology, quite the opposite! After all, I do run a company at the forefront of many of these technologies, which spends many hundreds of thousands of pounds per annum pushing back the technical boundaries in order to provide even more potential benefits to our existing and prospective clients.  The important term here is ‘potential benefits’ as the desired optimal improvement cannot be achieved without the necessary cultural change driven and supported by senior management.

One Man and a Dog

An old joke flying around decades ago, when the technological revolution was in its infancy, was that ‘the ideal factory of the future would be so automated that it would consist of just one man and a dog. The man was there to feed the dog and the dog to stop the man touching any of the equipment!’

Nonsense as this has turned out to be (thank goodness), there is some element of truth behind it in that degrees of automation are essential, whether we like it or not, as used in appropriate circumstances, automation can significantly reduce manufacturing costs and also carry out more repetitive, boring and unpleasant tasks that human beings don’t want to do anyway.

One difficulty though, in making the switch from manual processes to automation, is that it is hard for many operational personnel to stop interfering with the equipment, especially where they haven’t been properly trained.  Because these individuals have, before the introduction of automation, been so ‘hands-on’ they can’t resist intervention at the slightest glitch or even apparent malfunction which is often present during the early days of the automation introduction.

Some of this is sadly the fault of the automation/systems supplier who may well have recommended a sub-optimal technology (either because that is all they have to offer or because it shows them the most profit) for any particular application.

Oversold Technology

For example, some automation specialists are so besotted with OPC (Open Platform Communications) that they try to use it everywhere. Yet, if the application or part of it requires a simple local communication between an electronic balance, a torque meter, thermometer or some other device, to a computer, then old fashioned RS232 or more modern USB is more appropriate.

Connectivity with a date coder or an in-line checkweigher which might be further away from the host could be more suited to an Ethernet link.

We all use Wi-Fi on our laptops and mobile phones but there are industrial suppliers who will attempt to use it inappropriately in a factory environment where the equipment and host (server) need to communicate quickly and continuously. Yet so many factory environments are surrounded by the natural enemies of a good Wi-Fi link, i.e. stainless steel and (invisible) electrical noise (EMF). In such environments, the host tries to send to the basic equipment and vice versa and the sender or potential recipient waits and waits and waits…..until the data eventually arrives, possibly corrupted or is ‘timed out’.

Dump the Blame Culture

Even where the right combination of all the different technologies and techniques is appropriate, it is just a start that, of itself does nothing to improve performance.  This is where the cultural change really starts to kick in, to not only stop hitherto hands-on operational personnel from continued fiddling with now-automated machines and systems, but the old ‘blame culture’ needs also to be dumped, along with the fear of failure, if we expect operational personnel to embrace the new company way. A manufacturer of indigestion remedies dumped £250,000 of product to landfill a few years ago because someone had put the wrong date code on some of them.  “We have solved the problem!” they proudly announced, “We have sacked the person responsible!” They would have been better saying to the individual “We have just invested a quarter of a £million in your education! How do we ensure that it doesn’t happen again?”

We believe that it is right to dump the old toxic blame culture and encourage a better mindset amongst operational personnel whereby they challenge everything that they do in an effort to find more effective ways of achieving better outcomes.

Obviously, this must be done in a controlled manner, otherwise, you will have people spinning off in different directions doing their own thing and the inevitable chaos as a consequence of that.  So it obviously needs good direction based upon the desired objectives, good leadership, good communication and instant visibility, so that rectification and improvement actions can be taken instantly and shared, in real-time, with the whole team.

Wherever we have installed systems and manufacturing excellence or operational excellence, rather than simply the installation of the best equipment, is the main driver, the improved outcomes are often dramatic, but such sustained improvement demands that appropriate training is given, not just once, but time and time again, based upon evidential needs rather than gut feelings if beneficial change is to be achieved and sustained.

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