Return From Covid

It almost sounds like a ’50s SciFi movie.

For a couple of months into the Covid pandemic, my inbox collected a steady stream of press releases about what this or that company was doing to either fight the coronavirus or prepare workplaces and workforces for the return to the office. That mighty river has turned into a stream at the end of summer.

The CTO of a Siemens company on NPR’s Tech Nation with Moira Gunn (good podcast, by the way) and I have interviewed Siemens about its combining of technologies to provide for safer workplaces in light of infectious viruses.

Then I received this note from Marty Edwards, VP of OT Security, Tenable, whom I’ve known for years as a reputable security specialist. “Prediction: Workers who return to the office may well bring new vulnerabilities with them.”

“While many critical infrastructure workers who operate, manage and secure the OT that underpins our economy can’t bring their work home, some of their colleagues certainly can. It’s likely that functions such as sales, marketing, HR, finance and legal of many essential services –food and beverage, manufacturing and pharmaceutical companies — have shifted to a remote-work model. When stay-at-home orders are eventually lifted, many of these folks will return to their offices with equipment that will be re-connected to corporate networks. With this comes the added risk of new vulnerabilities and threats being introduced to either the IT or OT side of mission- and safety-critical operations. During this transition, it’s imperative security teams have visibility into where the organization is exposed and to what extent, enabling them to effectively manage risk on a day-to-day basis. Put simply, the security challenges aren’t gone once everyone is back in the office.”

I have not worked in an office for years, unless you call a coffee house an office. But, many people will be returning to offices in the next few months. They will expect safe workspaces. As will all the factory workers (think about the morons running meat processing plants).

It took a while for cybersecurity to catch up with the sudden working-from-home IT challenge. Now, we’ll have millions returning to the corporate intranet bringing who knows what (computer) viruses with them. Another type of security to deal with.

One way or another, engineers will be busy dealing with this crisis for many months. Probably along with all their other work.

Anchor Fabrication Improves Productivity by 200%

My first salaried position in manufacturing after leaving university involved production/inventory control, with some industrial engineering and manufacturing engineering thrown in to keep me busy. Production scheduling efficiently involves juggling many balls in the air keeping people, machines, work-in-process, and inventory balanced and productive.

This was at a department that manufactured a variety of component parts fulfilling the orders of three assembly plants in the organization. This was before widespread use of computers. I managed with a number of hand-written spreadsheets.

Production schedulers for metal fabricators who balance orders from multiple customers processed across many different machines and processes have my sympathy. This is difficult work.

The easiest way is to batch according to order. The problem with this at a manufacturing level is that this may lead to downtime due to frequent changeovers to the equipment to set up for each batch.

A more efficient way to manage this would be to gather the day’s/week’s orders and sort by process type. Then all the pieces processed by Machine A wit a particular process could be processed regardless of whose order it is. The trick to all this is to track the WIP and get all the components sorted by order at the end.

Epicor Software Corp. contacted me about a successful application of its ERP to tackle just such a problem. Anchor Fabrication, a Texas-based one-stop metal fabrication shop. It has improved its productivity by up to 200% through the help of the Epicor ERP solution.

Anchor Fabrication caters to a wide variety of customers with a range of product needs – from plasma- and laser-cutting to machining, welding, and assembly work. Headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, Anchor Fabrication has more than 1,000,000 square feet of manufacturing space across six facilities.

“We’ve built a reputation within the metal fabrication industry based on our efficiency and ability to quickly execute on a variety of services,” said Hector Robles, VP of manufacturing at Anchor Fabrication. “During site visits, customers often tell us they appreciate our ability to quickly look up almost any particular part’s manufacturing history along with the number of times we’ve built those specific parts.”

Epicor ERP allows Anchor Fabrication to combine all work order data into a single job without the need for manual human entry – ultimately reducing order planning costs by over $100,000 each year.

“Anchor likes to inform employees with the most concise data and the best information possible for every job that goes to the floor. Epicor really helps to keep all that information together in one spot,” said Jason Davis, VP of sales at Anchor Fabrication.

Anchor Fabrication’s rapid delivery of manufacturing orders is due in part to their ability to perform dynamic nesting, made possible by the Epicor ERP platform, which allows the metal shop team to take work orders and perform them concurrently through integration with Service Connect. The software system examines all orders that are assigned to a certain machine and notifies the Anchor Fabrication team if any orders are a fit for simultaneous execution.

“Many metal fabricators only perform a single service – welding, cutting, coating – but Anchor Fabrication saw an opportunity to differentiate themselves from the competition. They’ve strategically positioned themselves as an all-in-one metal fabrication service provider, and as a provider that can complete customer orders faster than single-service competitors,” said Terri Hiskey, VP of global product marketing at Epicor. “We’re very happy to see that our vertical industry specialization and product knowledge and capabilities have enabled Anchor Fabrication to work smarter, not harder – making a marked difference in the company’s business, productivity, and revenue.”

“Epicor can tailor software solutions to fit the needs of the customer,” said Steven Pybus, VP of engineering at Anchor Fabrication.

They didn’t tell me who the production scheduling team was, but they should all be the heroes of this story for finding and implementing the wise use of manufacturing IT software to meet many company objectives.

