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Experts share tips for shop floor quality control

Integrating the plant floor into the enterprise IT infrastructure for global plant visibility can help manufacturers achieve more effective quality control.

Looking to retool the shop floor so it can support the latest compliance and shop-floor quality-control best practices? The good news it might not require an extreme makeover and multimillion-dollar investment in high-tech gear.

Instead, manufacturers that integrate the plant floor into the rest of the IT infrastructure and shift away from a siloed focus to a networked plant view can position themselves well to respond effectively to quality issues – whether they occur inside the four walls or at a supplier on the other side of the globe.

“In the last year or two, there’s been a change in mentality for the manufacturing industry and a re-evaluation of IT on the plant floor,” said Pierfrancesco Manenti, research director for manufacturing in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at IDC Manufacturing Insights, a research firm based in Framingham, Mass. Manenti specifically called out manufacturing execution systems (MES), a key component in a company’s toolkit of quality-management software. “MES is becoming mainstream in the sense that in the past, this software was purchased and managed by the plants themselves. Today, it’s part of the IT portfolio and under the [domain of the] CIO.”

Creating tight shop-floor integration between MES and core enterprise systems like ERP and product lifecycle management is extremely important to facilitating quality programs. It helps create more of a closed-loop system, serving to accelerate engineering change management and helping to address potential quality snafus early in the cycle – well before production starts. Used in conjunction with traditional plant floor tools like statistical processing control systems, the newly integrated MES can help spot trends and identify and enforce standard operating procedures and workflows – from rolling out individual lines to bringing other plants on board. It can also aid in monitoring and enforcing processes that give guidance to plant floor operators.

“IT systems are really good at identifying and building in best practices, and tracking quality becomes just a side effect of the system,” said Julie Fraser, a principal industry analyst for Boston-based consulting company Cambashi and co-chairwoman of the MESA Metrics Working Group.

Achieving cross-plant flexibility

Standardizing this integrated MES and enterprise software portfolio across plants – not just having myriad systems in each plant location – is another requirement of promoting quality-management best practices. By doing so, companies establish a network of factories, as opposed to isolated plant floor operations. The benefits are twofold. Standardizing systems helps reduce IT costs, but perhaps the biggest benefit lies in gaining real-time visibility into what’s happening across all plant resources.

“This enables manufacturers to be more flexible in redistributing workloads,” Manenti said. “Manufacturers are trying to serve so many different countries and markets – demand is so variable. There is a need for flexibility across multiple plants so they can change workloads according to the variability of global demand.”

Beyond tighter integration of MES with enterprise IT, several emerging technologies promise to boost plant floor efficiencies when it comes to quality control and compliance.

Mobility is one such technology. While there have long been ruggedized computers on the plant floor, new smart devices like tablets provide a cheaper way to get computing power into the hands of machine operators while they are on the floor. In addition, the new touch-screen user interfaces of tablet devices open the door to new, highly focused and accessible apps – for example, business analytics – to help manufacturers capture and address quality trends at the point of failure.

“With these devices, people don’t have to be in front of a CRT screen to continuously monitor the state of a process,” said John Blanchard, principal analyst at ARC Advisory Group, a research firm based in Dedham, Mass. “They can use analytics to get alerts when there might be a problem.”

While new technologies will continue to play a role in improving plant floor operations, tried-and-true disciplines like lean manufacturing and Six Sigma remain critical cogs in the quality-management process. That’s certainly the case at Instron, a Norwood, Mass.-based manufacturer of materials testing equipment. Instead of making huge investments in new technology or complex integration efforts, the company has devoted time and resources to revamping production processes for efficiency. The practice of cutting out unnecessary steps for its larger lean initiative has had a huge impact on quality even though it wasn’t a direct result of a formal quality management program, said Cam Bickel, Instron’s manager of document control.

“It’s about getting the most out of the products we have and having the right processes to effectively deliver them,” Bickel said.

Beth Stackpole is a freelance writer who has been covering the intersection of technology and business for 25-plus years for a variety of trade and business publications and websites.

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