Agile manufacturing: plan smarter, not longer

Johannesburg, 18 Feb 2019
Read time 4min 50sec
Lance Zikalala, MD of nCoded Solutions.
Lance Zikalala, MD of nCoded Solutions.

The future might be the place where we'll spend all our time, but only by looking back can we get a sense of what to expect. Historical insight is critical for planning, yet it also comes with a hidden risk: insight can become routine and, soon enough, reliability turns into inflexibility.

Adjusting to market demands, developing efficiencies and discovering new revenue streams stem from agility. But slip into a state of complacency and all of those abilities come to a dead end. Yet it is easy to end up in that situation, particularly if you are a manufacturer, explained nCoded Solutions MD Lance Zikalala.

"Manufacturing is a very time-sensitive enterprise. Input and output need to work in lockstep, else problems start to surface. It's essential to keep your eye on the ball. But that can also create an unexpected comfort zone; once you have the processes of your manufacturing working and balanced, you start putting a lot of effort maintaining that status. You become wary of any radical shifts, in case they disturb the lines and create delays. You end up becoming static without realising it because you think your systems are reliable."

We have previously discussed the principles of agile manufacturing, which is the ability to adjust manufacturing processes quickly and dynamically. Yet the desire for stability can mask how your floor offers little visibility of operations. Instead, you don't know what you don't know. You assume that what is on the table represents the full picture and potential of your operations.

The visibility problem

The reality of manufacturing is quite different. Planners scrape together just enough information to keep things moving. This isn't due to laziness, but reflects the limitations of traditional manufacturing operations.

"Planners operate under immense pressure. They have to lay out the way forward for floor operations, which are always vulnerable to knock-on effects. For example, material ingredients might arrive late, a sudden order needs to be prioritised or equipment breakdowns lead to delays. So their carefully honed plans need to be adjusted, which takes a lot of time and effort. Time is a scarce commodity in manufacturing, so planners make do with what they have. They rely on tried-and-tested techniques that don't change because disruption means spending more time nobody has."

A lack of nuanced, real-time insight means planners err on the side of caution. The result is that even a high-tech factory is still planned using arcane and outdated methods.

"Sometimes a client plans everything on the back of a cigarette box. That's because they have always done it that way and it's too risky to change things now. So a company invests heavily in all kinds of leading-edge systems and processes, but at the planning stage they might as well be 50 years in the past."

Not surprisingly, it's often planners who then also resist change in manufacturing; not because they are being obtuse, but because they don't believe there is another way.

Agile planning

Enter APS or advanced planning and scheduling. APS doesn't replace the components of current manufacturing operations. It introduces a new and game-changing quality to operations: agile planning.

"An APS operates alongside other operations on the floor," Zikala explained. "It doesn't replace other systems, but instead captures pertinent operational information. For example, if a batch job couldn't start, the APS makes it easy for operators to notify the system of the delay. They are motivated to do so because then they can show they aren't responsible for the delay. An APS lets the floor capture data that is then fed into planning. The planners can get real-time visibility of what's happening and delve into where the issues are."

APS systems give planners two things: insight into operations and data from which to plan effectively. They are able to simulate and test plans before implementing them, as well as easily adjust schedules as changes happen. If a sudden order arrives, it can be factored in without much fuss, or if a delay happens, it's simple to inform the customer so they can adjust their own schedules.

Once it fires on all cylinders, an APS truly raises the bar: "We've seen it time and again: once the APS and planners are in harmony, planning cycles drop from days or hours to minutes. Making discrete changes to the line is no longer a barrier because your planners can see what's happening and what will happen when they make changes. An APS creates certainty and planners can go ahead with confidence."

Since planners can access current and in-depth floor information, APS systems replace one of manufacturing's oldest barriers - reliability instead of dynamism - with dynamic reliability. Planners can make faster decisions with real confidence.

The alternative is to assume what worked in the past will work in the future... that is until a surprise order or unexpected equipment failure throw a spanner in the works. Those planners will have to sit all night just to get the ball rolling again. The planners using APS don't; they already took care of it as it happened.

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