This post is adapted from a conversation with Sofiya Baran, Continuous Improvement Engineer, Stanley Black and Decker, in the recent webinar “The Connected Factory: How to Survive and Scale in the Age of Disruption” produced in partnership with SME.

There’s no doubt about it: 2022 is full of business and production challenges for manufacturers. What’s even more frustrating than the constant disruptions from trucker shortages to soaring inflation to unprecedented shipping snarls is being oversold on a silver-bullet fix to all your manufacturing woes.

In fact, manufacturing has always been a complex industry where new technology is applied to old problems to reduce pain points and increase yields and throughput. Except in rare cases, there’s no single turnkey product to get these fixes. Instead, a systems-wide approach drives better purchasing decisions for both capex and software maintenance. As it turns out, many of the tried-and-true principles of continuous improvement still apply when adopting cutting-edge digital tools and workflows.

Here are five steps you can take to augment and connect your operations:

1. Talk to the experts (those who know your operations the most)

Engineering and production don’t work well as wholly separate, siloed concerns. Direct feedback in both directions is a critical part of getting manufacturing right. Getting stakeholders together and talking might not always mean daily face-to-face conversation, but it does mean working from the same baseline and having a shared understanding based on known objectives and measured results. That solid baseline drives the discussion away from fault-finding and towards improvement opportunities, and modern manufacturing software and connectivity tools need to automate data collection to facilitate productive discourse.

2. Remember it’s not about you

Opaque processes are more prone to create finger-pointing, blaming, and turf-battling than transparent processes. Time studies and gemba walks help mitigate fault-finding tendencies and let the focus be on measurements and results rather than people and capabilities (or shortcomings). Connected machines and digitized processes with real-time reporting grants the same transparency with none of the overhead; flexible and responsive platforms allow lightning-fast iterative problem-solving and rapid prototyping of process improvements.

3. Don’t reinvent the wheel

Successful digital factory initiatives don’t start with buying software, they start from strong principles and good manufacturing fundamentals. Continuous improvement culture, lean thinking, and process visibility make for easy software deployments in a factory setting. In reality, digital systems and existing manufacturing (and business) processes will end up driving each other. Capturing critical tribal knowledge or digitally capturing a strong process can stretch the software even as good software design appropriately constrains and nudges manufacturing practice.

4. Think in terms of systems

The pieces that have to move in concert to make manufacturing work include people, processes, equipment, data, and more. These are systems unto themselves and stack up into larger systems, just like a sensor stacks up into a machine, then to a line, a facility, a company, a supply chain, etc. Systems-of-systems are so ubiquitous that it seems obvious to design for this reality, yet over and over again there are monolithic or single-purpose processes, tools, and software built into critical manufacturing and production.

5. Demand much more from software

Magical customer thinking and hyperbolic vendor promises don’t serve anyone well, but manufacturers are notoriously hard on suppliers while still overlooking egregious flaws in legacy software. This comes down to familiarity and education: machinery and equipment capabilities are simply better known and better understood across the industry than software systems and platforms. Knowing more about what’s out there and how it works will help both customers and suppliers circle in on expectations that are ambitious but still exist in our present reality.

So get out there and talk to an engineer, an operator, a shift manager, or whoever is helping you augment and connect frontline operations. Check out our recent webinar featuring Stanley Black and Decker, The Connected Factory: How to Survive and Scale in the Age of Disruption.”