Enabling the Agile Factory: A New Continuous Improvement Paradigm

Written by: Emily Himes

Read Time: 4 min

With rising costs, supply chain uncertainty, an aging workforce, and increased volatility in demand among other challenges, manufacturers are turning to intelligent cloud and edge solutions to increase the agility of their factory operations. Factory agility is achieved through asset productivity, operational visibility, and intelligent production operations. Further, it requires manufacturers to take charge of the factors that are within their control, prioritize their investments and resources, and understand the impact of changes they make.

PTC has partnered with Azure, a cloud computing software operated by Microsoft, to provide strong security measures, increased flexibility, and scale for data. This integration allows for optimized total cost of ownership (TCO) and a greater focus on sustainability goals, quicker time-to-value, and reduced security risks in manufacturing environments.

What is factory agility?

Agile manufacturing is a methodology that prioritizes customer requests, industry trends, and rapid responses to necessary changes. By focusing on the customer’s needs and using adaptive processes and risk management strategies to exceed them, factory agility is a sure-fire way to boost satisfaction and retention. When manufacturers consistently surpass expectations through agile practices, they retain their customer base and build lasting relationships.

Why is factory agility effective?

Agile manufacturers can generate a competitive advantage based solely on their speed and ability to keep up with customer demands. They can even anticipate and respond to market changes. Whether it’s a sudden surge in demand or a shift in consumer preferences, agile factories can better adjust their strategies and operations to meet those pressures.

Overall equipment effectiveness

Traditionally, manufacturers have measured productivity of their operations and assets with KPIs such as Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE), which is reported as a percentage using measures of equipment availability, performance, and production quality. OEE is an important KPI, but it can be difficult to compare opportunities for improvement based on a percentage. A large improvement of a less critical issue may be less valuable than a small improvement in a key production bottleneck. For example, an OEE percentage fails to isolate complexities like overtime shifts and changeovers. Further, OEE calculations may not be available in real time, meaning they don’t immediately show the changes expected from improvement efforts or easily roll up across units, lines, plants, or systems.

Agile factories benefit from real-time visibility into their operations, freeing themselves from delayed calculations that impede rapid decision-making. By implementing digital manufacturing solutions, organizations can unify data from IT and OT systems, standardize time units, and identify bottlenecks in real time, ultimately allowing them to respond swiftly to changes and optimize their performance. And while OEE remains a crucial KPI, its integration with agile practices and real-time insights is what truly can help manufacturers stay competitive.

Four key agile elements

In today’s dynamic manufacturing landscape, embracing agility is not just a choice—it’s a strategic imperative. Manufacturers who adopt modular project design, leverage information technology, form strategic partnerships, and cultivate a knowledge-centric culture position themselves for success. These agile practices empower organizations to swiftly adapt to customer needs and foster continuous improvement—and by integrating these elements, manufacturers can navigate market shifts, enhance efficiency, and stay ahead of competition.

Modular project design

When products are manufactured in a modular fashion, pieces can be manipulated, swapped, or changed seamlessly and quickly. The modular approach offers several advantages, such as:

  • Flexibility: Manufacturers can easily adapt to market demands or technological advancements.
  • Efficiency: When a specific module needs improvement or replacement, it can be addressed without disrupting the entire system.
  • Scalability: Manufacturers can add or remove modules as needed, making growth a simple process.
  • Organizations who opt out of agile practices are grounded in yesterday’s approach to design changes, and risk being outpaced by those who embraced agility.

Information technology

When information travels instantaneously, manufacturing organizations ensure customers will receive the quickest possible response time. This accelerated flow of data doesn’t only boost customer satisfaction—it also optimizes supply chains by streamlining inventory management, production planning, and logistics. And of course, organizations who aren’t leveraging this process are more likely to lose market share to companies who can better improve customer success and make faster supply chain improvements.

Corporate partners

Sharing skills, resources, and access with other organizations helps accelerate production processes and time-to-market. By choosing partners strategically, manufacturers allow for:

  • Shared resources: By pooling resources, expertise, and capabilities, manufacturers can speed up production time and market entry.
  • Risk mitigation: By providing access to a larger pool of skills and resources, partnerships help manufacturers navigate uncertainties more effectively.
  • Market access: Partnering with established organizations grants access to new markets, distribution channels, and customer bases, which expands reach and accelerates growth.

Agile-minded partnering is particularly important in today’s interconnected value chain, as they are frequently only as strong as their weakest link. Even if an organization has internalized agile methodologies and digital manufacturing solutions, they may still find themselves being overtaken if they are dependent on partners who are using outmoded technologies and approaches.

Knowledge culture

Employees are at the core of continuous improvement (CI) initiatives. In a supportive, knowledge-centric culture, employees feel empowered to contribute ideas and actively participate in CI efforts. Effective communication and training regarding the goals of CI can motivate everyone toward a shared vision —and by routinely seeking feedback, it’s easy to determine pain points and understand where improvement is needed the most.

