Shake up your factory

Just like with everything else in life, you most likely need a plan if you’re going to have a chance to succeed at all.

This rule applies to purchasing manufacturing technology, too. Just going out and buying the latest computer controlled gizmo because it’s shiny or because your competitor has one is not a great strategy. You could even say that it’s closer to what a dog does when it sees a squirrel, than it is to a well thought-out plan.

Alain Albert

Of course, nothing ever goes according to plan, but having one goes a long way to making sure that you’ve given some thought to the process and it also gives you the ability to think critically about your manufacturing activities and what you need to do to improve them.

You’ve probably been working at what you do for years now, and you have amassed a lot of experience along the way. There’s a good chance you made a few mistakes over the years, and over time you’ve learned a thing or two from these errors. Formalizing a strategy will give you the chance to visualize what you are intending to do and gives your brain the chance to process it against all your knowledge and experience to see if it makes sense or not. This is the main reason it’s a good idea to put these ideas on paper and mull them over for a time.

Step 1: Biggest bang for your buck

When you start deliberating, take a good look at the whole business. You probably have a favourite activity in the business and you might be tempted to purchase new technology for this task alone. But it may not be the one holding you back from getting where you want to go.Take a good look at all aspects of the business and analyze where you can benefit the most from additional help. The most obvious silos are: sales and marketing, administration, product development, supply chain, production, shipping and customer care — but you don’t have to stop there. Step 2: Put numbers to paper

What is the price, right? No, forget about the price right now. You don’t need to think about the price this early in the game. Why? Because it’s never going to be about the price. If there was a million-dollar technology available that would ensure you could increase your sales and your net profit and lower your lead time, and it paid for itself in two years, it would be worth the price.

Instead of worrying about the price, ask yourself: Where are we struggling right now? Is it long lead times, lack of workers, engineering delays, lack of sales? Whatever it is, quantify it, find a way to put a number to the problem and track it over time.

Step 3: Peer into the crystal ball

Not kidding. Now you must look into the future and imagine what your life will be like once you are using the new technology. This will give you a picture that you can then compare with Step 2.

Here are a few examples where digital technology can be deployed: Sales and marketing: Whatever technology interests you to help with sales and marketing, one thing is for sure. It all starts with visual content: images and video. You can’t ignore this any longer, so think about setting up a small studio in a corner of your shop. Get a tripod, some good lighting and learn to take good pictures, lots of pictures.

Product development:

Are you still one of those factories drawing by hand on a drafting board? Yes, this is still a thing. Parametric software can automate this process and output photo-realistic sales images at the same time. Software can help you achieve levels of precision and perform tasks that could never be done by humans manually; there’s no debate about this.

Software gives you the ability to build your space or your product virtually before you even start cutting a piece of wood. This characteristic alone has lead to rapid progress in the field of product development.

Technology exists that uses lasers or photogrammetry to reproduce the interior measurements of a space accurate to fractions of millimetres. Making templates for a countertop used to take hours, and can now be done with more precision in a matter of minutes. The same kind of technology can be used to 3D-scan objects, so you can reproduce them later on a CNC router.

Supply chain and resource planning:

There is a software category called Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP, see page 16) that is in fact a number of different applications integrated together, that automate administrative functions in a manufacturing setting.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is the inter-networking of disparate devices so they can exchange data and offer enhanced services. IoT is growing very fast and as a result, more sensors and data capture devices are coming out that will help us to gather data and fine-tune our manufacturing processes in real time.

Manufacturing technology:

CNC technology is evolving very fast and we’re now seeing machines on the market that barely need human intervention. Some will allow the operator to build furniture and cabinets without having to go through the whole CAD/CAM dance ahead of time. They are basically a plug-and-play furniture factory in a box. Other systems will integrate a CNC, a dowel inserter and an edgebander with a robot arm and produce a fully automated, lights-out production division.

You can now find digital fence systems at the woodworking store that can be mounted on a table saw, a miter saw or a moulder, and they are quite affordable. This technology is easy to master, and will have a significant impact on the process they are associated with.

Robotics are being used more and more to automate complex manufacturing processes. Because there are so many of them around, the price has been coming down drastically lately. We’re getting very close to living like the Jetsons.

Material handling:

Smart inventory systems are popping up all over. Whether it’s a robot on a track that feeds sheets to a CNC router and a panel saw, or a smart bin system that hands you the inventory you need for a specific job, or the little robot cart that wheels the right parts to the next machine on the factory floor, you can expect material handling to become increasingly automated.

RFID tags are being used by more factories in our sector so that they can keep track of their inventory and their Work in Progress (WIP) on the fly, without having to manually scan barcodes.

Finishing technology:

Flat-line finishing spray systems have reached the point where they are competitive with traditional spray technology. Add a smart sander in the front and a UV curing oven in the back, and you can have fully finished, ready-to-pack parts in less than 20 minutes.

Packaging and shipping:

Even the shipping department is seeing its share of innovation with on-demand, made-to-measure, custom box-making equipment. It’s basically a CNC for making custom cardboard boxes.

In conclusion, there is a good chance the new technology you are considering today will automate tedious, uninspiring work and leave more time for your workers to be creative and fully inspired to do their jobs. This new technology might even give you a market advantage, so go back to your shop and find something you can improve.

Professionally trained in architecture, Alain Albert has worked in wood as an entrepreneur, in production management, in design and as a digital manufacturing consultant. Contact: aalbert@wimediainc.ca.

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