Industrial manufacturing is a complicated game.
Managers strive for seamless cooperation among human workers, machines, raw materials and various sub-processes daily. With all the technological advancements in the industry, it’s shocking how many manufacturers are dependent on a single, vintage resource: paper records and documentation.
Look, we all know that paper production is a massive environmental hazard and produces massive amounts of waste that sit in landfills: pulp, chemicals like sulfur and oxides, and bleach, to name a few byproducts. Paper products account for 26% of waste sitting in landfills. And that’s to say nothing of the deforestation and associated air and water pollution. It takes anywhere from 2-13 liters of water, another precious resource, to produce only one A4 sheet of paper.
But also? Paper is awkward to deal with.
From assembly drawings to checklists, SOPs to work instructions, audits, reference logs and more – managing loose leaf sheets turns a single sheet into a stack, and then into a binder, then a file cabinet… Forget trying to keep track of everything in one place, it’s tricky enough to not lose anything crucial.
It seems like a daunting task to move to a paperless environment, but not to worry, it’s simpler than you think, especially when you have a clear roadmap ahead. Let’s create one together by sharing all of our most useful resources for going paperless.
Where to Start Going Paperless in Your Digital Transformation
Don’t get the shredder just yet! We need a plan. What areas in particular need improvement? Also, what metrics will you use to indicate success or failure? It’s foolhardy to begin without a strategy, so you need to identify the core requirements of your key processes before you hit the ground running.
Here are some broad categories to consider, and we’ll continue getting more specific as we go along:
- Equipment upgrades
- Quality control standards
- Integrations and accessibility on the shop floor
These are just some of the areas you can consider for your first digital improvements. Making a plan of key areas to target new processes, including the relevant data to validate any changes, is an important first step to success.
Just as critical to planning is gathering the right people in charge of these various areas. This is because they have their finger on the pulse of the company’s day-to-day functioning and can provide valuable insights about key process indicators.
What Equipment Should Be Upgraded?
Upgrades are a massive topic, but also some of the simplest improvements to introduce. Here are a few places to start:
- Test paperless solutions in specific areas: This is a tactic you can employ in any area of your business as long as you make sure to start small and remember to be patient and methodical. For example, one area to start going paperless could be in transportation, where workers could be encouraged to link to the team via smart devices. Another example is introducing a paperless system in payroll, because it is operated centrally within the accounting division.
- Compile a hardware and IoT device inventory: Take a look at all of your infrastructural technology and make a list of any associated upgrades or purchase dates. There’s probably at least one device in the office that is running outdated software or needs a new install. Identifying these easy upgrades is a great way to avoid critical maintenance interruptions and also boost performance speed and ability.
- Introduce digital SOPs to core daily processes: Nobody likes change, so you have to get things right the first time to avoid confusion and noncompliance. You should gradually adopt digital processes across a few small (yet important!) areas so that workers can progressively adapt to further changes. An example for this may be changing your log-in/shift procedures to digital scanners or time-trackers.
- Incrementally connect and trace specific data: Your KPIs may change over time and depending on where you are in your digital transformation. Even if they shift later, however, it’s still a good idea to keep collecting data on your original KPIs so you can have a point of reference for further analysis later down the road.
If you want to keep things simple from the get-go, you can just consider your hardware and software upgrades, but you may also want to consider “upgrading” your standard operating procedures (SOPs) or other key processes if they are repetitive or awkward. This could mean a redistribution of administrative responsibilities or shifting around real-time shift manager authorizations. See more ideas for upgrading processes by exploring unexpected ways to text your SOPs.
Tackling Quality Control Through Digital Processes
Chances are, if you’re operating via physical paper, your product quality is not as high as it could be. Hey, don’t shoot the messenger, we’re only here to help. Here’s a few reasons why paper has been holding you back this whole time:
- Missing fields/data in paper forms
- Improper or missing signatures and timestamps
- Incorrectly filled forms
- Outdated version formatting
- Inadequate answers to specific prompts
- Inability to track changes
- Inability to share forms simultaneously
- No auto-syncing between versions
Simply put, there’s just too much variability with physical paperwork.
