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Tools You Can Use Now to Supercharge Production Efficiency

From open AI to tried-and-true methodologies like MRP/ERP systems, these tools can help manufacturers of all sizes rapidly adapt to change and thrive.

June 6, 2023

6 Min Read
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Gorodenkoff/iStock via Getty Images

Paul K. Steck

In our recent article, “How to Effectively Grow a Small Business by Expanding Output,” we discussed how investing in technology can increase output in a manufacturing enterprise. In this article, we will delve into both tried-and-true as well as more recent methodologies that can have a positive impact on production efficiency.

Material resource planning (MRP) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems have demonstrated their utility in the manufacturing community for years. Their primary benefit involves making the information from all functional departments in a business available to management. In essence, MRP/ERP systems overcome the silo effect. Management can coordinate efforts and follow the workflow from marketing to sales to production — with an eye on scheduling while ensuring that supply and the capacity to accommodate incoming work are in place.

Rapid-response tools

MRP/ERP systems allow the work to be tracked from start to finish and to identify any potential bottlenecks during the process. Don Waters, independent ERP consultant with BC Systems, offered the following perspective.

“In today's world of manufacturing, the one constant is change. The problem is that too often our toolsets do not allow for the rapid response to changes in the manufacturing environment. Newer ERP solutions allow for change, and the best ones allow for fast adoption of new processes in design, supply chain, and production. The issue is that many manufacturers are trying to make these changes with older ERP solutions that are stuck in 1980's technology, and writing customized code for this technology is both time consuming and expensive. If you need a 360-degree view of your business, you need an ERPl — an ERP platform that allows for this reality and accommodates rapid change without undue stress or strain on timelines and budgets.”

In our own operation, we have exploited the benefits of our system by replacing our on-site, server-based ERP with a cloud-hosted version. This allows the software supplier to manage the software updates. Hosted deployment eliminates the need to purchase software licenses upfront, which can be costly. Also, monthly payments can be easily factored into cash flow expenditures, allowing for predictable IT budgeting. A hosted solution eliminates the need for in-house hardware, such as servers, which consume space and energy, are noisy, emit heat, and require maintenance contracts.

What can AI do for manufacturing?

The whole industrialized world is abuzz with the talk of artificial intelligence (AI). AI is not new. It has been used in everything from e-commerce chatbots to voicemail to handle routine tasks in both business-to-business and business-to-consumer applications. However, since the advent of open AI systems like ChatGPT, it has risen to the top of the conversation. The obvious question: What can AI do for manufacturing? And what has it already done for industry?

While AI is not yet perfect, it can be incorporated into certain production tasks.

Scheduling is complex, especially for contract manufacturers (aka job shops), and AI can simplify and optimize product flow through a manufacturing facility while increasing sales. AI can also assist with pricing by analyzing more data more quickly than any human.

AI simplifies manufacturing operations by fully automating complex tasks and requiring less manpower. It gives businesses the agility to quickly revise production plans or immediately adjust material flow based on schedule or product changes.

According to Dataiku’s downloadable e-book, AI can enhance production in the following ways: “For use cases including but not limited to predictive maintenance, reducing false error rate, and cross-functional process optimization.” An article on a US government website indicates, “This technology is not only for large manufacturers. High-value, cost-effective AI solutions are more accessible than many smaller manufacturers realize. AI projects improved equipment uptime, increased quality and throughput, and reduced scrap with healthier bottom lines and increased profits. Using AI in a manufacturing context means using data to make actionable decisions faster and more accurately than a human can do. There are two specific areas where this makes a lot of sense — forecasting and understanding anomalies or outliers.”

Lean in to lean manufacturing, 5S

For many in the manufacturing space, adopting lean manufacturing concepts has become a game changer, as well. The five core principles of lean manufacturing are defined as value, the value stream, flow, pull, and perfection. These are now used as the basis to implement lean. Manufacturing.net states that “lean manufacturing has enabled businesses to increase production, reduce costs, improve quality, and increase profits.” For example, optimizing setups and available labor resources related to daily throughput improvements of 5% per day offers huge financial rewards over time.

Closely related to lean manufacturing, 5S is a cyclical methodology, defined as a series of steps: Sort, set in order, shine, standardize, sustain the cycle. This results in continuous improvement. Let’s take a real-world example. Suppose your customer has ordered a new, complex part you need to fabricate for the first time. How does your staff set about producing it? Generative manufacturing applies the power of artificial intelligence to generate and execute optimal solutions given customer-defined constraints and parameters, such as functional specifications, cost, and lead time, by exploring vast combinations of design and production alternatives based on material and process availability.

If you have not yet learned Six Sigma, it’s never too late. Doing so will be well worth the time and financial investment. By definition, Six Sigma is a set of methodologies and tools used to improve business processes by reducing defects and errors, minimizing variation, and increasing quality and efficiency. The goal of Six Sigma is to achieve a level of quality that is nearly perfect. We consulted Dr Fred Rispoli, an instructor at Stony Brook University in Long Island, New York, and author of the book Essential Tools for Process Improvement.

“Six Sigma is an approach to manufacturing that will eliminate unnecessary steps in your production process cycle and help to better serve your customers,” said Rispoli. “The result — a reduction in defects as you watch your costs go down and profits climb. Six Sigma has proven itself as a powerful system, creating a culture of continuous improvement within an organization. The methodology helps manufacturers identify waste and improve inefficiencies. Six Sigma methods are not limited just to a production floor; they apply to all areas of your business.”

Manufacturing today demands the use of 21st century technology to achieve and maintain a competitive edge as well as maximize profitability.


About the author

Paul K. Steck is the president of Exothermic Molding Inc., a third-generation, family-owned specialty plastics manufacturer in Kenilworth, NJ, serving a variety of verticals including healthcare, laboratory sciences, and defense.


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