Benefit of Digital Transformation in Industry

I laid out editorial direction for a magazine I helped to start with two basic ideas: contribute to thought leadership in industrial automation; and, tell stories of intelligent application of automation where the “heroes” of the story were the people doing the work not the products they used.

Seventeen years ago if you asked a company for a success story (you never get the “tried it and failed stories”) the formula was “Joe had a problem; Joe bought this list of products from his supplier; problem was solved and Joe was happy.”

Rockwell Automation has a Digital Transformation group headed by Vice President Keith Higgins. The PR folks sent me a “teaser” for an article about real-world application and benefits of digital transformation attributed to Higgins. I haven’t done many application stories at The Manufacturing Connection, so I jumped at the chance to get a real example for what companies are describing as digital transformation. I sent a bunch of questions. I received the formula company (all companies, not only Rockwell) app story.

However, reading into the story which I’m about to share were some lessons about successes from applying digital technologies and also to temper your enthusiasm lest you picture digital transformation like Clark Kent entering a telephone booth (remember those?) and emerging as Superman. While not so dramatic, nonetheless applying digital technologies can enhance productivity and therefore profitability.

This is a story about Agropur, a North American dairy processing company. Not a small one. It consists of over 3,367 dairy farmers who rely on 37 facilities across North America, processing over 1.5 billion gallons of milk into numerous dairy products, resulting in $5.9 billion in sales each year.

The company’s largest facility in Ontario had legacy industrial technologies which faced operational issues and downtime inhibiting its ability to produce the necessary data to continuously improve operations.

So, problem = downtime + inadequate data collection. Proposed solution = implement a standardized, plant-wide IT platform to collect, analyze, and understandably present data.

Agropur had already invested heavily in industrial technology at its Don Mills, Ontario facility, but none of those solutions have been able to provide it with the seamless data insights it needed to continually improve its operations. Data was not efficiently collected costing more than 2,500 hours per year and what data was collected could not be presented to management in such a way to enable continuous improvement teams.

On top of the data collection issue, the Don Mills facility’s equipment and systems were prone to failure. When the facility went down, it was forced to restore from the latest backup. That was no small feat considering there was no way to determine which of their seven maintenance laptops had the latest backup.

These inefficiencies and challenges drove Agropur to begin a search for a standardized, plant-wide

Rockwell Automation together with Grantek Systems Integration, a Rockwell Automation PartnerNetwork Solution Partner, deployed the new system with Agropur.

The result was an entirely new automation system built from the ground up. The system wasn’t only focused on creating a new way to collect data, it was also focused on overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), performance, capacity and more. From my point of view, the emphasis on OEE was unfortunate, but I guess it worked for the customer.

The technology involved included the Allen-Bradley family of ControlLogix controllers, PowerFlex drives, and PanelVew human machine interface (HMI) hardware from Rockwell Automation. Running FactoryTalk View Site Edition software on a virtualized server, each HMI could establish the standard for all additional software. This system collected data from production and provided information to operators to help them improve operations.

Supervisors decided to use OEE for benchmarking using FactoryTalk Metrics software, which collected performance data to power informed decisions.

With the information solution in place, employees from across the facility could see what was occurring on the plant floor and use that data to make continuous improvements.

Benefits: The Agropur team could eliminate 2,500 hours of manual data collection each year. Additionally, significant hours were saved annually thanks to the ease of managing assets through FactoryTalk software.

As soon as information was available, teams at Agropur deployed a data-driven approach to benchmark whether new hardware would curb the usage of lubricants for the lines. Creating benchmark reports and data-driven estimates of new hardware effectiveness, they were able to reduce lubricant consumption by 30%.

Here’s a benefit that I’m shocked to learn it took all this data collection and visualization investment to figure out. Supervisors seeking to identify opportunities for increasing capacity.discovered that lunches, breaks, and meetings caused more than 33 hours of downtime. Changing schedules turned lost processing time into productivity.

Restarting Manufacturing After The Covid-19 Shutdown

Someday soon we’ll be going back to work. Some, of course, are already working in manufacturing under the new regime. Many questions lurk for those planning to get moving again.

To find out more, I spoke with Kim Wallace, executive vice president of Hire Dynamics a staffing consulting company focused on the Southeastern US.

She told me that after the first shock of cutting back or closing, companies began reevaluating their workforce and job descriptions. The first order of business was what jobs needed to be maintained and which employees could work from home. Then came the difficult decisions of furloughs and lay offs. Managers would evaluate balancing personnel needs per department. What is driving the frenetic activity? Cash flow. All of who have been in business know that cash is king. Many companies needed to stop the bleeding.

Hire Dynamics provides strategic consulting on workforce issues and was quickly called in to help management develop strategies for a situation no one knew how long would last.

When it’s time to start up, employees have many considerations, all of which have ramifications for the company. In some cases, going back to work could actually mean a pay cut for the employee who is better off financially to stay home. Some have childcare or elder care situations where there is no alternative to their being home to provide that care. Many will be nervous and concerned about returning to work only to become infected by the coronavirus—despite efforts to reduce the risk.