Non-standardized documentation means business leaders are working with unreliable information, which in turn leads to numerous types of industrial waste such as overproduction and excess material and labor usage.
Electronic solutions eliminate variation through centralizing input from forms and enabling automatic rules to guide diligent data reporting.
Pro Tip: Double-check that your paperless software system is able to share any documents as well as collect data in real time. This increases accessibility as well as accuracy in digital reporting. An example of this is VKS’ integrated report search filter, which is user-friendly so all documentation is at your fingertips.
Some tasks are repetitive by nature. What you DON’T want to rely on is your customer’s paper order as it is handed down the quality inspection line check mark by check mark. What takes less time and is more reliable is a digital quality checklist: a digital checklist or control sheet has automatic validation through mandatory prompts and can be used simultaneously at all workstations. It even collects user performance data while it’s used. An example of using a quality checklist tool is validating packaging of the final product, where the checklist requires the worker to verify certain requirements before being shipped.
Digitizing commonly used inspection protocols means that your performance will become faster, more accessible, and more reliable overall.
Authorizing Integrations & Accessibility on the Shop Floor
If we’re going to successfully implement a digital management system in a manufacturing environment, we need to select a software tool that is able to see all of the collected data throughout your facility. A central system means you can see the in-depth details you need as well as have an overview of everything working together in real-time.
Integrating and centralizing data requires one more mechanism to be successfully implemented: accessibility. Instant data is only helpful if you can get it, well… instantly!
In other words, John, the assembly team lead on the shop floor, can access work instructions mid-process to check off fields in a Smart form, while at the same time, Sarah, the head engineer, can access the same application from her corner office across the building. Your platform should prioritize this feature for true real-time data no matter the user’s location and regardless of which device they may use, like a phone, tablet, or computer screen, for example.
VKS is the perfect example of an accessible central web-based application for manufacturers interested in providing electronic audits, increasing process efficiencies, and decimating entry errors.
A sheet of paper is static.
Paper has limited accessibility being available to only one person at a time. Printing out multiple copies only adds confusion and room for error, as well as increasing costs.
Besides initially capturing data, your system needs to analyze and process that data in order to be an accessible and useful system for your workforce. Here are some added advantages to a software solution for manufacturers instead of just a word document or paper binder:
- Live production progress monitoring opportunities, like managers adjusting materials for line balancing due to increased visibility,
- Production and capacity management based on the most up-to-date Just-In-Time (JIT) forecasting through advanced analytics,
- Inventory and supply chain management process improvements like waste elimination and more predictable production cycles.
Pro Tip: VKS paperless software is based on true demand because it establishes virtual connections with an ERP or direct to customer to get the most accurate and latest JIT insights. By having performance data “just” at the “time” it is happening, there are more opportunities to adjust flow or resources according to unexpected interruptions in a lean production line such as unplanned equipment downtime.
Proving ROI On Digitization
You can have an awesome digitization plan laid out, but if you can’t prove ROI to upper executives, good luck with getting implementation approval. Don’t worry, it’s not as hard as you think!
We’re going to go over the most persuasive arguments for convincing your superiors to finally align with digital industry standards.
Direct Costs of Incorporating Digitization
The first question out of any director’s mouth is inevitably, “How much is this software going to cost us?” Luckily, state-of-the-art digital platform solutions have exploded in popularity and scope, meaning that upfront costs have dramatically reduced in recent years.
This means that not only are software solutions more easily accessible, they are also more upfront about pricing options and custom APIs so you can still save money even with minimal overhead space.
Pro Tip:Did you know that VKS offers 3 different basic packages for manufacturers? Our Lite, Pro, and Enterprise software solutions are custom-built to fit your needs without breaking the budget. The best part is that each package is modular, meaning that you can choose whichever building blocks apply to you and your niche and then naturally integrate them into your ecosystem.
For employees, filing and processing documentation is a thankless and never-ending task. For employers, paper documentation upkeep is a bottomless pit that eats money. Here’s a great example of this in practice:
Your admin team is made up of 3 people, each earning $20/hr. On average, each member spends only 1 hour a day handling paper, whether printing, filing, stamping, searching, etc. That may only be a cost of $60 per day, but over a year that number is $15,600. That’s a lot of cash for an inadequate system.
