Real-time Feedback Changes the Game

Efficiency is in everyone’s interest. However, achieving it is heavily dependent on the quality and timeliness of crucial performance data. Live, real-time information is crucial for any manufacturing business.

Waste benefits nobody, whether it is a waste of materials, time or energy. … One of the things that I have learned in manufacturing is that the operators almost always know a better way to do things. After all, when the process jams up it is the operators on the factory floor who have to clean up the mess, not the decision makers upstairs. However, in my experience, the voice of the operators is often the most ignored.

It seems strange, then, that management often relies on the purchase of new equipment to grow capacity rather than investing in getting the most out of the people and machinery already in place. With most industries averaging an efficiency, measured as overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), between 30 percent and 50 percent there is clearly more to gain from what is already there.

Every day a fresh story seems to be breaking in the media of yet another manufacturing facility closing, with hundreds of jobs lost. I often wonder how this is possible if management has been making decisions based on the right information, made available at the right time. I also wonder how much time, if any, management has invested in training themselves to become an efficient low-cost producer.

Professional sports teams provide a wonderful example for manufacturing teams to learn from. Consider a football team. The players are much like the operators; the team captain is the supervisor who makes sure that all players put in for their shift; and the medical, physiotherapy and fitness trainers are the maintenance department.

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What gives a team a competitive advantage? Most obviously, the players need to be fit to play. No player can expect to be physically fit without training, and fitness takes time and commitment; it doesn’t happen on its own.

There are two critical areas that a football team depends on to stay on top of its game. The first is access to live information. Good teams train hard, exhaustively monitoring their performance as they practice strategies they believe will lead to victory. On match day, every key detail is measured as it happens and real-time decisions are executed based on up-to-the-second information.

The second critical area is coaching. Professional teams have specialist defensive, attacking and even goal-keeping coaches – all working directly with the players, monitoring performance, giving feedback and improving their game. This is what it takes to win when faced with serious competition.

Reinforcing Reflexivity

Access to the information we rely on to make decisions impacts something I call “reflexivity.” By this I mean that our best responses can only be as good as the timeliness of the information that would trigger these responses. Poor reflexivity makes it hard for coaches to help the operators be the world’s best, most efficient, lowest-cost producers. It is all but impossible to lift performance when it counts the most if the team has to wait until tomorrow to see the current scores for today’s game.

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And yet, most manufacturing businesses can only review their operational performance tomorrow at best, and on average at the end of the week. All too often key information is not available at all; or if it is, it is too late and too hard to understand, use and apply.

Consider the cycle of obtaining product information in a typical organization. This is normally written by the operators on manual worksheets at the machines. If you have ever perused one of these worksheets, you would have quickly noticed that everything seems to be recorded in blocks of five or ten minutes. If something took two minutes, or if the operator was busy, it isn’t even written down. In other words, accuracy is entirely dependent on the availability and discretion of the operator filling out the form.

Consequently, reflexivity is minimal. Before any decisions can be made, the worksheet must, firstly, be completed; then physically collected; then entered in to a computer; and finally, the piece of paper itself may be archived. This process takes considerable time and labor and yields costly, low-quality information, which is not even available when it is needed.

Live information is a must-have for any manufacturing business to sustain a competitive advantage. There are many vendors who supply solutions for collecting real-time feedback. However, collecting accurate information is only one part of the total solution. Engaging operators to work with these tools and make the most of a suite of sharp analytic reporting capabilities is important too.

The most critical element, though, is accessibility and ease of use. Great information is completely useless if it can’t be understood or accessed when and where it is needed. Having it in a computer on someone’s desk may be better than on a piece of paper. But true accessibility is the power to see what is going on all of the time, whether at work, on your home computer, or using your tablet or smartphone.

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What happens next is magical. Suddenly, just like the football team, the coaches have the power of knowing how everyone is going right now. Key information is no longer invisible but is readily accessible to all. Like any football player in front of an enthusiastic crowd, operators lift their game, knowing that their performance is being monitored; and they respond in kind by challenging the coaches (that is, management) to help fix deficiencies they identify.

