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Getting your people involved with flexible manufacturing

04 June 2021

WITH THE ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, more and more organisations are looking to flexible manufacturing. Matt Graves of Kalypso, a Rockwell Automation company, and Arup’s Rachel Wilson explain the benefits of flexible manufacturing, and how you can get your people on board with the associated changes to get more from your technology investments.

For many years manufacturing has operated under some clearly defined and understood key performance indicators (KPIs) such as output, cost, on-time delivery, and quality. However, the past year of COVID-19 lockdowns and supply chain disruption has added another word to the KPI lexicon, flexibility. This flexibility can take many forms from the products themselves through processes, and volumes. One thing that the pandemic has highlighted is that the need to manage fluctuating demand is more important than in the past.

It is not difficult to understand the attraction of flexible manufacturing. It is not a new phenomenon, but the current fragile business landscape has increased the appetite for flexibility around the world. The challenges faced are varied. While some organisations are struggling to keep up with demand, others are struggling to keep the lights on, while some have been compelled to modify production to support the pandemic efforts. In the early days of the pandemic there were numerous examples of companies that transformed their manufacturing operations to supply much need PPE and ventilators.

The ability to rapidly modify production is not the only motivation to embrace a flexible manufacturing philosophy. Around the globe the demand for sustainability is growing, forcing manufacturers to focus on responsible production. Flexible processes allow them to minimise waste by only producing what is needed.

The evolving consumer behaviour is another part of the puzzle that manufacturers need to find a solution for. The consumers of today are more demanding than ever and to meet these growing expectations of immediate gratification, manufacturers need the capability to adapt. To stay ahead in this new purchasing paradigm, they must be able to get products to consumers faster, with greater customisation, all with less impact on the environment.

The marketplace is also transforming, presenting new challenges and offering new opportunities. The nimblest operators have managed to create fresh operating models based on new manufacturing technologies. Two notable examples here are Uber and Amazon that spring to mind most notably. At Kalypso, we believe we will soon see this kind of disruption occurring more frequently. However, to benefit from this flexible thinking does not require such a radical transformation of operational processes or business models as those two examples. For companies that are not looking for something quite as radical, flexible manufacturing can help them stay proactive and relevant.

What does it mean to be a flexible manufacturer?

Flexibility is about speed to adapt. It is about creating a seamless flow from need to delivery. True flexibility empowers manufacturers to stay in tune with their market, by replacing rigid and static operating models with levels of control and responsiveness never previously thought possible.

Think about the traditional customer to product lifecycle. It is a linear model that takes you from market need, to product development, to prototyping with customer feedback, to production then sales. The difference that flexible manufacturing delivers is the ability to be much closer to your customer. For instance, a consumer might drive a car that feeds performance data back to the manufacturer through an embedded SIM. Or they might wear running shoes that transmit data straight back to the brand.

By linking the various business function of sales, marketing, and customer feedback efforts more directly with production, it is possible to gain a better understanding of the customer, what they want, and how they want it delivered, at any given time. The result is that it is then possible to adapt production as you go along.  

Where do people come into it?

Flexible manufacturing can help organisations make much needed changes but having the right technology and processes in place is only one side of the equation. To make positive changes in the organisation, both from a short- and long-term perspective, the correct culture and mindset is also required.

Any successful Industry 4.0 strategy is reliant on integration and collaboration between departments. By utilising digital technologies, data and systems can be easily integrated, but achieving the same harmonious collaboration between your workforce is just as important and crucial to gaining the maximum return on investment. At the core of achieving that are the four pillars of collaborative working in people, processes, facilities, and technology.

  1. People. Winning hearts and minds are the first step to ensuring collaborative behaviour.
  2. Processes. Next, you need to strip back and rebuild all the associated processes by keeping the good, binning the bad, and adding the best.
  3. Facilities. Then, you need to assess how well your factory/workplace environments enable people to work together.
  4. Technology. Finally, you need to consider how you can harness digital, every step of the way. Think dashboards, performance measurements, and turning data from boring to brilliant.

How can you engage your workforce?

To reach the potential of any new technology relies on developing a new mindset and cultivating a new way of doing things. Take the example of the adoption of a new piece of supply chain software that improves the ordering process. While back office staff might already have the right mindset to deal with transformational technologies, it can be a challenge to get the wider workforce to adapt. People are creatures of habit, more comfortable with maintaining the normal methodologies that have been ingrained over the years.

When workers are confronted with new technology and working practices it is a challenge to gain buy-in. The challenge is how to get them on board with new ways of working. How to engage people, so they are not only conversant with using the new tech, but excited to do so. How will you get them to realise that this new technology will make their lives easier?

How can you engage people with yet another form of technology?

Even though the technologies are new, the solution is well established in the form of coaching. People need to be on boarded with complex technology in a way that makes its use simple and the benefits apparent because the technology is only as valuable as the people using it. This coaching will be focussed on skill and will. The skill side covers technical and professional competencies, while the will focusses on behaviours, attitudes, culture, leadership, collaboration, and resilience.

Another crucial component of achieving buy-in comes from leadership techniques. This might require coaching leaders on how to deal with changes in terms of flexible manufacturing. Once empowered with knowledge, they can cascade what they have learned down and throughout their teams.

Following close behind leadership and coaching in terms of tactics is effective communications. If you are asking your workforce to buy into something, they need to know that it is going to make their lives easier or better, their position within the company secure, and the customer offering more relevant or cost efficient. With this buy-in achieved the processes will naturally run smoother, the employees will be happier with the changes put in place, and everyone will be using the technology to the best advantage.

What is next?

With the technologies safely embedded in operations and the workforce supportive of their use, the capabilities are on hand to rapidly adapt your offering and adjust your manufacturing operations. Armed with the flexible capacity, timeframes can be shortened, information can be synchronised across systems and the product lifecycle. There will be a greater understanding of how customers are using products in real time. That knowledge will ensure better integration and collaboration between departments that will allow the enterprise to stay one step ahead of the competition.

The advantages on offer are manifold but they will remain tantalisingly out of reach if the endeavour is not put in to develop the right culture and mindset. Once you have won the minds and hearts across the organisation, the efforts to effect change will reap the hoped-for rewards.

To adapt to changing market conditions, both short-term shocks and longer-term trends, you need to identify where potential barriers and bottlenecks exist. This requires a comprehensive review of every area that contributes to how you meet your market’s needs. Such a review will not only help you resolve frictions, but better allocate resources for ongoing improvement.

The technologies that are required for digital transformation exist already. Learn more about how they can reshape your manufacturing operations here: http://bit.ly/Connected-Enterprise