Release your inner geek

Unless you are paying close attention to the actual statistics, it is possible to believe that manufacturing in the U.S. is in decline and that manufacturing professionals should start looking elsewhere for employment. The actual numbers show something different, however: U.S. manufacturing output is increasing at almost 3% per year and producing over 20% of the world's manufactured products, d...


Unless you are paying close attention to the actual statistics, it is possible to believe that manufacturing in the U.S. is in decline and that manufacturing professionals should start looking elsewhere for employment. The actual numbers show something different, however: U.S. manufacturing output is increasing at almost 3% per year and producing over 20% of the world's manufactured products, despite decreases in the percent of the workforce involved in manufacturing.

In addition, while manufacturing employment has dropped from 40% of the workforce in the 1950s to about 10% today — and is trending toward 3-5% of the workforce in the future — the biggest limiting factor to increasing manufacturing output is the lack of skilled workers.

Skilled workers are required in today's manufacturing environment because the decade-long growth in manufacturing productivity is due to investments in continuous improvement projects. Most companies have lean manufacturing initiatives and manufacturing supply chain improvement projects, and the source of ideas for these improvement projects is the skilled workforce.

Six Sigma improvements

Improvement projects often follow the DMAIC process, which is a Six Sigma methodology for improving an existing or established process. The process seeks to identify and remove the causes of defects and errors in manufacturing or business processes through five steps: define goals, measure the current process and collect relevant data, analyze the data, improve the process, and control the process.

Measuring the process, collecting information, and analyzing the data are all supported by IT. IT tools and applications provide invaluable support for DMAIC processes, and today's skilled manufacturing workers must be IT-knowledgeable—and this includes hourly workers, salaried workers, and management.

Manufacturing IT personnel can help improvement projects by releasing their inner geek. This means using their knowledge of IT to find places to eliminate wasted time and effort. This can be as simple as eliminating duplicate entry of data by setting up automated copy procedures, removing the time to search for paper documents by scanning them onto a file server, or combining multiple applications into a single server to reduce backup and security procedures.

General improvement projects look for unneeded inventory, wasted motion, quality defects, unneeded changeovers, and unneeded transportation of materials, equipment, or personnel. Manufacturing IT improvement projects should look for unneeded data (data collected but never used), wasted duplicate entry of data, quality defects in manual entry of data, unneeded configuration changes and system shutdowns, and unneeded transportation of information (through emails or reports).

Engineer some visibility

Manufacturing IT can also provide support for other improvement projects. Most companies have many simultaneous improvement projects and a database of improvement projects can provide visibility into each project's status. The project database can also implement workflow rules through stored SQL procedures that, for example, inform critical personnel when data has been measured or when an expected event has occurred. The results from completed improvement projects can also be stored in a database or a Wiki, providing a knowledge base for other sites within your company and ensuring that a project is not trying to solve a problem that was already solved.

Manufacturing IT can also create a database for improvement ideas. Usually there are more ideas than people to work on them, so it is important to preserve the ideas until resources are available. This could be as simple as an electronic suggestion box or as sophisticated as a Wiki that allows everyone to contribute to idea creation and refinement.

Releasing your inner geek means being creative in the application of IT technology. Anyplace where manufacturing personnel are wasting time searching for information or transcribing information is an opportunity to apply creative IT solutions to manufacturing problems.

Author Information
Dennis Brandl is president of BR&L Consulting in Cary, NC, .

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