Strategies for Technology Success in Complex Production Environments

Technology Success

In a complex production environment, many factors can improve or impede production efficiency. With an adequate understanding of the process and strategic business planning, a competent IT MSP can customize IT solutions to help optimize production efficiency and reduce the frequency and duration of downtime events. The result is greater profit and improved relations with customers and other stakeholders. One of the keys to success with complex production environments is to create and operate IT systems that allow for optimizing the production process. Process interruptions, whether slowdowns or downtime for any reason, tend to have a negative effect on production efficiency and profit. Accordingly, successful business and IT strategies focus on the elimination of system upsets, streamlining workflows, and keeping employees and the business focused on the services and products they deliver.

Integration of Multiple Workflow Streams

Maintaining steady-state production in a complex production environment typically requires the integration of multiple workflows. Achieving proper integration requires a detailed understanding of and attention to each workflow and coordination between them. To demonstrate the integration of workflows, consider the generic example below, provided by Softrack .

This process flow diagram shows the major components common to any manufacturing business. Can you imagine the challenge of managing and tracking this workflow with paper documents? Most manufacturing businesses have software to manage these individual tasks. How many have customized IT solutions that truly integrate the individual tasks/segments via a single software or common operating platform? Integration at this level can significantly improve manufacturing production efficiency while reducing associated administrative tasks. An investment into a strategically designed IT solution to integrate workflow at this level is sure to generate a positive ROI, and promote production efficiency and reliability. Using such a system, you should expect to improve your reputation for reliable and efficient delivery to your customer base, while operating with a greater profit margin.

The generalized manufacturing business workflow diagram shown above describes some of the workflow elements that a good ERP solution can help to expedite. There are other elements of the manufacturing environment, which this generalized workflow diagram does not detail. The workflow diagrams shown below isolate the workflow production task, and provide examples to highlight complexities that many manufacturing operations must deal with.

Measuring, Monitoring, and Tracking for Quality Control

In the graphic below, from American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics , note the multiple checkpoints to ensure proper quality control is applied to the manufacturing process. A system to continuously monitor and record functionality of machines and processes can provide valuable information, e.g. trends that indicate an increased potential for malfunction or running out of spec. Such information can assist in proactive decision making to prevent downtime events. This may be accomplished by adjusting PM (preventative maintenance) schedules to accommodate anomalous observations so that the machines are tended to at optimal times in the production schedule. For example, when dimensional checks reveal ‘drift’, the affected machine can be adjusted at the right time, avoiding losing time for rework. If this information is digitized, the trends can easily be tracked and strategic decisions routinely made to optimize the production schedule, and to reduce the incidence of scrapping the product (waste).

Physical Process Optimization and Inventory Management

The graphic below from Maxxis Tires USA outlines a manufacturing process where multiple simultaneous workflows are combined to produce a single product. By tracking run time vs wait time for each of the sub-processes, a real-time assessment of production bottlenecks can be performed. This helps to understand production efficiency issues, and sets the stage for making adjustments for continuous improvement. Having clarity on near and long term trends will help the business formulate and refine strategic moves to ensure optimal production efficiency.

Note that this process requires Inventory Management to ensure feed-stock for the different processes remains available and does not lead to process slowdown or downtime. A good ERP solution can automate ordering and delivery schedules for the feed-stock, based on consumption rates. This can help to limit exposure to maintaining excess inventory while ensuring supply to accommodate the production schedule. With the use of technology, information from Sales and Production Planning can be used to forecast consumption trends and assist with Inventory Management, and Purchase Orders can be automatically generated to accommodate production schedule forecasts. This helps to reduce administrative costs and to eliminate slowdowns to production due to less efficient PO generation systems (i.e. manual PO generation).

Shipping and Delivery to Customer

A good ERP solution can significantly reduce administrative overhead associated with Shipping your product to your customer. Reduction in the manual administrative process and associated cost can be achieved by:

  • Automatic printing of shipping labels and documents
  • Coordinating rate quoting and comparison, and providing the options directly to your customer
  • Integrating your shipping software with the software used by the shipping companies
  • Automating workflows to continually track shipping progress and keep the orders moving through the system

Using these Technology solutions helps you deliver your product reliably with minimal manual activity. This helps to keep your customers happy and to improve your operating profit margin.

