Upgrading off-line equipment helps small manufacturers increase production

【Introduction】For most manufacturers, increasing production is an effective way to increase revenue. The more products are produced and shipped, the more revenue will grow. Some companies believe that adding, expanding or upgrading production and packaging lines is a relatively reasonable way to increase capacity. However, smaller manufacturers may not currently have the physical space needed to scale up operations, or lack the capital to replace legacy industrial equipment. But there are other ways to increase production in the short term, and most of them involve installing small equipment on the shop floor or upgrading the original equipment.

Accelerating the pace to close the workforce gap

If manufacturers want to increase inventory levels and be able to fulfill more orders in the future, they must first identify what is slowing down the current work process. For example, forklift operators are taking twice as long as expected to retrieve and deliver raw materials to the production line? New team members struggling to understand assembly drawings or follow paper instructions? Is the inspector missing a quality issue or doubting the accuracy of what they see? Does the packaging team need to correct wrong picks when verifying the packaged items against the order form?

Maybe everything is going well, but when the pallets and packages are brought to the loading dock, the loading team is short-staffed or miscommunicated with the shipper, causing the goods to sit there for a day or two. In addition, delays may start from the loading and unloading area, and the shipped parts and materials are stuck at the gate of the loading and unloading area waiting to be counted and put into storage.

Because of this, smaller manufacturers are prioritizing investments in information technology “equipment” and trying to ensure that labor isn’t a limiting factor. Real-world deployments have proven that labor efficiencies gained through digitized data and digitized workflows can close the gap between current and expected production capabilities, and sometimes close it entirely.

By installing durable tablets on forklifts and assembly line workstations, or by handing them over to stevedores and quality inspectors, manufacturers can help employees work faster and help make better decisions. Manufacturers help minimize the steps and time required to complete each task by providing hand-held mobile computers and wearables to pickers, packers and other workers who may walk several kilometers per day in aisles , and improve employee satisfaction. Employees know exactly where to go, the exact route to get there, what to do next, and how to get it done right. These devices and the applications loaded on them can guide them step-by-step through their work, either visually or by voice. If employees need detailed instructions on a task, or need to collaborate with others, they can simply use the push-to-talk (PTT), messaging, or messenger apps on their devices to get in touch colleague.

As employees are able to take on higher-value tasks during their working hours without having to bury their heads or expend more energy, such technologies automatically and safely speed up workflow, helping to close apparent labor gaps. In fact, since employees don’t have to waste time trying to figure out new tasks or correct mistakes, easy-to-complete tasks allow manufacturers to increase production without adding staff.

Some companies in the supply chain have gone a step further, launching autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) that can basically “walk” and collaborate with employees. In fact, many smaller-scale manufacturers have found that the “robots-as-a-service” (RaaS) model makes it affordable and has robotic automation. Within hours, they could have robots unpacking and moving materials throughout warehouses and factories. Productivity reports can be instantly transferred to the cloud for real-time monitoring.

But what we should be aware of is that these robots may not be the ones we’re used to seeing in manufacturing environments, although we’ll see more of them in the future. The throughput rates of AMRs today are excellent, especially when used in lean manufacturing environments to deliver materials to the production line just in time. Often employees who manage material deliveries can be reassigned to jobs that robots can’t handle, often “vacant” jobs due to labor shortages.

Going the extra mile to remove uncertainty

Technology to speed up workflows can also help manufacturers automate decision-making and communicate the flow of information to decision makers at suppliers, distributors, and customers.

Today, many durable, enterprise-class mobile devices deployed in manufacturing environments are equipped with built-in barcode scanners or with radio frequency identification (RFID) clips to confirm that the correct items are being picked, packed or put into storage. With instant RFID tag reading or barcode scanning, item data can be collected, verifying the accuracy of picking, packing or inbound, and updating item status to a production tracking system, warehouse management system (WMS) or transportation management system (TMS). Employees can be confident they are doing the right thing with every item, and inventory managers, operations managers and customers can see updates in real time.

Upgrading off-line equipment helps small manufacturers increase production

Adopting AMR doesn’t sacrifice this transparency. AMRs continuously transmit progress reports to the cloud, making it easy to confirm the current or last known location of each item, which could be the delivery of raw materials to a production line during manufacturing.

Inventory tracking and data utilization in a variety of scenarios will help build confidence in purchasing, inventory management, and sales commitments. If there is not enough raw material in the warehouse, employees can replenish it before it is completely depleted. This can also be communicated to distributors and customers to manage their expectations if lead times for some finished SKUs may be extended due to material shortages.

Depending on how the manufacturer’s system is set up, detailed information about product material, origin, date of manufacture, current location and expected delivery time can be made available online to interested parties in real or near real time. This helps build trust in the manufacturer’s quality assurance and on-time delivery capabilities, as well as supply chain planning and communication with downstream customers.

Satisfy needs beyond customer orders

Manufacturers of all sizes are subject to the same quality and regulatory standards. In addition, they are subject to distributor and customer requirements for labeling, billing, and more. This can become a challenge when manufacturers try to scale operations with a leaner team. However, as order volumes increase and pressure to shorten lead times begins to grow, investing in the right technology on and off the production line will help automate quality and compliance checks.

Of course, monitoring and reporting of current inventory is important when it comes to perishable items. However, it is also important to be able to simultaneously record the status of items on a package or pallet. With the help of an RFID clip attached to a mobile computer, loaders can confirm the quantity and description of each item on the pallet within seconds. This helps to speed up and improve the accuracy of billing and payment processes, and builds confidence that manufacturers are delivering their goods accurately every time, something that downstream supply chain partners and customers value.

Better results start with better communication

While there are many things manufacturers can’t control today, communication with employees, suppliers, distributors and customers is. The more information a manufacturer can share with all parties, the more likely they will be successful at work and happy with you.

When employees have the right technology in their hands, line of sight, or around them, they can easily complete tasks and reduce the time it takes to complete them. As they become more productive, so do morale and job satisfaction. And, the more information they can gather and report on their progress throughout the day, the easier it will be for inventory managers, supply chain planners, distributors, and customers to manage their operations. They will know what you need from them or when you will deliver what they need.

While production or shipping delays do occur, they are not unexpected. Everyone will have time to find alternatives, or reallocate resources to other tasks, and through successful management, keep the supply chain running as smoothly as possible.

Source: Cheng Ning, Technical Director of Zebra Technology Greater China

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