In mid-2018, Gemini Plastics leveraged technology at every step of our process in order to achieve greater efficiency. Little did we know that this would become invaluable in March of 2020 with the outbreak of COVID-19. With so many now having to work from home, we thought it could be helpful to share what we learned in our implementation of the digital manufacturing platform.
What is "Digital Manufacturing"?
This technology could be ERP software, inspection software, software to help with PPAP or regulatory regulations, software to help your employees communicate, software to help you estimate for jobs more quickly and accurately, and so much more. The tools you need can vary greatly depending on your industry and many other factors. A common theme in this article, though, is ERP, as most businesses have some form of ERP, and I believe a good ERP should really be at the core of what you do.
In this post, I'm going to go over 5 common challenges when undergoing a digital transformation at your business, and then finish off with 5 great benefits. They are by no means the whole story but will help give you an idea of why at Gemini Plastics, Inc we feel so strongly about digital manufacturing and see it as the bright future of our sector. I'm going to go over the challenges first (always end on a positive note, right?).
1. Change is Hard
One of the biggest threats to a company's consistency of its processes is change. Changes in staff, changes in workflow, changes in tools, or any other change - even seemingly insignificant ones - can upset a business's process in a big way. It is such a big topic that there are international standards in place for how to handle it appropriately. As you can imagine, digitizing your business does involve a significant amount of change and requires careful execution.
2. So Many Options
When looking into a digital transformation, you will find a seemingly endless amount of software tools available. Some of them will be more general ERP type products, and some will likely be more specific to your industry. Deciding what direction to go and what software to pick can be daunting and quite frankly, intimidating. Luckily, there are excellent websites dedicated to consumer reviews of software, and there are many great consultants who specialize in this sort of transformation.
3. Training is Time-Consuming
Training employees on a new system can be stressful for just about everybody involved. There will be employees that were just fine with how things were and will have a hard time adopting the new system. There will be managers who have to train people on software that is also brand new to them. It's easy to get overwhelmed when you don't feel like you have all the answers. When shopping for software tools, take a careful look at their training procedure and on-boarding process, and try and gauge how their support is. Maybe even reach out to other customers of that product and ask about training and support. This is good information that will save you lots of time later on and prevent you from pairing up with a company with mediocre support or lackluster training that leaves you confused and stressed.
4. Data Transfer is Laborious
Likely, whatever system you will be transferring out of has some business-critical data in it which you would like to retain. This can be tricky, especially if the system you are switching to is from a totally different provider from your old one, for example going from a Microsoft based program running on an on-site server to a cloud-hosted platform from a smaller tech company. In my experience, this step is a bit laborious, but if the company you are working with knows their stuff, it goes more smoothly than you might think.
5. Loss of Flexibility can be Frustrating
When you digitize the process, it's typically harder to work around it. This is excellent for managers and process owners who like to see the consistency you receive as a result but can lead to more work when an error happens early on and is not caught until further down the line. That worker might have a quick "band-aid" they would typically do in a less integrated system, which wouldn't work in a fully integrated system without undoing the work all the way back to where the error happened and then buttoning it up properly. This can be frustrating at times.
So now I'd like to talk about some of the benefits of going with a fully integrated system. These are all things we experienced when we made our digital transformation at Gemini Plastics.
1. Using Humans and Computers More Effectively
There are things computers are good at, and things that humans are good at, as well as some grey area in between the two. Most people will agree that computers tend to beat humans at remembering things, transferring data, doing math, and being consistent. Humans tend to be better at making and maintaining relationships, being creative, and solving (non-mathematic) problems. Letting computers and humans both do what they specialize in leads to a more productive workday. Instead of handing off that piece of paper to the next department(transferring data), manually calculating your capacity for the week to schedule your orders (math), and trying to get Karen to "remember" to put invoices in the correct filing cabinet (consistency), your employees can do more human tasks while the system does those other tasks. They can make and maintain customer relations, come up with new ways to do their role more efficiently, and solve complex issues without the distractions of remedial tasks.
2. Exceptional Traceability
One thing that is very important from a general business practice point of view, as well as for ISO related requirements is traceability. Knowing "who, what, when, and where" an action happened in your company can go a very long way when trying to troubleshoot a recurring problem and sort out an NCR. With methods relying on pen and paper, documents can be "fudged", dates and initials can be forged or sometimes just plain illegible, leading to confusion and making it hard to find the root cause of an issue. With a well-integrated system, you should have access to a log that records every action done in the system that ties it to a name, date, location, and time the action occurred. This goes a long way when problem-solving and really speeds up the NCR process. It also impresses some ISO auditors along the way.
3. Cost Savings
Now there is no denying that a change in ERP systems can be expensive upfront. What may surprise you, though, is the money you could be saving over the long run. The savings in time from a more efficient process is great, but where we saw even greater savings was in transferring from an on-site server to a cloud-hosted one. There are little to no IT costs this way, and all the maintenance and upgrades to the server happen behind the scenes. We left the server behind and now stay constantly up to date with top of the line hardware and security systems with no expense outside our normal subscription cost and zero labor on our end. So we can focus on industrial plastics instead of server maintenance.
4. Access to Data
A good system gives you your data at your fingertips. Access to your data allows for much better decision making, and getting that data in real-time can make for a big advantage in fast-paced markets. A good system will give you near limitless options for ways to display and leverage your data.
5. Remote Access
A cloud-based system has been great for us, as it lets us access the tools needed for our workflow when and where we need it. Whether you are visiting a customer or vendor, or simply can't make it into the office, having access to what you need to work just by having an internet connection can be extremely valuable and allow you to work in ways (and places) you had never thought you would. These are all possible with a cloud-based system.
As manufacturing adjusts to the new norm of social distancing and working remotely, we at Gemini Plastics are eager to share what we have learned. We are passionate about digital manufacturing and are excited to see industrial supply chains shift in this direction. Check out our website for more information on who we are and what we might be able to offer you in the scope of industrial plastics. You can reach out with any questions about our services to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for reading!
Author: Alex Beausoleil
Director of Digital Manufacturing
Gemini Plastics, Inc