The sluggish economy forced most manufacturing companies to hunker down and plan very diligently. Under-demand has led to overcapacity that is resulting in a mentality of “rob Peter to keep Paul running.” In other words, when (not if) demand increases with economic recovery and plants’ full capacity is again required, significant challenges could suddenly arise.
Lines that have been used sparingly during the past year will require upgrading before they can be used for production, and those upgrades will need to address a company’s sustainability goals, as well as the needs of a workforce featuring a good percentage of personnel with vast experience but nearing retirement.
How can facility owners and managers best manage this situation? By continuing to spend their time wisely, and devoting resources now to address capital investment and operating expenses that broaden functional improvements and add capability, their plants will be ready when demand picks up. Lagging strategies will open the door to competition, both for individual manufacturers and for the U.S. manufacturing sector as a whole.
As you address this issue, it’s crucially important to keep a keen eye on both the power and ease of use of information. Information gathered from the plant floor can be analyzed and incite actions that can reduce costs by increasing efficiencies, predicting maintenance measures and maximizing energy efficiency. The technologies necessary to enable the enhanced information acquisition and management that produces faster, real-time decision-making are currently available, and they’re easier than ever to operate and maintain.
That means line operators and maintenance personnel of all ages — from the experienced technician to the new hires — can be productive faster, instead of spending valuable time learning the nuances of new components. Key offers in this “shop floor to top floor” approach include programmable logic controllers (PLCs), HMI/SCADA and I/O with more embedded intelligence, whether in the form of programmable automation controllers (PACs) or simply devices like AC drives with embedded controllers. These components can be part of an enhanced communications network that can funnel real-time information to key decision-markers to maximize productivity and meet sustainability goals.
But the availability of these solutions - and the talents of system integrators and electrical contractors to install them — is only half of the equation. The rest is more subjective — the choice manufacturers have right now to investigate, identify and implement the solutions before demand leads to production ramp-up, taking into account the opinions of those who will operate the equipment, and those who will use the information that will be generated.
It’s also important to note that there is currently a shift from concern over plug-and-play to increased interest in how to handle the myriad data coming from the plant floor. Bolstered by the shift to standard communication (i.e., Ethernet), this means manufacturers now depend on suppliers to help solve problems and provide integrated systems with data management and reporting that is well-thought-out and easy to use. Taking advantage of these factors today can accrue the benefits listed above, along with better energy management, which can help reach a manufacturer’s sustainability goals.
So, as the U.S. economy grows, so also does the opportunity to broaden functional improvements and add capability, particularly in the area of information facilitation. Conversely, choosing to “wait and see” will incur complications later by placing manufacturers in a less-competitive position.
Of course, making a decision to invest and actually spending the funds can be two different things. That’s why Schneider Electric advocates a comprehensive plan based on evidence gained through research before the first purchase order is written. Such a plan will include everything from an acceptable projected payback period to intangibles like an internal champion. The result can be a tremendous competitive advantage.
Andy Gravitt, senior vice president, industry business, Schneider Electric North America, may be reached at email@example.com.