What side of the Covid-19 divide is your company on? Are you still trying to do business the same way you were before the pandemic? Or are you adapting to a more modern world, ready to use technology to help your business grow?

Either way, it’s clear the effects of the pandemic are still being felt throughout the business world and were likely to see the same results for much longer.

45% of respondents were dealing with sudden materials shortages

41% percent saw sharp drops in demand

30% percent were experiencing worker unavailability

Source: McKinsey

Each of these effects adds increased strain to supply chains worldwide. One such issue saw 111 cargo ships off Long Beach, California, on November 10, 2021. No matter what your company produces, odds are some of your products were stuck on those ships. Newly enacted—but not imposed—“container dwell” cargo container fees reduced the line of ships.

Four foundational technologies can be applied to the value chain, according to McKinsey:

  • Connectivity, data and computational power, which includes the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing and blockchain
  • Analytics and intelligence in the form of advanced analytics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence
  • Human-machine interactions using virtual and augmented reality plus robots and automation
  • Advanced engineering, which includes using renewable energy and additive manufacturing

Some companies are using these technologies to drive growth through process optimization.

Benefits of Process Optimization

Process optimization in manufacturing covers three vital areas:

  1. 1.Improved machine uptime. Using a data-based approach, companies can reduce downtime and increase the overall use of their equipment, Machine Metrics states. Using advanced analytics, companies can determine the causes of unplanned downtime. Clean, clear data lets manufacturers attack the worst offenders first.
  2. 2.Faster responses to issues at the machine level. Analytics looking at alarms and where workers are when they occur helps improve training, equipment layout, and other issues.
  3. 3.Improved maintenance. Using IoT sensors, the equipment can be used until it nears—but does not reach—the point of failure. Parts are replaced when needed instead of too early or only after a key machine is shut down.

Each of these steps involves digital manufacturing operations applied to the overall manufacturing process.

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Digital Equipment Is Critical

The only way to achieve these goals is by collecting and thoroughly analyzing data. Objectively analyzing data lets managers discover where bottlenecks are occurring and what’s causing them.

Downtime analysis lets managers analyze why some machines are down more often than others. Are they not operating because of unplanned maintenance, a lack of personnel, jobs, or machine setup, or is it something else?

Having computers perform predictive analysis, companies estimate when a tool will need replacing before it damages a machine or wipes out products.

Lean Manufacturing

Lean manufacturing is another way of looking at the production process. Lean manufacturing looks at a plant’s current process and asks: how can it be done more efficiently? How can the company’s goals be achieved while paying less for energy, such as by using energy from renewable sources, and also generating less waste? How can waste items be used to lower operating costs?

Examples include using “waste” to create new products, replace existing packaging, or fueling an on-site power plant.

Companies following a lean strategy seek to reduce and ideally eliminate waste, improve quality, cut costs and reduce time, according to TWI Global.

In an online article on Lean Manufacturing, TWI Global states there are now eight “wastes” in lean manufacturing:

  1. 1.Unnecessary transportation
  2. 2.Excess inventory
  3. 3.Unnecessary movement of people, equipment or machinery
  4. 4.Idle people or equipment
  5. 5.Over-production of a product
  6. 6.Making a product overly complex by adding unneeded features
  7. 7.Defects that are expensive to repair
  8. 8.Unused talent and ingenuity

While lean manufacturing has three benefits—saving time and money, being environmentally friendly, and improving customer satisfaction—it also has three disadvantages. These are:

  1. 1.Placing employee safety and wellbeing below achieving company goals
  2. 2.Focusing on the present and not on the future
  3. 3.Lacking a standardized method

Companies will want to balance the benefits and the costs to see if lean manufacturing works for them.

Recycling and Green Manufacturing

Green manufacturing seeks to reduce environmental impacts while still producing quality products. This includes source reduction to reduce the waste initially created. Recycling—using or reusing wastes as ingredients in a process or as a substitute for original feedstock—and green product design are key components.

In a report by two Carnegie Mellon researchers, the top waste minimization actions cited by large hazardous waste generators include:

  • Improved maintenance schedule, recordkeeping or procedures: 8.9%
  • Other changes in operating practices other than different equipment: 8.0%
  • Raw materials substitution: 7.1%
  • Unspecified source reduction activity: 6.5%
  • Stopped combining hazardous and non-hazardous waste: 5.1%
  • Ensuring materials were not in inventory past their shelf-life: 4.1%

Each of these green methods involves cost. They provide opportunities to expand a company’s supply chain in terms of raw materials sources while opening the door for new and different products.

Determining What Works Best

Ultimately, companies must find a combination of production process optimization methods that work best for them and their customers.

One common requirement shared by Industry 4.0, process optimization, lean manufacturing, and green manufacturing, is a requirement for data: the more accurate the data, the more accurate the forecasts and predictions.

Obtaining this information requires sensors that can measure flow and wear. On top of that, you need software that aligns the entire operation, from executive suites to the shop floor. It requires a digital network to help ensure consistent product quality, integrates with the shop floor, control waste, and spot opportunities.

Final Thoughts: Five Ideas to Spur Innovation and Growth

Competing in today’s technological world requires a willingness of top management to examine the production process and ask:

How can we do more with less? Consider these five ideas that may help your company achieve its goals.

  1. 1. Work with an innovation partner that can help your company gather the data it needs to grow.
  2. 2. Create a plan that covers your immediate needs while allowing room for growth, including in unexpected directions.
  3. 3. Include training existing employees and hiring new ones with the skills you need not only today but will require in one, two and five years. These people can help ensure you grow the way you want.
  4. 4. Invest in IoT sensors, especially at critical points in the production process. The sensors provide the data you need to make the hard decisions.
  5. 5. Spend the money now on modular software that provides the necessary control and data analysis. A modular system lets you start with one piece, such as Supply Chain Management, and then add others when the budget permits.