The economy is sending mixed signals about the health of the American manufacturing industry. During one week there is news showing how the U.S. is in the midst of a renaissance, and the following week there will be reports indicating manufacturing activity has slowed.
Regardless of the up-and-down nature of forecasts, manufacturers have to focus on their needs to maintain optimal performance in the face of increased competition and technological innovations that end up separating high performers from laggards. Citing data from a fairly recent survey conducted by the American Society for Quality, Manufacturing.net explained that 13 percent of manufacturers use smart technology - connected machines and computers that transmit information between each other - within their operations. The key here is that manufacturers are able to capture as much data as possible on a continuous basis to gain insight into their workflows. From tracking inbound shipments to outgoing deliveries to customers, it's important for businesses to keep on top of the movement of goods and supplies throughout their facilities.
MAT: Measure All the Time
When companies start discussing the Internet of Things - the concept involving networks of sensors integrated into machinery to gather and transmit information - it's easy to get swept up with some of the more futuristic applications. The hope is that at some point people won't really have to actively manage data, and machines and computers will bear that burden, leaving business leaders only with the task of making decisions based on the data gathered. However, that scenario, which can seem somewhat futuristic, already has a foundation in many manufacturing organizations.
The use of radio frequency identification tags is an efficient way for organizations to measure, track and monitor the movement of product as it moves between various locations. Simply by affixing an RFID label, sensors can capture critical information, including item type, location and status. For instance, a manufacturing organization can see where a specific product is in their warehouse or track individual components used to create a completed product. Automating this type of data capture reduces the strain on shop floor workers who are tasked with performing audits on inventory or assets. It also ensures that information is always being updated, meaning it reflects the most current state of operations. Additionally, these organizations can identify any issues related to their supplies or production output before they get out of hand.
How Can Companies Tell it Is Time for Automated Data Collection?
Since manufacturing organizations work in distinct industries, each company needs to look at its specific needs. However, there are some tell-tale indicators that will clearly show manufacturers that it's time to implement and automated data capture solution. An RFgen Software white paper, called "The Data Collection Software Buyer's Guide," outlines several of the considerations that companies need to make when assessing their manufacturing workflows. First, it's important to think about the productivity of the workforce. Manual, paper-based systems for data collection are regularly error prone and end up causing inaccuracies to be entered into the organization's enterprises resource planning software.
Another major issue is the fact that data generated in today's manufacturing environments is growing rapidly. For instance, IDC research cited in the RFgen Software white paper shows that data storage requirements in an average-sized businesses increased by 40 to 50 percent in 2007. Roughly 5 years later, that number is dwarfed. ZDnet, again citing data from IDC, indicated the amount of digital data around the world reached 2,837 exabytes in 2012. For scale, one exabyte is equal to 1 billion gigabytes. Capture and storage systems need to be not only powerful, but flexible as well to help organizations keep track of all the information.
Finally, technology costs have steadily declined. So, one of the major barriers to acquiring automated data collection systems and adjusting the information technology infrastructure is eroding as time passes. The cost of tools like RFID tags has come down significantly over the past several years. Hardware, including computers and servers, have also become more affordable and powerful, meaning manufacturing organizations have the chance to make their data management systems function more efficiently.