01 December 2004
Productivity solutions in small packages
Man, machine, and institutional constraints determine the productivity and output of an organization.
Manufacturing is experiencing the effects of outsourcing; some even fear that the "exodus of manufacturing and hi-tech jobs threatens to abolish the American middle class."
Efficient implementation of existing procedures coupled with better use of available technology may go a long way toward enhanced productivity. Anyone in the industry today who is responsible for keeping industrial processes and manufacturing running must stop playing catch-up and start getting ahead lest management succumb to the tempting lure of outsourcing.
Is enterprise a metaphor for life? Some may say that life is what happens when you are doing other things, but in reality, life—much like an enterprise—must go on no matter what you do. An enterprise could seek expert consultants and face up to the manufacturing challenge with "Techniques for Continuous Improvement."
Fast problem resolution
Profits in the business cycle come and go in real time at the production process. Understanding what is happening and making process adjustments in real time is critical to improving productivity and profits. In the absence of adverse events, everything works as it should and no human intervention is necessary. However, when problems do occur, fast action saves time and money. Fast and accurate reaction to problems requires timely and appropriate information in real time. There is technology out there, such as wireless personal digital assistants (PDAs), that can provide an advantage. That existing technology can keep track of historic data that you can document. You can also see how quickly you solved problems and saved money.
When problems occur in the process and the result is bad product, the effect on profits is immediate. This has a double effect on profits because not only did you create bad product, but later the production must catch up to the demand. When plant personnel immediately become aware of these problems, they have a chance to mitigate the situation and possibly help cut down or eliminate any losses. You can review the entire process quickly, drill down through screens to pinpoint the problem, determine the cause of the problem, and find the solution.
Any enhancements in productivity require a better understanding of the process at hand that can lead to the design and implementation of better monitoring and control strategies. In any process/machine control situation, the human operator is the crucial element. The operator can be the strongest or weakest link in the chain depending on the information at hand. Critical process information in your hands enables good decisions.
While one might seek a grand '"global optimal" solution to the problems in the enterprise, one thing is certain: You must face things as they are and do the best you can to improve upon some selected aspect of the enterprise. What is true today is that anything that does not add value is waste. However, what is also true is that anything that accomplishes the same objective more efficiently improves productivity. Now take a look around; can you find something that is pervasive that you can easily improve?
One example we found to be an easy improvement is the use of a clipboard approach to tasks. (The dictionary defines clipboard as a writing board with a spring clip at the top for holding papers or a writing pad. We also know that it is an area of memory in Windows used for copying text and graphics.)
In some plants, a clipboard may be the only approach available to address unplanned events. This is because man is the most flexible and adaptable element in an enterprise. What can we do to improve manual tasks? One thing is to use available technology to improve on "operator rounds." A clipboard replacement using an existing PDA or tablet technology can provide for customizable forms for manual data entry. This is one area that can spare the operator the chore of logging when the data was recorded (time stamp), where it was recorded (global positioning system location), and what the data source is (radio frequency ID or barcode), making the task more productive and the information more reliable. Clipboard replacement is not glamorous but provides effectiveness while one seeks better solutions to bigger problems.
Behind the byline
Ramal Murali is president of Software Horizons Inc. He has over twenty years experience and holds a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, a master's degree in applied electronics, and a Ph. D. in applied mathematics from Harvard University. His e-mail is ramal@InstantHMI.com.
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