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Communication Pays Off in Manufacturing

Mishandling communication can cost a manufacturer, from missed orders, quality issues, and running out of material to increased scrap, absenteeism, and turnover, to misunderstanding customer need and selling the wrong product. Separate silos of information can arise between functional departments, to the point where it’s almost necessary to introduce Engineering to Production and Sales to Accounting.

Weak growth, profit, and morale can result, prompting the founder-owner or president of many small to mid-sized American manufacturing companies to question what can be done to narrow the gap between their original entrepreneurial vision and today’s frustrating reality.

While communication is typically considered a “soft skill” that’s often overlooked in machine-filled plants focused on production, many of the ills in manufacturing are actually symptoms of poor communication. Once better communication is established, the manufacturer’s bottom line can often increase by 10% or more very quickly.
[sws_pullquote_right]“One of the best ways to tap into the collective wisdom of the production floor is to hold regular town-hall meetings, perhaps every quarter.” [/sws_pullquote_right]
“Manufacturers have focused so much on cost reduction that they’ve taken their eye off their people,” says Bill Flint, President of Flint Strategic Partners, a Midwest-based full-service business consulting firm headquartered in Goshen, Indiana, specializing in helping small to mid-sized manufacturers improve their results.

“Too often the focus is on tasks, rather than on the people who do the tasks,” adds Flint, who rose through the ranks to become president of two manufacturing firms in almost 40 years of industry service. “But today communication is more important than ever because companies are operating with fewer people to reduce cost. People are busier, have less time to plan and tackle the big issues they’re facing. Yet if corporate leaders simply give orders without taking time to listen and communicate, they miss golden opportunities to make their operations more profitable.”

The Factory Floor
Poor communication can create unending production, quality, and personnel problems, particularly if training and feedback is shortchanged from the start. Some manufacturing firms are so eager to put people to work, for instance, that new hires can find themselves operating complex equipment within 30 minutes of being hired. Flint conveys the dilemma of one such frightened new hire. “My supervisor worked with me for three minutes, showed me how to make a good part, then stuck a picture of a bad part in front of me,” said the new hire. “My supervisor said, ‘This machine costs $1 million. Don’t screw it up and try not to make any bad parts.’ I haven’t seen him since.”

“Imagine a football coach telling 80 new recruits, ‘We’re not going to practice this year,’” says Flint. ‘I think you are as good as you will ever be, so here’s the playbook, you figure it out, do what you need to, and we’ll all meet back here for Saturday games.’ That’s what some manufacturers do with inadequate on-the-job training, and it’s a recipe for disaster.”

One simple solution to improve communication and training for new hires is to pair them with an experienced employee, a “buddy,” who can answer any questions, eat lunch with them, and introduce them to others until they’re comfortable in their new position. Such an approach has significantly reduced employee turnover and absenteeism among new hires at one manufacturer, while improving part quality, according to Flint.

Mid-Level Managers
The biggest career killer in manufacturing is continuing surprises and variability, according to Flint.

“Without good communication, production becomes a daily fire drill where the focus is on getting parts out the door,” says Flint. “Too often a line manager will say, ‘We didn’t make the parts that were supposed to ship at 7:00 AM. The customer is on the line and wants to talk with you.’ One call can change the whole day’s production schedule, particularly at small to mid-sized manufacturers.”

Many line and mid-level manufacturing managers actually have the best hands-on technical production skills at their companies, but got promoted into management to increase their pay, according to Flint.

“Being good with your hands does not necessarily mean that you’re good as a manager,” he says. “Communication and leadership are different skills that need to be developed.”

Manufacturers would do better to first ask their technical production stars, “If you could make the same money, would you take this promotion into management or stay where you are?” says Flint. “Otherwise, many will later find themselves ineffective and miserable at managing others, rather than working with machines and equipment. Those who do make the jump to management will still need some help learning how to effectively communicate, delegate, and lead people.”

The Founder-Owner/President
The founder-owner or president of many small to mid-sized manufacturers often started the company based on their technical ability, then recruited others to support them, according to Flint, who has met many founder-owners over the years both as a manufacturer and manufacturing consultant.

“The strength of those who start manufacturing firms is often in technical areas such as working with machines and parts, not communication,” says Flint. “Because of this communication gaps can occur throughout a company, particularly between departments, if the founder-owner relies on others to convey his or her vision, or is ineffective in asking for and giving feedback.”

