Solutions For Your Top 5 IT Challenges in Manufacturing
Solutions For Your Top 5 IT Challenges in Manufacturing
What are the top five IT challenges in manufacturing?
We work with a lot of manufacturing companies and we see the challenges that they deal with.
1. Tracking Good Data
The primary challenge, and the biggest one that manufacturers face, is understanding the difficulties in how to collect and track good data regarding productions and processes.
A lot of manufacturing businesses start out with an overall understanding of how long it takes to manufacture a product, or what the production system looks like. But in reality, they lack is hard data on what’s really happening.
Assumptions are often made in place of having good data. You might think it takes about three hours to do task A or task B. But when you begin tracking that, you may discover that it actually takes four hours or — even better — two hours. Then you need to use that data to make adjustments.
The first problem we find is how do I gather data in order to know what’s happening on my production floor? And the solution for this is a manufacturing execution system or an MES system.
How to Gather Data
It starts simple, like recording when a piece of work starts and a piece of work ends. Workers do this at a small terminal setup at a workstation in a manufacturing facility.
When workers begin a job, they push a button, and they push it again to end the job or when the work is done. Now we have data on how long it took to perform a particular task.
These simple steps can grow in complexity, all the way up to very sophisticated algorithms that optimize machine usage.
Let’s say you have 15 machines in a building, for example, and each one is performing a different task. Obviously, you want each of these expensive pieces of machinery running as many hours a day as possible.
Sometimes, with different processes for different product lines, it’s difficult to organize that and ensure minimum downtime. Sophisticated MES systems can help with that.
2. Bridging Legacy Systems
The first problem is, how do I collect data? And the solution is a well-scaled MES system.
The second challenge a lot of manufacturing businesses face is, how do I begin?
They might have existing legacy systems or existing management systems, ERP systems, within the business. Those systems may not have built-in MES components.
In this scenario, vendor A’s ERP system doesn’t necessarily have a good MES system to extend that data collection into the manufacturing process. The solution there is bridging between two systems.
Replacing an existing ERP is a long task, but you can purchase standalone MES systems and bridge them through bots and integration tools. These make sure that the data is actually being displayed and is visible, even if your current legacy system doesn’t necessarily support MES systems.
There are related IT challenges in that legacy hardware is involved sometimes. You could have a machine on a plant floor that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the IT capabilities in that machine are quite old and they can’t be updated. It can be challenging to integrate those, but there are solutions to that. Maybe a bridge needs to be built, but it is possible to get those connected as well.
Let’s say you’re a manufacturer choosing an ERP, or a whole business management system, from scratch. One of your main deliverables, as you search for that software, would be what sort of manufacturing execution systems does it incorporate.
But if you already have an ERP, then we work on ways to make sure the data’s captured properly with the client, even if it’s a legacy system.
3. IT Challenges in Execution
There are more IT challenges and issues that come with execution. Once you decide that you need to gather manufacturing data, and that you need to leverage IT in the manufacturing environment to maximize efficiencies, sometimes you have some physical issues.
Very large buildings, for example, have challenges with wireless access. When you deploy technology in a manufacturing sector, typically a lot of times you’re relying on small handheld devices to begin and end work.
Further, a lot of times you rely on mobile devices, specifically if you’re doing inventory. And when you fill a manufacturing facility with raw materials or a distribution facility with inventory, that has a significant effect on your WiFi.
The WiFi signal that you thought was good when the building was empty suddenly isn’t good when the building is full of raw materials or products. So sometimes there’s a physical challenge to implementing IT in a manufacturing environment.
That said, these are solvable as well. Modern mesh WiFi systems ensure that you have complete coverage of your manufacturing facility. They facilitate the use of technology like handheld devices, even when your building is full of inventory or raw materials.
That’s a fairly simple solution, but it requires planning. Otherwise, handheld devices are rolled out, and users report that the units work over here but not over there, and you can’t record an inventory item if you’re in the back corner.
These are things that need to be planned for, and those are solvable issues in a manufacturing environment.
4. Acceptance of Modern Technology
Another common problem is just accepting new technology. A lot of times, when you introduce technology in a manufacturing environment, you get pushback. Why are you suddenly recording what I’m doing and why I’m doing it?
A mistake some businesses make is introducing a manufacturing execution system to record the beginning and the ending of jobs without properly informing the staff of the reasons why.
It’s not an exercise in catching someone not working fast enough. It’s an exercise in understanding what’s really happening and getting data so that we can adjust processes if we need to. You’re looking for efficiencies that are probably there already. But without data, they’re difficult for someone in an office separated from the environment to fully understand.
So when you roll out technology in a manufacturing environment, one of the most critical early steps is explaining and making sure that supervisors and employees in that environment understand why we’re doing this. Explain what the goals are, what you’re trying to achieve, and how it benefits the organization as a whole. So communication is fairly critical in rolling out any technology in a manufacturing environment.
IT Challenges in Applying the Data
Finally, a lot of executives are challenged by what they’re supposed to do with their data.
That’s really an early stage in executing an MES system. What problem are we trying to solve? And the problem can be simply, we have a lot of assumptions about how things move through our building, and we need some data to prove whether those assumptions are correct or not.
Another set of IT challenges comes out of your business goals. Let’s say that you need to reduce costs in a certain way. You can’t really know what to change until you have really accurate information as to what’s happening in the manufacturing environment.
Understanding what you’re trying to do with the data is an important early step. And that problem manifests itself when you have sophisticated data and no one looks at it, which can happen sometimes. You have sophisticated data sets, but without the tools to analyze them, the data is just sitting there.
The solution to that is proper planning during the initial execution phase of a manufacturing system. You need to understanding what you’re trying to solve by introducing technology in that environment.
5. Secure Access for Outside Vendors
It’s very common for a manufacturing facility to have the day’s work pre-staged programmatically by outside vendors. They come in remotely and literally prep the manufacturing environment for that day’s work. Some outside vendors come in and perform a given task every day in some extreme cases.
That’s a serious security risk if you just open ports in your firewall and let people come in. It’s probably not top of mind when they roll out MES systems, but it’s certainly on the top of our mind when someone says a vendor needs access to a cutting machine on a factory floor. Our first thought is that getting them access is easy, but getting them secure access is different.
Finally, it’s quite common for sophisticated machines to require outside vendors from the organization to directly connect to the machine. They may have to prep the machine for a production run, service the machine, or gather data from the machine.
These generate more IT challenges, especially security concerns, when you introduce technology to manufacturing environments.
From an IT perspective, that involves granting the vendor outside access through the IT systems to touch the machine and program the machine and do that in a secure manner. So when we configure access to machine floors, required access, by vendors to machines, we make sure that the connection is a secure VPN connection from the outside vendor into the environment.
Even if you introduce an MES system and reap the benefits of the visibility it gives you into your manufacturing processes, you can’t sacrifice security in the name of efficiency.
Are you struggling with one or more of the top five IT challenges in manufacturing? Click here to contact us and find out how we can help.