Many people do want to work, though. And companies need to get production going or die.

So, what does it take to start up again? The threat of virus spreading is still real. No one wants to have most of its workforce and its management team home sick with the possibility of several dying.

This takes a strategy. Companies such as Hire Dynamics are there to help companies plan and start up.

Wallace pointed out that most companies are worried about three things: cash flow, culture, and image. Managing cash flow is crucial for all businesses, and especially for small to mid-sized enterprises (SMEs). This calls for phased start up balancing workers with sales. As companies bring back employees and face necessity of bringing in new hires, they need to be mindful both of maintaining their culture and also developing a culture of health practices. Aware of how decisions impact their image in their communities and their industries, companies need to manage the startup well.

Strategies

Companies cannot afford for the virus to spread throughout the entire management team. They, therefore, stagger management team days at work so that if someone spreads the infection it will not spread to the entire team. Considering production people the first strategy is to adjust shifts so that they do not congregate exiting and entering. If at all possible, have different doors for entering and exiting to keep some separation.

Companies may need help with signage to direct people where and how to enter and leave. They need procedures for temperature screening employees entering for their shifts. Do managers do the screening leaving them at higher risk of infection? Or hire medical technicians?

Another consideration is sanitizing. Perhaps the best strategy is for each shift to sanitize when they arrive at their workstations and then again just before they leave. They will need procedures and training on sanitizing. Note that all this needs to be part of the clock in/clock out procedure. Speaking of company image, management must be cognizant of the impact of decisions unlike a very large company who earned a lot of bad press and congressional scrutiny by doing much of that work off the clock on employee time.

Here are some of the policy and procedure and practical help that Hire Dynamics can provide:

  • Signage
  • Sanitizing
  • Procedures
  • Break rooms (close? Eat at stations? Other things.)
  • Restrooms (block every other sink and toilet stall, etc.)

Manufacturing for Good

Here is one for all the politicians who think you can snap your fingers or wrinkle your nose and start producing overnight. This is a fascinating, first-person story about a software developer (Radek Pietruszewski) who became infatuated with 3D printing, learned CAD and CNC, joined a Hacker Space, and then saw how to meet a need during this crisis.

The Podcast is a weekly conversation between Radek and his boss Michael Sliwinski who is developer, founder, and CEO of Nozbe (affiliate link–the personal productivity app I use). They are both Polish. Radek recently moved to Warsaw to be closer to the hacker space. Michael now lives in Spain. You can also find them at @MSliwinski and @radexp. I’ve listened to them since episode 1. This is episode 206.

Oh, they speak English better than some Americans I know, a fact that also fascinates me.

206: Radek’s Face Shield Factory

Radek has started a job in manufacturing… pro bono manufacturing of face shields for hospitals in Poland.

No, really. Over the last few weeks, Radek has been applying what he’d learned about CAD, laser cutting, and lean manufacturing at the Warsaw Hackerspace to set up a face shield production line.

In three weeks, they produced over 30 000 face shields.

They had just discussed a book on Lean. The story reveals challenges and problem solving of starting a manufacturing process to make face masks for hospital people who were in desperate need. Those of us who have worked in manufacturing recognize the problems and should respect how this team of beginners creatively solved all the problems along the way.

One interesting nugget was that they were quickly told not to go to hospital administrators. They would only be a bottleneck. So, the group actually found lower level workers and delivered boxes of masks to their houses for them to take to work and distribute.

Makes me wonder about how I’ve killed time during the pandemic.

Leadership As Getting Outside Yourself

Leadership As Getting Outside Yourself

I once wrote on leadership every Friday on another of my blogs. Then I felt as if I’d run out of anything meaningful to say. Publicists offer me books to read in order to review. I’ll share one I just received Friday–Formula X: How to Reach Extreme Acceleration in Your Organization by Jurriaan Kamer and Rini van Solingen. It was published in Dutch last June; the English edition will be available Jan. 28.

It is European, so the protagonist is known as a Managing Director rather than General Manager or COO. And the conceit regards Formula 1 racing.

I say protagonist because while the book is about leadership and organizational change, it is written as a story or “fable”. In that regard it reminds me of The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt.

The protagonist is bright, yet clueless. The story weaves business and personal problems. And it is through learning from how a Formula 1 racing team operates that he learns how to organize the company, build teams, and achieve goals. It is only out of despair that he finally wakes up, gets a clue, and builds a winning team and relationship with his wife.

Sort of a journey from micromanager to orchestra conductor, if you will pardon the change in metaphor.

Whereas Goldratt was building a Theory of Constraints for optimizing production (it’s a 1980’s book, but still valid), Formula X steps back and looks at organizing the company and all its silos and disfunctions. It’s a blend of Lean and SCRUM (from programming) and Holacracy and other newer ideas.

The model is FASTER (as in racing cars must become…).

  • Focus and clarity
  • Accelerate decisions
  • Simplify
  • Team engagement
  • Elementary physics (Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics, but don’t worry about that)
  • Rhythmic learning

The authors use such Lean principles as Respect for People, daily stand ups (quick meetings), a form of 5S, using the people to find root causes of problems along with experimenting to find solutions.

Good stuff.