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Are Manufacturers Ready for Shop Floor Modernization?

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“You know, a lot of manufacturers don’t believe in more technology in their plants.  They’re still using paper kanban cards.” Preparing for this week’s American Manufacturing Strategies Summit my colleague Mike Morrison challenged the very idea behind our proposed theme of Modernizing the Shop Floor

I dismissed the comment as a throwback to Toyota circa 1972 thinking.   Dell is a technology company and we are, of course, big fans of all the amazing results that technology can enable for our customers.  And in a world where the very nature of manufacturing is starting to evolve with advances such as 3D printing or manufacturing at the nanoscale, it’s just hard to believe that simple little cards are still relevant.

But manufacturers are by nature a pragmatic brunch, and will brag to us about how old their mainframe computers are or the age of their operating system – “we still have Windows 95 running and we aren’t gonna change a thing!”   

So we know that there will be some skeptics in the audience at our session on Tuesday afternoon, but we’ve worked with some of the largest manufacturers in the world and we understand the benefits that technology, carefully vetted for true efficiency gains, can provide.   We know through projects with large industrial manufacturers that digital manufacturing saves time and money, increases quality and helps bring products to market faster.   When you can see, really see, the shop floor in the design phase, it opens up opportunities to make changes that reduce material handling, better place materials to the line, and improve ergonomics.   And these changes are done with a click of a mouse – much less costly than rearranging equipment or cutting new tools.   

We also understand that there are many customers like MBDA Deutschland GmbH, who see the cost and lack of flexibility inherent in paper-based processes.  MBDA worked with Dell to digitize processes and remove paper from the shop floor.   They gained efficiency, easier access to current manufacturing documentation, and faster delivery prototypess

Mike and I both earned our engineering degrees from Kettering University, a co-op based education where in the classroom and in the workplace we learned the value of simple and pragmatic solutions.  Paper kanban cards work perfectly well today in environments which can be managed visually (and where the cards are rarely misplaced or run over by forklifts.)   However, the trends of globalization, supply chains that stretch around the world and growing product and process complexity will push most manufacturers to digitize processes to enable visibility and control past the four walls of a single shop floor.   Ultimately, this increased visibility and control leads to simplicity…the very benefit pragmatic manufacturers are aiming for.

Follow Kirsten on Twitter at @kirstenatdell.

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