Factory Floor Management Going Virtual

If your business operates in the online realm, you might not think of it as having a factory floor. Whether it's an actual one or a virtual one, however, every manufacturer has a factory floor. How do you get your virtual floor up to snuff? To answer that question we turn to the advice of Managing Automation, which recently addressed the topic in an article titled "Deep Dive: Technology Directions - Building the Digital Factory Piece by Piece."

To stay competitive in today's economic downturn, "companies are starting to take a serious look at the value of incorporating more simulation and visualization into design-to-production processes so that they can see and test production setups before actually making new production investments," the article points out.

This is where "visualization tools that virtualize the factory floor experience" come into play. "The challenge, however, is keeping digital models in sync with the physical world, particularly the plant floor, where change is constant." Businesses that want to overcome this obstacle will want to choose a real-time data collection system utilizing touch screen capabilities. That way, they can oversee WIP tracking, job tracking and factory floor control, labor collection, job sequencing and machine integration, as they occur. They can also enjoy greater visibility to jobs on the floor via an easy-to-install and intuitive push-button touchscreen user interface.

The advantages of such a system are that it embraces ERP to "track the material flow based on purchase orders" and it ties in MES software "to show the status of manufacturing." By leveraging a PC-based system that is completely interfaced with most ERP and MRP systems and by using a drop and drag electronic board and an unlimited set of scheduling rules, an Advanced Planning and Scheduling (APS) and finite scheduling system visually improves the overall sequencing of production (and raw materials).

In particular, an APS scheduling system accurately models the system constraints, integrates with existing software such as ERP and provides an easy-to-use decision support tool for production planners. Unlike wallboards, spreadsheets or simple electronic planning boards, the solutions it offers are interactive, intelligent and can be customized to meet the specific needs of the application. All of these capabilities put digital factory floor managers one step close to virtual synchronization.

New enhancements to such technology are constantly taking place as well.

Some of the latest upgrades include: machine interface software that reads production directly off machines, scales, etc.; the ability to allocate material at any operation to eliminate errors and avoid large material variances; interfacing to bar code label printing software that allows labels to be printed on demand during production runs; new Labor Audit reports that allow supervisors to check for discrepancy in shift data in order to provide easier identification of unusual amounts of "clocked-in" time, time not "on-the-job," operations started prior to the previous operation; and biometric readers that can now be used to "scan" into the factory and jobs.

Although the idea of a digital factory floor sounds like a futuristic concept, a vendor of a real-time data collection system that provides job tracking and factory floor control can "take much of the complexity out of directly integrating product and production models."

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