You’re looking at a full five figures just for maintaining the paper filling system – this doesn’t even include the costs incurred for purchasing paper, printers, ink, fax machines, file cabinets, mandated shredding contractors, training new employees with paper resources, etc. These are all expenses relevant to your potential savings with a digital system.
For example, IMEG cut training time by 50% simply by switching to digital SOPs.
For more on estimating your manufacturing costs including overhead, see our handy guide, which breaks down the categories of your budget into understandable chunks.
Indirect Costs of Maintaining a Paper System
It’s not just about the literal cost per sheet of paper – try thinking a bit more creatively.
First of all, traceability necessitates storage. In a high-volume factory environment working with stocked inventory, space is a valuable resource.
For example, Mitsubishi Electric got rid of all their paper binder instructions and adopted a VKS digital Smart system. Now they use the ToolConnect feature to automatically integrate traceability data by capturing part serial numbers.
Good luck trying to find a paper audit for a specific job performed by an individual on a single date in that file cabinet, and that’s even if the person before you filed it correctly. It’s just a nightmare to deal with so much paper, and having an up-to-date overview of your latest documentation seems like an impossible task. In contrast, companies with digital audit and inspection SOPs have seen massive indirect cost savings, like decreasing inspection times by 75%.
By digitally transforming your manufacturing operations, you’ll be able to search a part’s serial number and receive every log of when that part was deployed on the shop floor and exactly how it performed. Your real-time, or just-in-time, awareness of your operations and workflow is a huge asset. Simply having the knowledge you need at the exact time when you need it will save you time, money, and ease your bottom line by reducing non-value-added expenses.
It’s something that’s just simply not possible with paper systems. It’s like trying to email somebody with a typewriter, it’s just plain inefficient.
Using multifunctional paperless platforms allows every worker along your production – drivers, transporters, suppliers, assembly workers, managers – to coordinate for the most efficient manufacturing ecosystem. A great real-world example of this is KONE, which employed digital solutions and cut production time by 75%.
When things need to be adjusted quickly in real-time to account for discrepancies or errors, you’ll want to turn to a digital system.
For example, you can search for a specific observation like “Fluid leak under robotic welding station” and have information including that string in an instant, allowing you to react quickly to the situation.
Even if nothing wrong happens that needs immediate adjustment, management can monitor for trends in audit results that can be analyzed further. When your system database provides insight of increasing frequent fluid leaks in a specific production line, you can spot opportunities for predicting maintenance and upkeep.
Many of these opportunities for leaner production are hard to spot, and definitely not accessible in metal file cabinets in some back office.
Digital Systems Bring Enhanced Security
Security measures are necessary for a business to succeed as they are critical for ensuring legal and regulatory compliance.
Paper organization systems like file cabinets and binders – even if under lock and key – are critical risk factors that increase the chances of a security breach and break best practices for customer safety and industry compliance. Your information just isn’t safe unless it’s encoded and set up with proper authentication practices.
Digital and paperless software solutions control several levels of access to information using multi-factor authentications and multi-stage access control. You can set up strong barriers to bugs or malicious attacks by utilizing digital features like credentials for critical administrative tasks or allowing privileges for editing. This ensures sensitive information is far more hidden away than in the back of a closet in the facility.
Far more security information is collected with digital systems, also. Track changes in your documentation by seeing revision history and have a more detailed view of user history by automatically amalgamating data per user ID code.
VKS features like Access Controls, SSO Authentication, and Trusted IP Logins are fully integrated in your system using various levels of encryption for the utmost protection of sensitive and proprietary information.
Your intellectual property is protected when you’re using the same protocols that protect the digital property of giants like Google or the U.S. Department of Defence. By employing these securities, your digital transformation has the recommended armor to protect your assets from modern threats.
Establishing a Long-Term Culture of Improvement
There IS an endpoint to digitization efforts far on the horizon – standardization!
Changing established SOPs, even awkward ones, can be a lot of work. However, once these new and improved processes are in place and properly used, they maintain themselves. How? Let’s take a deeper look at the long-term goal of manufacturing continuous improvement.
