How You Can Make Manufacturing Collaboration Work for your Shop Floor

Knowledge-driven enterprises are using collaboration to successfully solve problems, but manufacturing struggles to use collaboration in the modern production environment.

By David Oeters, Corporate Communications with CIMx Software

Sometimes, you come across articles on the Internet you just have to investigate.

Here’s one.  It involves robots, stolen gold, missing treasure, NASA engineers, world-renowned oceanographers, and manufacturing.  A man named David Lang wanted to investigate the legend of missing gold deep underwater at the bottom of a well.  He recruited Eric Stackpole, a NASA Engineer, to create a sea exploration robot, known as OpenROV, to search for the treasure.  They offered free step-by-step instructions on building the robot on their website, and used crowdsourced modifications to improve the robot.

Don't waste your most valuable resource - your employees.  Illustration by www.colourbox.com

Don’t waste your most valuable resource – your employees. Illustration by http://www.colourbox.com

Crowdsourcing and manufacturing collaboration have vastly improved the original robot, and lowered the cost.  “That’s what actually makes the project so successful: rapid iteration,” one of the inventors said. “We can build one for the same price as a 1,000 (robots) and change on a dime.”

Think about that… two treasure-hunters have tapped into a problem-solving resource and found benefits that would be the envy of discrete manufacturing shop floors across the world.  Customer modifications and change orders are simplified without raising costs.  Quality and production improves.  Best practices are collected, and overall cost drops.

Yet, manufacturers struggle to create a collaborative work environment.  In fact, according to the latest estimates, manufacturing is growing less collaborative, as knowledge silos build and employees and their best practices retire and are lost.  Customers are demanding custom orders that manufacturers can’t meet.  Rapid iteration is difficult, if not impossible.  How can a shop floor work collaboratively when they can’t even be sure if the paper-based work instructions are correct?

I read the story of Lang, Stackpole and their hunt for missing gold and recognized a few lessons manufacturing should consider in the future:

  • Shop floor and process visibility is critical.  The free (and very visible) step-by-step instructions offered by Lang and Stackpole inspired crowdsourcing.  Real-time data collection and visibility, and integrated computer systems and shop floor assets, should be your goal.
  • Data collection is the key.  Process improvement and increased quality are important benefits of crowdsourcing and collaboration, and you can’t measure or compare improvements without rigorous data collection.
  • Shop floor process control ensures sustainable collaboration.  Paper-based work instructions are too rigid to be sustainable.  Look at paperless manufacturing to improve collaboration.
  • Improved communication builds collaboration.  The OpenROV website and forum allows users to easily share ideas.  Real-time data collection and visual work instructions is a good beginning to improving collaboration.
  • A complete communication network using flexible computing platforms builds collaboration and eliminates knowledge silos.  Custom-built programs and legacy systems are the foundation for tribal knowledge in many companies.
The key to successful manufacturing collaboration if putting the right pieces in place.  Illustration by www.colourbox.com

The key to successful manufacturing collaboration if putting the right pieces in place. Illustration by http://www.colourbox.com

So, if two guys looking for gold at the bottom of the well can do it – improve production through collaboration – why do we manufacturers with all our innovation, resources and know-how struggle to make it work?

Admittedly, Lang and Stackpole don’t have much regulation to worry about and amazingly low overhead, but there is a benefit to collaboration the industry is recognizing.  The ideas presented here shouldn’t be seen as a checklist for collaborative success, but goals that will help foster a more collaborative manufacturing enterprise.

Have you considered collaborative manufacturing before?  If so, what steps have you taken to create a shop floor that works collaboratively or uses crowdsourcing?  Let us know!

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