Defining and Refining Production Routes

There are different production processes used in manufacturing plants. The type of process depends on the nature of the materials being produced and the variance in product specifications. Process types include:

  • Production Line: Suited for high volume manufacturing of a single product or product group, the production line is configured to move the product along a line with stops at stations to perform a specific operation, such as assembly, painting, packaging, etc. This type of production process allows fine-tuning with less setup time than other processes, however, is less flexible to accommodate a change of product produced, and is expensive to set up initially.
  • Continuous Flow: This is similar to a production line process, except that the entire process must be completed for a given product, and a partial product cannot be stored. Examples of products produced in continuous flow include chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and plastics.
  • Custom Manufacturing: This type of process is best for producing a wide range of products using the same equipment. The equipment configuration or layout can be modified, as each type of equipment is contained in its own environment, for example, dedicated areas such as a welding area, lather shop, packaging area, etc.
  • Fixed Position Manufacturing: This process is different from the others in that the product remains in one place while goods and services are mobilized to the product location. Examples would be shipbuilding or a large conveyor system built on site where the product will be used.

Technology can be applied to assist with defining and updating production routes, which guide items through the manufacturing process from raw materials to finished products. Routes can be stored as templates, which are easily modified to accommodate custom orders. Cataloging routes save time as opposed to the creation of new routes each time an MO is issued.

Promoting production efficiency through automated or streamlined route planning is an essential element to developing and implementing an optimized strategic approach to your manufacturing process.

Data Integration

The discussion above (Integration of Multiple Workflow Streams) is primarily focused on integrating the different workflow streams and processes. Another area for integration is focused on data. In most complex production environments, data is collected from a variety of sources, and from different platforms. Without proper strategic business and IT solution design and implementation, transferring data between different platforms can be work intensive, requiring redundant data entry and promoting errors. The good news is, there are solutions that can integrate all types of data from a wide range of sources. State of the art software solutions efficiently and accurately move data between systems and can collate different data sets into a single storage location, virtually eliminating the need for redundant data entry or manual data transfers.

EDI (Electronic Data Interchange)

EDI replaces manual methods of data exchange. With conventional data exchange, significant human intervention is required, often resulting in slow-down and errors, as compared to electronic data interchange. EDI is most commonly used to exchange data between different businesses, for example, buyers and suppliers.

A comparison of the two flow diagrams below highlights the automation achieved using EDI as opposed to conventional manual data and document exchange. The benefits of using EDI are obvious…with the bottom line being lower administrative costs and experiencing fewer errors than using conventional data exchange.


The most common documents exchanged via EDI are purchase orders, invoices and advance ship notices. However, there are others such as a bill of lading, customs documents, inventory documents, shipping status documents, and payment documents.

To transfer documents and data between systems using EDI, it is necessary that both systems used the same standard or format. When two businesses decide to exchange EDI documents, they must agree on the specific EDI standard and version. Because of this inherent limitation to EDI, and because each business will typically have data management systems that cannot directly use data in one of the standard EDI formats, it may be necessary to have software to translate the data between EDI and other platforms.

The trade-off between the benefits of EDI and the obligation to translate data into a useable format must be carefully considered before deciding to use EDI. A competent IT MSP with experience in this area can help you assess EDI and other options, and work with you to strategically plan your business and IT needs accordingly.

Technology Enabled Fleet Management

The realm of fleet management involves dispatching duties (tracking status of shipments and delivery schedules), management of resources (e.g. drivers and delivery vehicles), defining delivery routes, coordinating shipping orders with sales orders, and maintaining detailed information the driver needs such as scheduled stops, warehouse information, audits, linked sales documents, etc.

In the pre-technology period, this required personal (human) interaction for each fleet management element for each driver. Consequently, the administrative load and associated costs were high.

With strategically designed and implemented business and IT systems, fleet management can be streamlined through the use of technology. With initial requirements defined and recorded into a common database, updating is accomplished with minimal human interaction required. Drivers can enter basic info such as arrival at checkpoints, etc. using mobile technology and pre-programmed route information. Maintenance of the fleet management system is streamlined, significantly reducing errors and administrative time and costs.


The cumulative effect of implementing these technology features into your manufacturing environment can significantly move the bar for your performance expectations. Given a strategic approach to business planning and design and implementation of technology can prove a worthy IT investment, delivering a positive ROI for your business, as well as creating space for your company to focus on its primary business as opposed to distracting and time and resource-consuming administrative duties.

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Published On: October 9, 2018Categories: Managed IT Services, Strategy