Workforce key to unlock agile manufacturing

Digital platforms help employees lead the change to make manufacturing more flexible.

Johannesburg, 16 Jan 2019
Read time 4min 10sec
Lance Zikalala, MD, nCoded Solutions.
Lance Zikalala, MD, nCoded Solutions.

As we explored in the article: 'Understanding agile manufacturing', manufacturers today can be more flexible and compete intelligently against larger competitors, particularly foreign ones. Managing and planning production becomes faster and more responsive when using digital advanced planning and scheduling (APS) technology.

Manufacturers can do more with what they already have, relying on a cost-effective digital platform that scales to work with the smallest to the largest of manufacturers.

Yet, there's another reason why digital systems such as APS platforms are revolutionising manufacturing, and it's arguably the main reason: it helps workforces invest in the change.

Output pressure problem

Lance Zikalala, MD of nCoded Solutions, says many agility ambitions run into typical problems:

"Here's what happens. Manufacturing is an extremely tight environment, so everyone working there is used to doing things a certain way, because if they don't, problems cascade very quickly. So if a planner runs into a barrier, they'll focus on keeping production rolling instead of resolving the barrier. So they reach for a spreadsheet or piece of paper because manufacturing creates such pressure that resolving issues is a luxury."

But then, he continues, management decide they want the floor to be more agile and handle more products. They introduce new systems to make that happen and... it fails. Why? Because every transition in a system is fraught with barriers that have to be overcome. But, since the focus is on output, everyone will focus on doing their job. If they hit a problem, they will go with what worked and worry about the possible consequences later.

"Then there's a second factor. Not everyone working on the floor needs to have a degree or even a high level of schooling. Manufacturing is actually very inclusive, because it can employ people with different levels of education. Yet again, that's because everyone has a role and focuses on fulfilling that role. There's no space to rock the boat."

The problem is when you try to introduce something revolutionary, it risks leaving many on the floor behind, either through lack of skills or their fear of becoming obsolete. Indeed, modernisation conversations in South Africa often include worries about what it could do to employment.

In reality, agile manufacturing doesn't destroy jobs, a theme touched on in 'Understanding agile manufacturing'. But, there is still the issue of getting stoic worker habits to adjust to a new planning and management system. The common solution is training, training and more training on exotic processes. But, that's the wrong approach.

Bring the mountain to the workers

The three pillars of modernisation are technology, people and processes. Too often, technology is used as the change agent, which is wrong. This should be people, who in turn enforce processes that rely on the technology to execute fluently.

"APS makes sure employees feed information into the system," says Zikalala. "They use touch screens and tap basic information related to their job. Let's say there's a delay on the line. What's going on? The worker responsible enters in that the system is idle and the reason is a lack of material being loaded. In one move, they have established the issue and shown they are doing their job. So, when management and planners scrutinise the events of the moment, they can see the issue and where to focus on resolving it, while the worker is motivated to engage because it absolves them."

That approach requires little training because workers are reporting using simple processes. Since participation works in their favour, they galvanise the APS's feedback loop. Introducing an APS doesn't disrupt the existing processes, but instead provides insight and levers to improve processes with much more flexibility. The result is agile manufacturing.

"It's ironic that many think training workers is the tough part of introducing an APS," Zikalala adds. "An APS requires a lot of scheduling and planning changes that are distinct to that specific manufacturer. But, bringing your workforce on board is simpler because it aligns with how they do things. Then, over time those activities can be altered and shaped to open new revenue streams and product development."

Agile manufacturing can enable countries such as South Africa to compete against behemoths like China. APS platforms create that agility not by shunning workers, but by giving them more of the power and in turn delivering insight that speeds up planning and execution.