Supply chain executives in all industries, including metals, are living in a world of heightened expectations. Customers, armed with greater knowledge and pressed by their own tight margins, have become more demanding, said Steve Chang, senior vice president of strategy, solutions and service for RMG Networks at last month’s 2016 Supply Chain Technology Conference in Chicago. “Consumers are more informed and more empowered, and they want more of everything,” he said. “It flows through into the supply chain when it comes to demands for more speed, more accuracy and more responsiveness.”
Sadly, those in the supply chain aren’t always able to comply. In his visits to manufacturers and distributors, Chang has seen a number of issues that prevent businesses from meeting their customers’ high expectations. He points to four common technology obstacles to improved productivity and workflow:
- Failure to fully employ information technology. For all the money being invested in information systems and automation technology, companies are still relying on manual practices to convey a lot of information, Chang said, pointing to big handwritten boards used for scheduling at some plants. “We’re fighting a new-age war with old tools.”
- Use of outdated or static information. Even when they have the information, companies often don’t distribute it to employees in a way that can deliver results. For example, productivity figures that are collected immediately might not be shared in time to allow employees to make the necessary changes that would lead to improved performance. The underlying information is captured, yet it’s not deployed so staff members can make the best use of it.
- Siloed operations and functions. “For all the sophistication many companies have, it’s often difficult to know what’s happening in one functional area that could have an impact on another area,” he said. One simple example is a bottleneck in inbound deliveries, while the outbound shipping area is overstaffed.
- Disparate systems. The use of many different systems to track various functions, from process line controls to warehouse management systems, is another impediment. Individual systems are providing useful singular information, but they aren’t tied together to make optimal use of the data.
One solution to many of these challenges, Chang said, is adopting real-time metrics management, a method of collecting, analyzing and presenting information throughout a company. Each component is equally important to the process.
In the first step, data is collected in real-time from all the various sources within a company’s walls. “I liken our tool to a vacuum. We can go around and pull all that data up to an aggregation place.”
The second step is to create intelligence out of the data. An example of applied data intelligence is pick efficiency, which can be used to analyze warehouse performance. An efficiency ranking greater than 90 percent could be represented in green, a ranking from 80-90 percent could be shown in yellow, and below 80 percent could be signaled as red on the computer screen. “These are simple triggers, but actionable if it can be displayed to an employee.”
The third step in the process is to display information as quickly as possible and to distribute and present it to as many people as possible, so they can take action to bring about change. There are several ways to get information to employees throughout the facility, whether on the shop floor, outside or inside a sales office, Chang noted. Digital signage, desktop displays and mobile devices are all tools for rapid dissemination of valuable data.
“Information is only valuable if it can be put in front of somebody who can do something with it,” he added.