Agile-driven initiatives don’t just deliver greater velocity; they also help organizations move in the right direction and pursue goals with greater impact. Without this mindset and these resources, companies often find themselves mired in fractured goals and disunity around how to drive improvements. That’s a clear disadvantage if they can’t keep up with organizations that are fully harnessing the knowledge base of their employees.

PTC’s digital manufacturing solutions

PTC’s digital manufacturing solutions enable manufacturers to connect to existing systems and unify real-time data across Information Technology (IT) and Operational Technology (OT) that are usually siloed. By pulling important IT and OT data from their systems of record, and standardizing on a single unit of time, these solutions create a closed-loop approach to identifying bottlenecks and measuring impact in the production process. This unique and systematic approach can help manufacturers identify, prioritize, analyze, and validate the top opportunities for financial improvement.

Digital manufacturing solutions enable manufacturers to see how much lost time a specific problem is causing, so plant managers can start with the biggest time loss cause, implement a change, and move on to the next most impactful bottleneck—creating a new approach to continuous improvement and enabling factories to measure problems and priorities in a dynamic, agile way.

Let’s step into the shoes of a plant manager, who we’ll call Jean. Jean might need to meet increased demand while also slashing the cost of overtime. How can Jean produce more in fewer hours? By figuring out where time is being lost, and measuring everything on that single scale, Jean can easily see where the biggest issues are and focus on those with the greatest impact. By focusing on and investing in areas with the most impact, Jean will optimize his investment of time and resources and address issues in order of priority.

For example, Jean uses PTC’s digital manufacturing solutions to see a time loss waterfall of bottleneck and performance analysis for a week of production. Jean sees that resetting raw materials is the largest source of time lost that week. Jean discusses the materials reset process with the front-line team and discovers that each person is resetting the machine and raw materials differently. The night shift workers have figured out a way to do the task in half the time as the average day shift worker, and they all use the same process. Jean trains the entire team on the faster process, and the change is implemented across shifts. In the next week, time used for resetting materials is reduced, and this is no longer the biggest category of non-productive time. Jean then proceeds to address the next largest opportunity for recapturing lost time, and so on.

By reducing the time for materials reset, Jean has started the process to achieve optimal efficiency in the plant. With less time required for reset, Jean’s team could produce more in the same amount of time (increasing revenue), produce the same amount in less time (reducing operating costs), and increase overall agility to make changes as the market demands.

Jean used these solutions to prioritize where to invest time, understand the cause behind the biggest loss of time, measure the impact of an implemented change, and begin the CI process. Jean’s materials reset process could then be rolled out to other lines or facilities that may benefit from the improved workflow.

Digital manufacturing solutions enable fast time to value by connecting to data systems that are already in place and enabling front-line workers to account for events throughout their shifts. Furthermore, standardizing to the metric of time, comparisons can be made more easily across shifts, lines, and facilities. This creates a close connection between improvements and recovered time that links directly to financial impact.

How does Azure assist PTC’s digital manufacturing solutions?

Unlocking true, transformational value requires a systematic approach to CI processes and can only be achieved when paired with enterprise scale. Standardization is the key to scale. Azure provides unparalleled data security, which is critical when assessing systems that will scale across regions, business units, and levels of management. It is critical this system is operating efficiently and safely—when paired with PTC's digital manufacturing solutions, it provides unrivaled insights for continuous improvement and optimization.

Tools that create operational visibility are the first step to creating agile factories. Visibility creates insights, and insights improve intelligence and optimization. This enables production efficiency, which creates value for manufacturers. The value created from solving one time-loss issue can be used to fund the next digital transformation project, and so on. PTC’s solutions on Azure lay the foundation for full digital transformation. More than standardizing data in Azure, it unlocks more advanced factory use cases that will benefit manufacturers. The solution employs out-of-the-box analytics capabilities to identify other scenarios and variables that occur during, before, and after time loss events. With all the IT and OT data gathered, manufacturers can apply Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to begin predictive and cognitive analytics on their operations. These digital tools are pushing manufacturers to the factory of the future.

True factory agility is achieved through several avenues, such as operational visibility, streamlined operations, and asset productivity. Realizing these goals takes a robust IoT strategy. It can be difficult to understand which IoT solutions can integrate with your existing systems, or how to best protect IoT data. Together, PTC's digital manufacturing solutions and Microsoft Azure are uniquely positioned to help manufacturers implement an IoT solution focused on value, speed, and scale.

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Tags: Industrial Internet of Things Thingworx Increase Manufacturing Productivity

About the Author

Emily Himes Emily is a Content Marketing Specialist on PTC’s Commercial Marketing team based in Boston, MA. Her writing supports a variety of PTC’s product and service offerings.