Understanding agile manufacturing

How can manufacturers avoid cascading problems on their floor and increase the speed of planning?

Johannesburg, 19 Nov 2018
Lance Zikalala, MD, nCoded Solutions.
Lance Zikalala, MD, nCoded Solutions.

Manufacturing is a crucial part of South Africa's economy. As a sector, it is widely regarded as a growth engine for maturing, developing countries. South Africa boasts a broad range of manufacturing sub-classes, the majority of which are small to medium manufacturing businesses.

But, this is a highly competitive market, constantly under threat from global players and local businesses favouring imports over homegrown goods, if the price is right.

"Global competition is good for manufacturing, but it also means the game is never going to be easy," said Lance Zikalala, MD of nCoded Solutions. "Protectionism is one way that the issue is addressed, but protectionism doesn't help improve productivity and competitiveness. That is why it's important for local manufacturers to modernise how they run their operations."

Manufacturing's bottlenecks

Though it can be tough to compete against the overwhelming scale of massive competitors, smaller manufacturers can make real gains if they are more flexible. Modern manufacturing equipment can be very versatile, from changing the colours of a product line to machining entirely different pieces of equipment. But, the number one measure of manufacturing success is throughput: if a production line stands still, that's money down the drain.

Agile manufacturing is the art of making those adjustments in good time and keeping all parties updated on the progress of a job. Many things can impact the delivery schedule of a line: delayed deliveries of materials, overpromising by sales staff, broken equipment and lacklustre staff are prime ones.

Any one of these can create a nasty knock-on effect that causes delays downstream. Since manufacturing is often in the middle of a value chain, not at the start or end, what happens on its floor can cause major inconveniences to customers. To meet those needs requires good planning, and this is often where agile ambitions fall short.

"Planning is very important in manufacturing, but also very taxing. It can take hours to do and, if there is a change, hours more to adjust. Things start falling through the cracks, corners are cut around processes such as quality control. This is where agile manufacturing, powered by advanced planning and scheduling (APS) solutions, is so remarkable. You can start collecting floor data impacting real-time operations, which serves both monitoring and planning purposes.

In touch with agile

A simple solution is to have touch-sensitive PC monitors scattered across the manufacturing site. Each serves a particular part of the floor, but they can all access the central APS platform. On these screens, workers input basic data points such as when a job starts or why a job is delayed. On the sidelines, a larger screen hosts a real-time dashboard where various metrics can be checked.

"Let's say the numbers are lower than they should be," said Zikalala. "With the APS, you can go into the respective days and hours, follow failure reports and drill down to whatever information you need. On the floor, all the employees have to do is record their progress and, through the APS, you have real-time visibility of what is going on."

It's a matter of an employee typing in his/her short designated code. The system knows which machines are under their control and they can tap one of several options to indicate their progress. The most difficult problem here is pushing workers to be diligent about the inputs. It's a nice problem to have considering all that could go wrong, especially since the system naturally flags any reporting negligence.

This same feedback loop is invaluable for the site's planner, who has gone from spending hours creating intricate workflow plans down to mere minutes. Not only is planning faster, but it is more effective and the data culture of the APS enables the planner to make ad hoc changes as problems elsewhere, supplies, overpromising, breakdowns, conspire to halt operations.

The right APS system can create a dramatic change among any manufacturing outfit, big or small, and new APS models have had a dramatic impact on the logistics of cost and deployment. In fact, the problems surrounding APS mostly have to do with getting manufacturers to let go of their old ways. But, at a time when they need to be more productive and competitive, few can afford not to adopt a more agile approach to planning and shop floor workflows.

"Making the switch to an APS takes will from leaders," Zikalala concludes. "I have been in meetings where the owners expect you to convince the shop floor people. That never works, because they will fall back to old habits. Making a transition to an APS is not easy and requires a will from the top to make it happen. But, once it does and everyone is on board, it's like they've created a newer, faster company."

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