Career Development

Connect your team as well as your tech, ARC Forum panelists urge

Cross-functional collaboration is vital, plant leaders say.

By Christine LaFave Grace

Interconnectedness was a dominant theme at this week's 19th annual ARC Industry Forum in Orlando, Fla. But the need for better connection within and across manufacturing plants isn't limited to the realm of the industrial Internet of things (IIoT), panelists repeatedly made clear.

For companies to be able to fully realize the cost savings and operational efficiencies made possible through smart technology, they need better collaboration across workforce teams.

Information technology and operational technology teams in particular too often don't have a good understanding of each other's demands and limitations, speakers said. "In a lot of organizations, there's a lot of tension between this manufacturing piece and this IT piece," offered Carrie Schaller, IT director of manufacturing operations for Dow Chemical, in an interview on Wednesday. And long-entrenched territorialism can hamper companies' efforts to make use of all of the new data they're collecting from connected assets.

The solution? Both cross-functional training for employees and the creation of cross-functional teams that bring workers from different areas of the business together to tackle a given challenge, whether it's related to implementing smart tools or another business opportunity.

Dow employed this strategy in developing its enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution, which began rollout in 2014. The company realized that "we've really got to work across processes to make things successful," Schaller said. Because ERP touches upon purchasing, finance, IT and more, Dow's dedicated ERP team brought together people from each of these functions. Now, Schaller said, "they see so much more about how the company works."

"I've got a quality guy in my organization who's now moving to supply chain," she added. This kind of cross-training—which can serve as a powerful retention tool for Millennials eager to broaden their skill set—"can energize people in a whole new way," said Schaller.

Selecting the right people for a change-implementation team is vital. Said Rick Dolezal, ABB vice president of sales and marketing, in a session on the IIoT: "There are a lot of things that are just about the people you put on the team." A change-focused team can get more done if managers don't add people who will impede the process, he commented.

A key point for directors and plant managers to remember as they implement new technologies and processes, said Janet Chaffin, president of Stanley AeroScout Industrial, is that the production line knows best. Your workers know where your problems are, she said, and they know the answers to, "Where could we be more efficient?" So it's incumbent upon directors and managers to listen to them. When Stanley AeroScout moved to implement smart tools such as asset sensors, it was production workers who came up with the idea of having push-button panels installed at specific points along the line to be able to summon someone from a response team immediately as needed, she said.

In addition, it's crucial that workers in different functions have access to the kinds of information that will help them do their job better. From a corporate standpoint, it may require a level of transparency that managers and other information gatekeepers aren't used to offering.

"You can't solve your business problems when you have a unit mentality," said Jim Wetzel, director of global reliability for General Mills and board chairman of the Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition—and that applies to optimization of human assets as well as mechanical ones.