Management now has incorruptible facts with which to track initiatives and to justify improvements where they are warranted. The feedback loop is complete. And because quality of feedback is necessarily dependent on the attentiveness of the listener, the more managers listen, the more operations will contribute. The result is a positive feedback loop where all team members are engaged and interested in improving efficiency. This feedback dynamic has long been understood in sport and is a standard practice applied by all professional football teams.

I believe the same approach can and ought to be applied in every manufacturing business. Live information, easily understood and accessible, given to operators and managers. In every case, improvements will quickly follow.

Editor’s note: Originally published in AMT Magazine.

Comments 1

  1. Mike Clayton

    The article encourages real-time feedback in manufacturing. Clearly that varies greatly from industry to industry. But the author’s bottom line statement is valid…and can be expensive to realize in complex industries. “Live information, easily understood and accessible, given to operators and managers. In every case, improvements will quickly follow.” The key is appropriate data integration speed. Millisecond, seconds, minutes.

    Some machine sensors require very high speed monitoring to inform process teams of fast-spikes that impact products (gas spikes, heat spikes, plasma density spikes). Post-process metrology sensors can be monitored at slower rates, One process tool can send streaming data from hundreds of sensors to a fault-detection system that is integrated to an adaptive feedback control system, and the number of faults and type of adjustments made can then be sent for human followup. 100’s of datapoints per second per tool is normal in some cases. 20 years ago 10x slower capability was common but we did integrate sensor-based fault detection data at that time.

    In the semiconductor industry, with hundreds of process steps, multiple recipes and tools at each step, and marginal capability some of those steps, great real-time feedback tools have improved yields and lowered cost steadily, but only after we learned how to INTEGRATE the process and metrology tools and the wip tracking systems to a common data warehouse, while also giving local real-time feedback displays for local action. Local action might be human or robotic or direct-digital-control. Once that integration effort enables real-time reporting, the other trick is to display appropriate near-real-time metrics to each shop floor tool display, and action team location on modern flat panel screens, and then in summary form to middle management levels. Each tool needs local display of all alarms plus ability of station controller to take appropriate real-time action based on rules for various kinds of faults. But more than that, the wip feeds (or continuous feedstock feeds) need to be adjusted or re-routed in real-time, automatically now days.

    Fully automated factories have rule-based systems that assist the real-time monitoring for rapid escalation or immediate intervention (shut down of feedstock, or shut down of machine, and adjustment of WIP transport flows.) Mechanized, but not fully automated factories require more human interaction, so the feedback is in human language rather than machine language, but in all cases, a hierarchical reporting system must be designed that is based on “need to know” for action teams, and at slower rate in summary form for middle managers. Lately, smart phones and tablets have replaced laptops, but there are still large flat screens at key locations. And graphical displays have replaced tabular reports in most cases, but with drill-down to tabular raw data as needed.

    One example of chip making industry real-time feedback (after integration effort has been successful) is FabTime (I get no income from this company). After local actions are taken, wider team actions need immediate inputs, so this system provides that near-realtime wip status, yield, alarm and progress to goals.

    Largest factories have made their own versions of this type of near-realtime feedback tool, but all of these reports depend on data acquisition systems fully integrated with appropriate sampling rates for key sensors, sending data to the data warehouse and to local station and cell controller displays for immediate local action, and then broader display system for area-updates for broader team action. This data integration effort often costs 2 to 5x the cost of software and hardware licenses of CIM and IT systems.

    We use the terms CIM and IT separately, even though some factories have merged these capabilities, but many IT organizations do NOT support the real-time control systems key to manufacturing, and depend on Computer-Integrated-Manufacturing people who have deep knowledge of real-time operating systems, and high speed data acquisition methods to get the data that is then parsed and summarized in the data warehouse for offline near-realtime queries and reports.

    Finally: Audits of manufacturing operations require access to all levels of this monitoring and adjustment or escalation CIM system, as well as the higher level IT reporting systems but many companies hide those CIM systems as proprietary. They should not hide them from internal quality audits of course, as they are key components of the real-time feedback that this author shows to be critical. Realtime and near-realtime systems are the most important weapons in the manufacturing arsenal and design companies need to pay more attention to those capabilities in their supply chain manufacturers.

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