From Flint’s experience running manufacturing companies, including one that he helped to grow from $21 million to $125 million with 10 facilities, he’s found that “people on the production floor know what the problems and issues are because they’re closest to the action.”

Every day, for instance, the production floor crew knows which machines are producing excess bad parts or scrap, which machines need maintenance, which materials have run out, which suppliers are continually late, as well as who’s effective or not as a work teammate.

“One of the best ways to tap into the collective wisdom of the production floor is to hold regular town-hall meetings, perhaps every quarter,” says Flint. “A good way to do this is to have a pizza lunch together and say, ‘Let’s talk about the issues. What’s getting in the way of us doing a good job? What’s your biggest challenge in this shift? What can I do to be a better leader? How can I help you?’”

Perhaps the most effective way to communicate and lead is to run the manufacturing company as a servant leader, suggests Flint, whose consulting company offers four modules on improving communication for small to mid-sized manufacturers, with sessions available for virtually any size group. A servant leader holds himself and those working for him accountable for results but asks for honest feedback on how to best help them do their jobs. It’s a classic win-win perspective. Servant leaders put people first.

“By opening the lines of communication, manufacturers bring problems to forefront and work on them pro-actively,” concludes Flint. “Doing so can not only minimize surprises, scrap, late delivery, employee turnover and absenteeism, but also improve the bottom line by 10% or more.”

Smart thinking: improving collaboration in manufacturing

rom vehicles to refrigerators, a growing number of products now include sophisticated software and electronics. At the same time, consumers are demanding more personalised products, based on their own specifications. For manufacturers, that means managing increasing amounts of data from different sources, bringing more skills into the supply chain, and coordinating design teams that may be dispersed across the world – all while meeting stringent time, budget and compliance requirements.

“Designers who previously worked on something that was purely mechanical now have to consider software and electronics issues at the same time,” says Peter Schroer, CEO of Aras. “Product lifecycle management (PLM) has become a global infrastructure with thousands of employees and suppliers needing to participate, often working 24/7 from different continents with diverse languages, processes and quality standards. That is one of the real design challenges of this decade.”

All this means that more data is entering the PLM process. “Nearly everything has a small computer and an internet connection in it now,” says Simon Floyd, director of innovation and PLM solutions at Microsoft. “PLM needs to be able to manage and analyse data from customers, from global suppliers and design teams, and increasingly, as the internet of things (IoT) becomes a reality, data from the products themselves.”

In order to stay ahead, organisations need a sophisticated, scalable PLM system that is secure and accessible, enabling engineers to design on the move and to work together across geographical boundaries. That vision is being enabled through the industry expertise of technology providers like Aras, Dassault Systèmes, DriveWorks and Siemens PLM Software, and the enterprise-level capabilities of Microsoft technologies.

“The Siemens HD-PLM vision is focused on connecting people at a higher level and making all the information they need available in the context of their role,” says Paul Brown, senior marketing director at Siemens PLM Software. “There’s a real need for mobility in PLM and it’s crucial to be able to access the data and present it in a meaningful way. For example, an engineer installing industrial machinery needs to be able to show customers on site how a suggested design change will work and feed back to the team. Technologies like Teamcenter and Active Workspace enable fast access to data with no need for complex searches, and mobile devices such as the Microsoft Surface Pro now have the power to access that data and deliver it in a meaningful way – either for CAD authoring in tools like NX or in viewer applications using the lightweight JT format. It allows our customers to get closer to the supply chain and to their clients, enabling more input into the process.”

As well as enabling mobility for engineers, customers are increasingly enabled to take part in the PLM process. “PLM has traditionally been about standardising, monitoring and presenting data so someone can make a decision,” says Glen Smith, CEO of 3D configuration and design automation specialist DriveWorks. “But by automating PLM, the data can make certain decisions for you, such as the best material to use for a certain strength requirement. It makes better use of that data and normally, once people have automated, they spend more time creating new products, quicker. For example, one of our customers manufactures steel doors. By integrating its business systems using DriveWorks, it’s pushed the data entry part of the ordering process to the customer, who fills out their specifications in the browser while the system generates the manufacturing data. The company has increased its production volume from 100 to 300 doors a day and reduced the amount of wastage on the shop floor, while its telephone staff now address specific customer issues instead of simply taking orders. The extra speed also means they can offer a premium service and free up engineers to come up with new conceptions.”

