from the industry banner

eFlex vice-president George Jewell explores the software development collaboration tools that companies can use in manufacturing

screen-shot-2017-01-03-at-17-07-55After working for many years at a vehicle manufacturer, I moved to a manufacturing software company. At first glance, you would assume they have very different processes, but in many ways they are similar. Both are interested in continuous improvement, removing waste, empowering employees, and providing quality products. These efforts are fundamentally accomplished by an understood process and communication method. For example, a plant floor operator has an idea for improvement and verbally communicates it to a manager. The manager then decides to act on the idea by sending an email to his manager for approval and funding. Processes may not be documented, or standardised, but are basically understood.

While these industries have similar processes, predictably, software companies use more technology. Many use online services that provide process flow setup. These services may include kanban boards and lanes that match the process; task detail; status notification; and communication tools that interact with the process control application.

Basically, these tools guide tasks through a defined process, providing status visibility to all stakeholders. Importantly, they bridge the gap between different disciplines and management layers with a single solution. These tools are, of course, specific to the software industry. There are software tools that manufacturers use, but they seem targeted to specific processes related to maintenance or engineering. In fact, many manufacturers have a fundamental problem where they have many different systems or software solutions targeted to specific disciplines.

Applications and problem stationsSo how do these applications fundamentally work with software companies? Let’s look at a software bug process, which is arguably similar to a problem station on the plant floor. The bug is first captured by a customer, developer, or quality assurance person, and entered into the system. When entered, the bug is explained in detail with steps to reproduce it with videos showing the bug. The bug then lands in the system backlog and is tagged as needing review. During a periodic backlog review with a multi-disciplined team, the bug is categorised and prioritised. The task is then ready to be groomed by developers.

Grooming entails specifics on how to fix the bug and determine what resources and time are required to fix it. After grooming, the task is then scheduled for a specific sprint. Sprints are two-week intervals of scheduled work. The task is then picked up by a developer, and upon completion the code is sent to peers for code review. Once reviewed, the task is handed off to Quality Assurance. During this process, people doing the work can choose the scheduled task they wish to work on. This empowers team members to choose tasks they have more knowledge of or prefer to work on. After Quality Assurance approves the task it is then included as part of the next release.

Reviewing the above process, you can see how this could fit for a plant improvement project or maintenance activity. In both manufacturing and software industries, a problem could be identified, employees could pick projects or activities that interest them or ones they have significant knowledge of, and work flows could be created to optimise completion of the tasks. Again, the difference between the two industries is the use of technology as a guide through the process. As mentioned previously, software kanban boards representing the above steps provide excellent visibility of task status, who is working on it, which tasks are not being picked up, task that are late, the estimate of work, and much more.

The software kanban boards operate as follows. Tasks appear on the kanban board as cards with fundamental task information. Users can click the task to get more detailed information. At this point, users can drag the task to the next lane, which represents the next process step. This automatically assigns the task to the user who dragged it to the next step, and a photo of the user shows on the card. When a task status changes, a notification is sent via a shared message service to key stakeholders.

 Comprehensive messaging serviceAnother technology used in conjunction with the process control software is a comprehensive messaging service. Too often, email is used to communicate task statuses, or to document steps mentioned above. Emails are directed to whoever the sender feels has a stake in the issue. This typically means many people get the email who may not need, or care for the information. From this, email boxes get cluttered, making it difficult for people to find emails which do need their direct attention.

A proper messaging service can solve this problem. For example, messaging services can have channels of communication where users can choose to join based on their responsibilities. Messaging history is saved so users can review all messages within the channel at anytime. Quick questions can be more efficiently answered with all team members able to reference the answer. We find this tool significantly reduces email almost to the extent it is rarely used. Additionally, users have a better understanding of issues and fundamental transparency of activities which impact them.

Equally important, messages can be generated based on interaction with other systems. For example, as a kanban card has been moved in the process, a message can be generated on a channel, or directed to a specific user. Basically, these modern collaboration tools provide a single place where users can share information with individuals or targeted teams, retrieve and review previous discussions, and get automated messages from other applications or services. This open and ongoing communication method has a significant impact on workflow, team involvement and project completions.

As I mentioned, my experience while at a large manufacturer entailed many emails and a limited number of tools that supported processes. If tools were available, they were typically targeted to a specific discipline. Of course, this is anecdotal to one manufacturer, but since transitioning into the software industry I have seen other manufacturers have similar systems in place.

Bridging all disciplinesIdeally, the perfect solution would be a system bridging all disciplines and processes in the plant. This system would provide a configurable kanban environment based on specific processes. As tasks progress through the process, notifications would be sent to specific users and disciplines. These processes would, by the nature of the tool, require standardisation. This, in turn, would drive discussion on standards and the responsibilities of persons involved during the process. This solution would have a collaborative messaging service which provides channels, direct messaging, historically saved threads and, importantly, integration with the process control solution. Lastly, the solution must be web-based, so users can have access to the information from anywhere, and on any device. Access should be available whether it be on an iPhone, Android, Pad or laptop.

This is not an insurmountable effort as other high-tech industries are embracing these technologies now. For many years, manufacturers were leaders in the adoption of new technologies. I recall networked plants 25 years ago where users could access system information from anywhere in the plant. Sophisticated SCADA solutions provided plant-level visibility with detailed graphics of the process. Basically, manufacturers were well ahead of the technology used by typical consumers. Unfortunately, in the last decade, manufacturers seem to have fallen behind. With proliferation of the web and handheld devices, consumers today have access to many services and large amounts of information, to a level no one could have predicted.

A comprehensive process management and communication solution can greatly increase efficiency and transparency for plant teams and individuals, and based on my experience, there are low-cost options available today.