How to Use Manufacturing Technology to Reach Finishing Goals

If your coating operation has big growth goals for this year, then solutions engineer Bill McGee from Plex Systems says you should have a deep understanding of the way your shop works.


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Q: We have big growth goals for this year, and we know we need manufacturing technology to help reach those goals. Where do I begin?

A: This is a timely question, as many leaders are still working through their organizational key performance indicators (KPIs) or objectives for the year ahead. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a New Year’s resolution so here’s one more—define what you want to improve with the help of manufacturing technology before you run to find a solution.

You may have already done this exercise as part of defining your growth goals. If you haven’t, you can start by looking at your operational processes as well as key data points, including:  

  • What is your on-time delivery rate?
  • What is your first-pass quality yield rating?
  • What is your scrap rate?
  • How accurate are your physical inventory counts?

A good resource for more areas to measure can be found in this magazine’s annual Products Finishing Top Shops Benchmarking Survey. This can help you understand what you need to measure, and where your peers stand. You should also consider other measures of success, including customer feedback, why you won or lost business, and if there are any evolving customer or industry standards that may impact the way you work.

Only by answering these questions will you be able to identify what’s important to your business and truly understand how these could impact your optimistic growth goals.

There are two other common roadblocks to consider when building out your plan of attack: how siloed are your business departments (and, therefore, your data) and how does your culture operate?

If your business is like most, chances are that different departments have already invested in their own business systems to run their programs. Most business systems are designed to automate and streamline business processes. But, too often, these systems document transactions, recording what happened instead of controlling what is supposed to happen. There may be multiple databases being fed by separate modules (with different data models that have been integrated together), creating disparate data silos. This makes getting reports or information out of the system difficult because you need to essentially be a programmer to know how to pull all the data together. Also, user interfaces often vary across functional areas, so users who cross organizational boundaries need to switch gears by logging into different screens. The result is disconnected processes that often require manual intervention—and increase the risk of errors.

The second common challenge is your culture. For example, do you know how quickly your team adopts new technologies? What about new business processes, or maybe even new reporting structures? New tools and processes require leadership support and training. If your project halts when someone is holding tight to a business process, that's an opportunity to evaluate it and see if things can be done in a more efficient way. Find the business needs underneath the process and solve for those. Don't just solve for what you’re doing today.

This kind of discovery will lead you to the business system most appropriate for your unique needs. For instance, organizations such as Top Shop 2018 winner Burkard Industries and plastic paint solution provider A&K Finishing selected a manufacturing enterprise resource planning (ERP) system to run their businesses after going through a discovery and evaluation process of their own.

This is a viable option for your company if you’re looking to connect all areas of the business and deliver to all employees a single source of truth. A single source of truth means a single, common database where all business objects are stored. For example, an order initiated in the system is linked directly to the unique customer record for that order and all associated business objects, including (but not limited to) material orders, process routings, production operations, quality activities, labeling and final shipping address. All quality certifications are linked to the product specification and, in the case of a change, everyone affected is notified.

The right manufacturing ERP system can help you track against the goals you set for the year. It helps automate your processes which, in turn, frees up valuable time for your team. It delivers shop-floor-to-top-floor business insights that will allow you to make better business decisions. It also effectively breaks down data silos—either by integrating with or replacing those systems. One manufacturer we work with was able to consolidate 250-plus systems down to 27 applications to run the entire enterprise.

You should expect a lot from any manufacturing technology investment. By implementing a manufacturing ERP system, A&K Finishing was able to cut its scrap rate in half; achieve a near 100 percent inventory accuracy; and they’ve been able to solve complicated business processes (such as paint depletion formulas), that previously were multistep formulas completed manually. Managers who were spending up to 85 percent of their time on data entry were able to scale it back to just 30 percent, with that time now solely focused on continuous improvement.

In addition to realizing revenue growth of more than 100 percent, the company's evolution also earned A&K Finishing recognition as a Yanfeng Automotive Interiors Distinguished Supplier for two consecutive years, an honor only given to 10 of Yanfeng’s 2,100 suppliers.

Keep in mind that the process that leads you to make a technology decision is different than the process to implement it. In some ways, choosing manufacturing technology is just the beginning. By staying focused on your goals; having a deep understanding of the way your company works; and carefully choosing the right business systems, you can make technology the foundation of your success.

Bill McGee is director of solutions engineering at Plex Systems. Visit plex.com.