Factory workers troubleshoot their way to success with Poka

Connected WorkforceDaily Management June 19, 2019
How manufacturers are empowering workers to reduce equipment downtime by 20%.
Factory20 Workers20 Troubleshooting201

Smart tools for a smarter factory

It's often the little things that drag down shop floor productivity. A subassembly won't quite fit, the bowl feeder keeps jamming or a new batch of material behaves slightly differently. While management focuses on the big picture, people on the factory floor are troubleshooting and problem solving to keep the lines running.

When problems lead to equipment downtime, calls for help often take longer than they should due to competing priorities. Maintenance technicians are performing essential preventative maintenance. Engineers are grappling with deadlines and design changes and the Quality team is tied up with the latest audit. It's all understandable, but the consequences are predictable. Machines, lines, and people stand idle while a solution is sought. No one is happy, and what's worse, no one records the solution that's eventually found, leaving open the chance of it all happening again. If only there was a way to tap into the collective knowledge of people working on the factory floor to resolve problems faster and permanently.

Perhaps there is. In this era of digital communications, surely speedy and effective collaboration is possible in manufacturing operations. Some forward-thinking digital leaders certainly think so.

This article explains how some manufacturers are making it easier and faster for workers to access the information they need to troubleshoot problems, resulting in a 20% reduction in equipment downtime and more.

Problems and opportunities

Consider this real-world example of a production problem: A third shift factory floor worker sees a conveyor tracking to one side. The fabric is rubbing against a post and will soon start to fray before eventually failing completely. That will bring the line to a halt as production stops both upstream and downstream processes, but problems will start before then. Pieces of fabric might contaminate the product, and that could lead to customer complaints and even recalls.

The worker is sure there's a way to adjust the belt, but lacking the training or knowledge, he isn't about to attempt any changes. Andon lights are turned on, calls for help go out across the plant by phone and word-of-mouth. Surely someone knows how to make the adjustment needed! But it's Friday evening, tools and manuals are locked away and the most experienced workers and supervisors have left for the weekend. Everyone knows there's a growing risk of downtime but no one has an answer to the problem.

Situations like these happen every day. It's reported that more than 80 percent of manufacturers have experienced unplanned downtime due to causes like this, with an average of four hours of production being lost each time.

Unplanned downtime is expensive. One authority puts it at up to $260,000 per hour while another estimates the typical four-hour stoppage costs $2 million, but impacts can extend much further.

Most manufacturers run lean with no buffers as a safeguard against disruption. A four-hour stoppage can mean missed shipments, something half of all businesses say they've inflicted on their frustrated customers. That can prompt them to look elsewhere when a contract is up for negotiation, as can quality issues. Perhaps the business can be retained, but only by offering price cuts that eat into margins. And all because no one knew how to do a simple task like adjusting a conveyor belt.

Of course, as the old cliché goes, problems are also opportunities. In this case, there's an opportunity to improve employee communications and empower factory workers to troubleshoot and solve problems themselves.

Instant access to information is key

In the scenario described above, information wasn't where it could be accessed and used. Rather than providing details about making adjustments right at the workstation, that knowledge was stored in a binder far from the point of need or locked away in someone’s head. What if instead all the information workers needed was right there at their workstation?

Some manufacturers are already taking this approach. They're equipping workers with tablets and applications with all the equipment information— not just machine manuals but simple troubleshooting guides created for and even by those working at that workstation. When a problem arises, rather than picking up the phone, workers can use this information to solve the problem they're facing.

QR codes provide workers with instant access to the precise information they need. They can view photos or watch videos that illustrate what they need to do and how to correctly perform the task. Not everyone takes to text-based instructions and procedures. Many people are more visual, preferring diagrams and even videos. (Just look to the popularity of YouTube “How-To” videos for evidence!) A workstation tablet is a perfect tool for presenting this kind of digital instruction.

An easy-to-access knowledge base of troubleshooting solutions is a good first step to reducing downtime but no matter how hard we try we will never be able to anticipate and create solutions for all possible problems. That’s why enabling effective employee communication through a mobile app is a critical second step. In the event that a solution isn’t found, workers need to be able to reach out across the factory, across the organization, and even to those “off-duty.” Workers engaged in problem-solving can send out a virtual call for help to a wider audience. They can quickly reach engineers and managers who may be off-site but who can guide the team in finding a solution.

Best of all, it enables workers and CI teams to create a record of the identified solution, contributing to corporate continuous improvement efforts. They can document what they did, and that knowledge can be immediately shared, helping other teams address the same problem quickly.

Companies that have done this see substantial benefits. A global food manufacturer reduced downtime 20% by implementing this approach, in conjunction with new equipment and centerlining procedures.

Another company, this time at a molded plastics manufacturer, said, “We significantly reduced our downtime ... better communication of problems leads to better solutions.”

Some benefits aren't so readily quantified but may actually have a bigger impact on operational performance. Multi-national steel manufacturer, for example, sees tremendous advantages from digital employee communications.

One engineer said, “For me, it’s the communication aspect that gives me the opportunity to interact and know 24/7 what happens in the plant and assist my people remotely if they need.

Another said, “What we see the most is the communication level inter-teams and inter-production line. Sometimes I see people reading other departments' news and it interests them way more than before.”

Poka: the ready-to-use application

This manufacturer is just one of many putting Poka to work on the factory floor. Poka is a web and mobile application providing the knowledge and communications capabilities described above. Deployed at individual workstations, it gives operators instant access to all the information they need and provides real-time communication across business functions.

Poka puts troubleshooting tools where they need to be: in the hands of people who know the problems, equipment and processes best, but it does more. By capturing “lessons-learned” it supports organizational learning and continuous improvement, at the same time empowering those on the factory floor to act as and when needed.

Marquis Thibault, Continuous Improvement Coordinator at Isothermic, (a custom window and door manufacturer,) said, “Poka's strength is its ability to document our procedures and to share them easily afterward. This allows an exchange of all of our best practices.”

Let your employees improve plant productivity

Manufacturers don't need to be told how important it is to “sweat the assets” — they know! What they need are tools to make it happen.

Poka is that tool. It harnesses the collective talent and knowledge of the people in your business closest to production — those on the shop floor. By giving them process and equipment information, it taps into their latent troubleshooting and problem-solving skills. The tools layered on top enhance employee communications, enable knowledge sharing, and above all, help reduce downtime and waste.

Forward-thinking manufacturers are giving their factory operators a tool that helps them do their jobs better. How much more could your employees contribute if they had a tool like Poka?

Continuous learning on the factory floor
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