If you’re an automotive manufacturer, you’re working with hundreds of thousands of parts for each car that you produce. How on earth are you supposed to keep track of them all as they make their journey from your suppliers to the finished product in the dealer’s showroom? This has been a thorny question that’s plagued manufacturers for decades, with numerous imperfect and often unwieldy solutions presenting themselves—but as manufacturing continues to undergo a digital transformation and cloud computing begins to power new improvements in real-time data analysis, there may finally be light at the end of the tunnel.
Since the beginning of the global conversation around Industry 4.0, cloud computing has always been a central component of the discussion. Now, as that technology is becoming more mature and widespread, its applications for production planning are becoming clearer. This means that it’s time for production planners across the global value chain to start asking themselves, “What can the cloud do for my factory floor?”
Challenges in Responsive Production Planning
Like we said above, complex products like automobiles can require hundreds of thousands of distinct parts, resulting in significant challenges for even the most digitally mature businesses. If you’re using a spreadsheet to track these parts as they come in from your suppliers, move to the factory floor, get incorporated into production runs, and have to be replenished, you’re likely going to be able to update that spreadsheet once or twice a day at best. That means that if your suppliers are experiencing shipping delays at the same time that a planner is sketching out a production run, that planner could easily find herself trying to use parts that haven’t arrived yet. If she knew about the shortages in advance, she could probably conceive some sort of workaround, either by changing that day’s production ratios or getting creative with her inventory network. But if she’s taken by surprise because the spreadsheet isn’t up-to-date, in all likelihood the machines will simply sit idle until the parts arrive.
This is obviously a problematic situation to be in, but it’s made even more so by the fact that planners using spreadsheets or pen and ink (or even highly siloized software solutions) often fail to achieve planning optimization in the first place. If you can’t see every element of the production chain in real-time, it’s extremely difficult to generate the least wasteful and most value additive production schemes. This means that when something goes wrong, it’s usually going wrong on top of the fact that the plan was flawed to begin with. The result is that your resilience do disruption remains wanting.
The Power of the IoT in Manufacturing
In order to maintain flexibility, you need to be able to analyze all of your possible actions in a timely manner. In order to perform those analyses, you need to gather data quickly and make it visible to both stakeholders and analytics processes. This is where the cloud comes in. More specifically, this is where the cloud is able to power improved data collection through a closely related technology: the internet of things (IoT). Most IoT deployments are based on cloud technology, with the individual sensors constantly transmitting information to a centralized, cloud-based system. As it happens, your factory floor is one of the most obvious places to apply this new technology to improve visibility and power advanced analytics. If, for instance, you’ve got sensors set up along the entire production line letting you know the speed at which processes are being carried out, you can spot any slowdowns or delays well in advance. From there, you can take steps to avert the slowdown and maintain your throughput.
By the same token, if you’re using the IoT to track the materials that are coming in and out of your inventory, you can get a live overview of parts availability that can immediately be leveraged into optimized production flows. If your sensors show a potential shortfall looming for a certain part, they can alert you to the need for an adjustment in your production program—plus, they can alert your inventory planners that they need to find a way to source more raw goods in the near future. Strictly speaking, an IoT deployment doesn’t require cloud integration, but the decentralized nature of the cloud makes it an ideal fit for deploying this kind of disparate, multi-faceted technology. The cloud can help create an environment in which stakeholders are able to access the information they need through a user-friendly interface, run analyses that are fast and scalable, and ultimately work towards a more optimized production chain.
How the Cloud Improves Flexibility
We’ve seen how the cloud can power IoT deployments, which in turn improve your factory floor operations by providing you with fine-granular data. But is that the extent of the cloud’s ability to improve your production runs? Far from it! Because the cloud is inherently scalable (i.e. you can adjust your capacity up and down as needed without adding extra servers in-house), it gives you a modicum of flexibility that would be difficult to achieve otherwise. If, for instance, you encounter a catastrophic disruption that impacts your entire supply chain, all of your planners would be able to run what-if simulations and advanced analytics workflows, all while accessing data as needed, without putting a strain on your servers. In this way, you can rest assured that you’ll have the flexibility to do what you need to do to overcome a crisis.
Of course, this flexibility can also extend to non-crisis situations. Because cloud environments are built to promote integration, a cloud-based planning or ERP module would be primed to connect with other solutions at use elsewhere in the supply chain. This would give planners the ability not just to gain access to data quickly and easily, but to make adjustments to their IT capabilities as needed. In this way, you avoid Shadow IT and data silos, thereby maintaining visibility, flexibility, and agility up and down the entire value chain.