‘Muda’ roughly translates to waste in Japanese and is a key tenet of the Toyota Production System (TPS) style of manufacturing made popular in the 1980s. Similar to Lean Production, TPS taught that eliminating waste would result in more efficient and higher quality processes. This philosophy towards manufacturing ended up revolutionizing the industry worldwide.
Types of waste include unevenness in production and also overburdening equipment and resources.
Reducing paper usage, whether for environmentally responsible reasons or for bottom-line cost targets, is beneficial because it is reducing your output of waste. Lean manufacturing principles are based on decades of proven manufacturing in practice. Going paperless is a natural progression of those methodologies.
Waste isn’t only physical instruction books, however. Motion is wasted when workers have to track down binders, time is wasted due to inefficient shift changes, transportation is wasted when subparts are shipped improperly, overproduction is a waste when too much is produced in anticipation of demand, etc.
Digital systems help reduce these “hidden” wastes that are hard to spot. Features like lean work instructions can eliminate assembly line variation, while others like automatic data collection or predictive forecasting can identify opportunities for improvement.
Another word for continuous improvement is “kaizen,” which comes from the Lean production and Six Sigma methodologies. Continuous improvement is, at its core, the golden standard of efficient manufacturing. Kaizen is important because the goal of audits is to identify opportunities for further improvement in the overall drive to make processes more efficient for all.
Kaizen works hand-in-hand with standardization. First, an audit is performed to find areas of improvement. Next, those areas are standardized so that things are done accurately and timely. Once more and more processes are standardized and tweaked over time, it becomes clearer which further areas are most in need of development. This constant continuous improvement is possible through standard work, which eliminates bias, error, and subjectivity.
An example of a standard process that fuels kaizen is a digital audit that prompts the auditor for answers to specific questions. Automatic and digital processes can indicate trends and deficiencies because over time data is collected precisely and in a standard way. Creating new routines for employees is a great way to encourage detailed work.
Make sure that your digitization efforts are simplifying daily tasks for your workers and setting them up for success in the future.
Advanced Tips & Tricks in Digital Transformation
Like any major process improvements, digital transformation can sometimes fail when not actively attended to. To lower the chances of this happening, it is important to be proactive instead of reactive. This takes a little bit more work, but will pay off in the long run in terms of long-lasting efficiencies. Here are a couple advanced tips for strategizing your upgrades.
Be Strategic: All Things Being Equal
Business leaders often find the most resistance to change within their workforce when they attempt to completely redesign all systems at once. It’s crucial to not interrupt the status quo too much, as your workers can feel disoriented about their responsibilities and performance. Humans prefer some element of routine or stability from day to day.
Your factory – just like Industry 4.0 – is a constantly evolving digital ecosystem. In order to strengthen the interaction between your employees and their manufacturing environment, you should not try to change everything at once.
As your process evolves and improves, you may find new solutions or SOPs hidden within the piles of data collected by your IIoT connections. As time goes on, check in with your team and emphasize a gradual, incremental approach to digital improvements.
Think about it this way: if all other processes performed as expected, which single process is the weakest link in the chain? This is the place to start. With all other things being equal, your most uncontrolled variable is the biggest weakness to target in your business’ improvement plan.
Just remember to take your time and be strategic about which areas to innovate at what times so you can allow for unexpected interruptions or setbacks as needed.
Improve: Don’t mindlessly copy
Digital transformation should not lead to a mere copy of your previous processes.
Throughout this article we’ve focused on shifting documentation from paper to digital systems, but there’s an important caveat: copying old standards word-for-word will not dramatically improve your overall system. You may see a couple short term gains in productivity due to the better processing power of digital platforms, but your data architecture will be messy if you copy old SOPs verbatim. This sets your team up with a shaky foundation.
For example, since the onset of the COVID pandemic, many companies have offered a partially or fully remote option for their employees. Establishing new standardization guidelines and SOPs should therefore be created with remote workers in mind as well as on-site workers.
If a procedure doesn’t make sense, now is the time to revamp your SOPs along with your digital transformation. If this is too overwhelming, remember that it’s best to target only one area of improvement at a time, as mentioned in the first section above.