Work order tracking: overlooked no more

Work order tracking is often overlooked in manufacturing.

If you have a solid system in place, you can quickly take it for granted. If you don’t have a robust system, then tracking work orders can be an all-consuming, waste-creating administrative monster. It is sort of like oxygen – you don’t really notice it unless you don’t have any!

In this post, we want to take a detailed look at work order tracking in manufacturing. Specifically, we want to show you how digital work order tracking can streamline operations and reduce administrative burden. So we’ll look at:

  • What work order tracking is
  • Why work order tracking is important
  • How digital work order tracking can keep your operations on track

To get started, let’s get situated with a definition. Then we’ll look at what it’s like to operate in a factory where work order tracking is an issue.

What is Work Order Tracking?

Work order tracking is a method for following production progress against a specific demand for work. It’s a means of ensuring that:

  • Each job is produced on time
  • Bottlenecks are caught and solved early
  • That each department in a plant fits together into an organized whole
  • For creating visibility into Work-in-Progress (WiP).

Typically, work order tracking is a highly manual process. Work orders are represented on long paper lists. There’s no way to dynamically update lists to match the realities of production. Work order tracking can even be a form of light exercise, as production planners shuffle around the shop floor trying to find the status of a given job.

Visual depiction of why work order tracking is important

The need for work-order tracking is best shown by example. So now let’s look at a real-world work order tracking challenge. It’s one I experienced frequently, and it might sound familiar to you.

Where work order tracking gets complicated: A machine shop example

For the purposes of this work order tracking thought experiment, let’s take a look at a typical machine shop.

In this machine shop, there are a number of machining centers split into cells of various capabilities. At some point in the past the machine locations, functions, and groupings were determined by those intending to produce to current and future demands. Over time, of course, these demands and requirements change. And purchasing or moving machines around is not something that happens so quickly.

This machine shop feeds into its “customer.” For this example, let’s assume it feeds an assembly area that consumes these parts and places orders against the machine shop.

Illustration of work order tracking in a manufacturing facility
Work order tracking can be complicated without the right tools

In order to reduce setup costs, requests are processed in batches (as determined by a setup wheel or ABC analysis) and their processing requirements may differ. Parts may need to move from machine to machine before they are completed.

Work order tracking in this environment falls on the production planner. This individual has the responsibility of taking requests from the assembly area and releasing orders to the machine shop so as to prevent shortages and deliver parts on time.

The point of constructing this imaginary machine shop is to highlight this:

  1. Internal production demands and production routing can be complex
  2. Requirements change over time, making job tracking all the more complicated
  3. The burden of tracking work orders often falls on one or a few individuals

So now let’s look at a manual work order tracking practice to see where the difficulties start to add up.

Work order tracking in practice

The production planner may release a work order packet to the floor and place it on a job board or in a queue.

This traveler is meant to move along with the parts, getting signed off and passed between the various operations as they occur. Without work order tracking, though, this is where things get challenging.

A planner is operating, most likely, on a list of items that are due out of the shop. Some of these may be late and they will all be in various stages of processing, sitting on shelves waiting to be processed or in machines. Every time a machine finishes a job its operator must look through the open jobs and choose one to set up and start.

To be effective, a planner must give a clear schedule of production to each work center so as to avoid late deliveries, keep associates working, and reduce changeover time. This is no easy task, as the orders being processed through the shop are changing constantly.

The planner must then walk the shop floor constantly, noting where orders are, when they are due, what is being worked on, and making adjustments. If an order has an issue and is pulled from production, the planner must be closely in tune with this to communicate the urgency or cut a new order to replace it.

Without a system to show the status and location of orders to a planner or a system to communicate the schedule to the work centers – this is a daunting task.

In an environment like this it is not hard to imagine a scenario where a planner locates a “hot” job and is forced to stop a job that is running (mid-run) in order to process this higher priority job. This incurs unnecessary changeover waste.

Similarly, a machine could go down and many orders could sit idle waiting for the machine to come back online. We may not be aware that these orders are affected until it is too late.

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Why work order tracking is important

Unless everything is working perfectly and orders are processed in an immutable sequence, you’re going to need to be aware of where your orders are and what their statuses are.

Customers want their parts and shareholders want their operations working efficiently. The way we process orders through our factory is critical to this. Our knowledge of where they are, where they are going, and when they are needed is the basis for critical decision making.

Simply put – a planner needs to know where the orders are.

It is fundamental to the execution of any plan. With this information a planner can even optimize future planning strategies.

How to Track Work Orders with Tulip

With Tulip, work order tracking can be an automated, seamless part of the production process.

Here, I’ll walk through a work order tracking application that we built. Digitizing your process might be easier than you think.

1.) Create a work order

The first step is to create a work order. In the app we built, operation teams start by entering work orders. This allows you to input all of the information you’ll need to track orders, and allows you to move orders to different stations and queues as needed.

You can also connect to work orders from your existing manufacturing systems, or from another group of Tulip apps.

Creating a new work order with Tulip's Work Order App
Tracking a work order is a simple as filling a few fields

2.) Add orders to the queue

Planning production for a day or week can be as simple as moving work orders into a queue. This will put each work order in line, showing you when it was created, when it’s due, and what comes next. On the left you can see which work orders are ready to go in the queue, and which are already in progress. Clicking on any work order allows you to see detailed information about it.

After completing an order, work centers can pass orders to the next process in the sequence or choose to complete the order and deliver to the customer.

Screenshot of Work Order Tracking Terminal running on a tablet
Which orders in the queue, which are in progress, and details about the current job

3.) Track your open work orders

Now you can get to the work of tracking open orders. The chart on the left shows you how many work orders are open by station, while the information on the right gives you a high-level overview of open work orders.

An application showing the location of work orders within a facility
An application showing the location of different work orders, as well as jobs up in the queue


Work order tracking is an important part of industrial operations. When done manually, it can be a huge headache.

With the right tools, work order tracking can be a seamless part of your operations.

Streamline work order tracking with Tulip's Frontline Operations Platform

See how a system of apps can help you gain real-time production visibility with a free trial of Tulip.

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