Operational data is cheap, but management time is not

By Tom Gilmartin, PE

In a previous article, we talked about “data fog” – the vast cloud of data emitted by current sensory devices, that can obscure the metrics you really need to measure and manage.

So how do you deal with data fog in order to cut costs, improve throughput, reduce errors, improve safety and other things that really matter?

Part of the answer is to realize that while huge volumes of data have never been lower-cost to obtain, that data provides benefits only if someone is paying attention. If there are too many routine reports screaming for attention, this can divert management time from issues that actually matter.

Here are some practical steps you can take, using the example of a filling line producing bottles of ketchup.

What information do you really need? You probably don’t need a report telling you the exact weight of every bottle. What you do need is a system that will detect when a bottle is underweight by at least a specified amount. This alerts you to malfunctions in the production line, and helps you avoid shipping off-spec products.

Develop a way to obtain that information. This is often the easiest part, because of the huge array of sensory equipment available, how readily that equipment can be connected wirelessly to operational information systems, and data compiled into reports. In our ketchup-themed example, a scale can be set up to flag underweight bottles.

Pay attention and act on it. You need to act on the information obtained – such as setting up a gate to kick underweight bottles off the line. You also need to note if a production line is producing underweight bottles at a significant rate, which can indicate other problem on the line.

Finally, look for other ways you can use the data you gather. For example, many manufacturers have learned the value of a competitive spirit for stimulating production. Putting up a giant flat screen with a dashboard for each line can stimulate productivity – Line 1 just won’t want to be outdone by Line 2, and vice versa.

Just be sure you are not rewarding the wrong behavior – putting too much of a focus on production volume may cause too much breakage, off-spec production, motor burnout and other problems. So, be sure you track and celebrate results that show that corporate objectives are being met.

The result can be like the sunshine breaking through the fog, so you have a clear idea of where you’re going and how to get there.