For consumers, too, 3D visualisation and automation capabilities are enabling an increased level of input in product design – critical in meeting consumers’ growing demands for a personalised experience. “Companies are having to add more value around their products, modelling the product not only from a form and fit perspective, but also from a functional perspective – the experiences it can deliver which may not be related to its physical aspects,” says Andy Kalambi, Enovia CEO at Dassault Systèmes. “With personalisation, every product coming out on the manufacturing shop floor may be different from the previous one, so you need to manage the front-end process to track and manage consumer behaviours and relate data from a consumer experience perspective.”

With so many points for data to enter the PLM process, it’s crucial to ensure that everyone is working with the same information – and technologies such as SQL Server and the cloud are central to enabling that. “Technologies such as SQL Server and the cloud, and office applications such as Excel really help to extend the PLM network and enable a dialogue through different media,” says Jan Larsson, EMEA senior marketing director at Siemens PLM Software. “Tools like Teamcenter on Microsoft SQL Server ensure that everyone is working from a single source of information which gives them the latest revisions, all the requirements and regulatory compliance issues, all in one central point. Everyone can have access to that same information, in the context of their role, wherever they are.”

“In order to reach across diverse teams and scale all that data and workflow processes, PLM has to be mobile, and the cloud is the only way to reasonably provide an IT infrastructure for such a large, distributed supply chain,” says Schroer at Aras. “In recent tests using Microsoft SQL Server 2014, Aras’s PLM technology had no trouble supporting one million named users with 250,000 simultaneous connections.”

“The cloud brings a different way of doing things – of accessing, caching and streaming data,” says Smith of DriveWorks. “It’s distributable and scalable, and that makes a big difference. Many of our customers have scaled out the DriveWorks automation server on private cloud, not only to create data but also to share it quicker.”

The possibilities are evident in technologies such as the Dassault Systèmes 3DEXPERIENCE platform, which can significantly streamline PLM processes. “One of our customers, SHoP Architects and SHoP Construction, needed to quickly design and deliver an innovative, modular residential home for an area hard hit by Hurricane Sandy,” says Kalambi. “Using the 3DEXPERIENCE platform enabled online collaboration among project stakeholders – from the owners to designers, engineers, and the fabrication and on-site construction teams – to accelerate the project schedule and maximise savings.

“All our brands applications – CATIA, SOLIWORKS, ENOVIA, DELMIA, to name a few – have moved to the 3DEXPERIENCE platform,” he adds. “The platform is based on the V6 architecture, which has currently over one million users. It enables manufacturers to do global product development in the cloud and have engineers around the world working on the same product model, as they would work today in an Office 365 environment. It brings a real-time, fully global product development environment that can deliver a 20% increase in engineer productivity. ”

Today’s PLM challenges are being addressed through a combination of powerful, scalable infrastructure and sophisticated front-end interfaces that provide seamless access to data through a variety of devices. And with ever greater volumes of data set to flow from the IoT, the partners providing today’s capabilities are already looking at how they can support tomorrow’s innovation.

“With cloud and mobile, and technologies like Azure and the latest developments with .NET and Windows running on every platform, we’re building real solutions to today’s PLM needs,” says Schroer at Aras. “Now, right behind it comes the next challenge – the collection of all that IoT data. We need to help engineers balance all that data against things like compliance mandates, traceability and profitability. Microsoft is gearing up the technology with business intelligence tools and Azure to do that, and it won’t be long before we have very meaningful solutions to help customers achieve that.”

“The PLM backbone needs to be able to manage the systems involved in increasingly complex products, but you also need to be able to see how it’s actually going to work,” says Larsson. “You need to be able to simulate with the software, control systems and mechanical aspects running in a virtual environment so you know the product meets product requirements including customer needs and industry regulatory compliance before you manufacture it – to see, for example, how a car actually behaves on the road with or without the traction system on. We’re going to see more of that evolving as part of the overall PLM platform.”

As PLM becomes increasingly connected, exciting possibilities lie ahead. “There is an unrealised potential for truly smart products,” says Floyd. “Windows Embedded is already a part of many products such as cars and household appliances. If those products provide real-time data about user behaviour, service and repairs, they could become more interactive, adaptive and personal in the future. We could move away from disposable goods toward platform products that can adapt to the way they’re used and introduce new functionality or services through software updates – enabling a more sustainable, enriched user experience through connected product innovation.”