Maximizing Industrial Productivity to Keep Pace with Demand Swings

Written by: Erik Hille

Read Time: 5 min

While some manufacturers have faced plummeting demand, others face a less visible challenge: safely scaling up industrial productivity to meet surges in demand.

The past 12 months have left no business unscathed. Some are facing mass disruptions to their supply chain. Others have seen demand dry up completely, forcing complete shutdowns. Still other industries, including life sciences, food & beverage, and consumer product goods are experiencing unprecedented, record demand.

Companies in this latter category have had to respond by learning how to quickly—and responsibly—respond to booms in demand that have sometimes been quite dramatic. Adding to the complexity is the unstable nature of customer demand and supply chains. Despite your current operating conditions and expert forecasting, unpredictable triggers could significantly alter the market need for your offerings, your ability to meet those needs, or both. This post will explore how manufacturers may respond to a drastic variation in both demand and supply chains while remaining productive, by maximizing throughput and optimizing asset efficiency.


How to approach skyrocketing demand

Compared to alternatives plaguing other industries, a surge in demand is often considered a good problem. Being fortunate enough to undergo a dramatic increase in demand puts you in a unique position. But it doesn’t mean that you’re guaranteed success; in fact, mishandling operations can pose dire threats to business. If you are unable to deliver your goods on time and on budget, you may find your competitors are all too happy to shoulder your surging demand burdens.

Managing changes in demand means understanding how it will impact production. This requires anticipating changes to set up, production, assembly, storage, transportation, and less obvious variables like utility costs, and scheduling, staffing, and training.

The cost of production must be continually taken into account as throughput changes. Overall equipment effectiveness must be monitored. Asset and employee productivity must be scrutinized to minimize scrap and waste. To keep pace with on-time deliveries at the desired product quality, industrial firms need to be agile in their quick response to these challenges.

To ramp up production for one area, it can result in other areas of the plant underproducing. Alternatively, to keep up with such a high demand it could require engaging more employees, at high labor cost, who are unaccustomed to those processes and procedures. Both considerations are made easier by leveraging the industrial IoT to gain a full picture of your operations. This allows firms to capture enterprise-wide data and gain real-time visibility into assets, processes, and procedures across the enterprise.


Optimize factory asset efficiency to slash downtime

To take full advantage of the favorable market conditions and pricing, manufacturing equipment and machinery can be pushed to their limits, leading to inefficiencies, poor quality, or even machine failures and downtime. Inefficient machines impact overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) and can become bottlenecks. Inefficiencies eat into profit margins, potentially leading to losses during a period of high demand.

To combat these challenges and ensure they’re operating at optimal industrial productivity, manufacturers must also increase their asset efficiency. Real-time asset health monitoring proactively monitors a set of assets and provides the ability to uncover, assess, and solve hidden issues. During a period of high demand, remediating issues before they result in downtime is critical. IoT data provides operators with the ability to avoid breakdowns through predictive maintenance. Assets operating at optimal efficiency empower manufacturers to confidently respond to market conditions without wondering if their equipment will break down at a moment’s notice, halting a crucial period of production.


Remove obstacles to industrial productivity with augmented reality

Manufacturers already face a skills crisis as a large chunk of workers get closer to retirement age. On top of socially distant plant floors and aging employees, at-risk workers are shifting to work remotely, with lean workforces accounting for the mounting shortages of skilled labor. These factors put further stress on industrial organizations when demand suddenly shifts.

To combat this, augmented reality is changing the way that industrial companies respond to crises—counteracting manufacturing challenges by increasing the productivity, effectiveness and efficiency of workers. With the help of these AR solutions, frontline employees can continue to work together seamlessly and focus on production of their highest demand products:

1. Vuforia Expert Capture empowers frontline workers by delivering location-specific procedural guidance to their fingertips. Using an AR headset such as the Microsoft HoloLens 2, inexperienced employees can follow in the footsteps of an expert to get their jobs done quickly, accurately, and safely.
2. Vuforia Chalk helps frontline employees or onsite technicians troubleshoot plant floor issues in real-time by combining “see-what-I-see” video with over-the-shoulder guidance from a remote expert.
3. Vuforia Studio provides frontline employees with experiential training and step-by-step guided instructions, using 3D, spatially aware visualizations that are overlaid onto the employee’s work environment.

During the past year, augmented reality has been a game-changer when travel has been restricted—by ensuring seamless communication between employees, technicians, and manufacturing teams. Regardless of location, AR makes guidance and expertise available to frontline employees—helping maintain critical business operations and reducing on-the-job errors that can often lead to manufacturing scrap and rework.


The IIoT’s impact on throughput

Manufacturers are under tremendous pressure to maintain the same levels of industrial productivity while going through major changes. The industrial IoT offers a competitive advantage to manufacturers aiming to achieve their throughput goals. Armed with actionable insights, employees can identify, diagnose and define any issues in production immediately to avoid lags in productivity, or worse—unplanned downtime.

With advanced analytics to predict maintenance needs, technicians can identify root-causes for the issue, while accelerating time-to-resolution, and preventing downtime. This enables manufacturers to maximize output per unit of input, increase utilization, and raise overall productivity—even when adapting to changing conditions.


Success in the Field: Smiths Medical steps up to the plate

UK company Smiths Medical faced the global ventilator shortage head on by supercharging their operations to churn out their top-tier lifesaving ventilator, the paraPAC plus. Contracted by the UK government, Smiths Medical was tasked with increasing production from hundreds of units per month to 10,000. Working to roll out production as fast as possible, Smiths Medical leveraged Vuforia Expert Capture to successfully step up in a time of crisis by maximizing productivity as the need for their product skyrocketed.


Preparing for the future

Global crises are both unpredictable in when they will occur or how long their effects will last. Fortunately, companies can prepare so they remain agile and are able to rapidly respond to changing environments.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been universally disruptive, less widespread disruptions are obviously not new. Disruptions to demand can be caused by trade wars or embargo, geopolitical tensions, recessions, fluctuating oil prices, and more. Even climate change can impact ports and other important links along a supply chain. So, while we all hope that we are slowly making our way out of the shadow of the current crisis, it’s prudent to recognize that the next serious challenge to your operations will likely be much more mundane, but perhaps just as disruptive.

It is critical to know that not all disruptions will result in the same outcome on your organization—a company currently experiencing reduced demand may someday need to rapidly ramp up to their maximum production capacity. IIoT and augmented reality-driven solutions can ease the strain on manufacturing operations without the company taking a severe hit on business objectives. Digitally optimizing the supply chain or undergoing a digital transformation can help reinforce your organization to thrive when future disruptions occur.

Tags: Industrial Internet of Things

About the Author

Erik Hille

Erik Hille is a Senior Director of Solutions Marketing at PTC. His work centers around the application of IIoT and AR to manufacturing operations. He has a held product marketing, consulting and marketing research positions across IT, call center and support, enterprise resource planning (ERP) and benchmarking and is a regular contributor to thought leadership articles related to manufacturers’ digital transformation journeys. He currently resides in Gloucester, MA, is an avid gardener, has a dog, a cat and two daughters.