Drums & Smoke Signals

Communication within the manufacturing environment has failed to keep pace with technology innovation. Why deploy lean methodology to shave seconds of a production process and yet fail to use the same approach when it comes to vital internal communication, including critical machine and personal alarms? Why risk downtime or production errors by relying on staff to manually raise a faulty equipment alarm and locate an engineer when machinery fails? Or compromise the health & safety record by expecting staff to phone in every hour to meet safety requirements?

Manufacturing sites are lagging so far behind the rest of the business because no one seems to want to take complete responsibility for the factory communications. As a result, with no guidance or expertise, it is far easier for a production manager to buy a like for like replacement than to investigate opportunities for improving efficiency, customer service or staff safety.

Yet there is no need to rely on 'drums and smoke signals' to communicate in any manufacturing environment. As Klaus Allion, Managing Director, ANT Telecoms, insists, the onus is on Operations Directors to seek out the right expertise to understand just how a raft of new communications solutions can be used in a manufacturing environment to transform effectiveness.

Production Values
Manufacturing companies have leveraged a raft of innovative technologies and new thinking to improve efficiency and performance in recent years. And yet the communications infrastructure is, in most cases, archaic. Most are still using old paging systems to communicate across production sites and relying on manual communication methods to raise the alarm, either in the event of production crisis or lone worker emergency.

How long does the highly tuned production line lie idle while staff attempt to contact a maintenance engineer? And why does that maintenance engineer have to visit the machine to discover the fault? What is the implication for Health & Safety compliance if a lone worker has fallen down and is only discovered because the hourly telephone call has not been made?

There are so many communications technologies available that could address these issues quickly and effectively. Yet the corporate telecoms and IT departments concentrate on the overall business requirements ' and have little understanding of the site specific needs of each manufacturing plant, from bespoke integration to process management systems to the manufacturing process in general. The result is isolated decision making within the plant, leading to poor communications and loss of efficiency.

It used to be simple
So why are manufacturing companies struggling to create a more effective communications model? Essentially, communications technologies have become significantly more complex in recent years.

The choice is diverse and, for any individual used to simply replacing the old pager system with a like for like solution, the options available today can prove daunting.

How can anyone without communications expertise and an understanding of the specific constraints of the production environment make the correct judgement? How can they determine the viability, for example, of the right mobility platform when so many are on the market; a lone worker App; or the need for ruggedized devices?

Who advises Plant Managers and Operations Directors that a machine alarm can be automatically distributed to the engineering team rather than waiting for a phone call, thus reducing machine downtime wastage?

Yet by failing to seek advice on the potential value offered by the latest generation of communications solutions, companies are missing out on huge opportunities to reduce costs and improve productivity. With limited guidance and expertise, Operations Directors and plant managers will continue to miss out on new communications solutions that, when implemented correctly and appropriately, really can deliver quantifiable financial benefit.

Joined Up Approach
In fact, the majority of decisions are actually based on incorrect cost assumptions. Radios, pagers and mobile phones are acquired on the basis of the lowest cost per device – treating them as a commodity not an enterprise asset. At the most basic level, this approach overlooks the cost of repairs and call costs. But what about the time lost due to inefficiencies and what if the solution doesn’t actually work across the enterprise?

Why are companies not measuring the cost associated with poorly communicated production glitches? What is the impact of poor communication across departments – for example when production staff use radios and maintenance are on pagers? How much does it cost the business to constantly call customers back because in-coming calls cannot be quickly routed to the most appropriate person?

Given the number of options available, from devices to networks, simply making a decision based on a like for like device cost is clearly flawed. But with so many manufacturing companies devolving decision making and budget to each department, it is not surprising. With everyone from fire wardens and engineering to maintenance and facilities management tasked with their own communications investment, it is no wonder that most companies end up with a piecemeal model that constrains innovation and adds significant, unnecessary cost. Why, for example, deploy a dedicated lone worker solution that is completely unrelated to the rest of the communications strategy?

With no single individual with a good understanding of the manufacturing process willing to take central control, the disparate, like for like replacement model will persist, despite the cost in lost production and efficiency.

If manufacturing companies are to realise the benefits of the latest generation of communications solutions they need to take a holistic approach. This means considering not only device price, call costs, and the annual maintenance contract, but also it is essential to consider the business issues; the costs associated with production downtime; poor intercompany communication; and a continued reliance on out dated devices when an up to date solution could be far more cost effective.

It is time to move beyond the ‘drums and smoke signals’ and gain access to the right expertise to understand just how a raft of new communications solutions can be used in a manufacturing environment to transform efficiency and effectiveness and tie the whole business together.