Collaboration is today’s buzzword in manufacturing circles. Collaboration takes place anywhere a group of people work together for a common goal, from formal settings in the boardroom to the factory floor, on job sites, or at off-site meetings.
These days, people do not even need to be near each other to bring ideas together. Technology tools like mobile devices, video and web-conferencing applications, data and screen-sharing programs, email, instant messaging, and speakerphones all enable collaboration. Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, meanwhile, make it a simple matter to collect and share vast amounts of data, meaning that machines themselves collaborate as software is used to communicate information or operate devices.
The collaborative concept is not new: smart manufacturers have long known about the benefits of collective problem-solving and the importance of working closely with suppliers. Decades ago, manufacturers were using speakerphones to host remote conferences with representatives from around the world. And software applications that allow people to share information are not new, although they are being used in new ways.
The advent of cloud computing and IoT have supercharged the ability of manufacturers to store or issue information. Underpinning these breakthroughs is a shift towards a more global economy and a demand for new products brought to market quickly.
“Today, there can be significant distance between individual manufacturing sites. A product can be engineered in one location, produced in another, and then shipped and stocked somewhere else,” states a 2017 Cisco white paper entitled Manufacturing & Collaboration Technology: How to Drive Production and Streamline Processes.
The paper acknowledges that manufacturers must get products to market more quickly, necessitating that teams be able to come together. “Collaboration technology can help manufacturers overcome these challenges,” it reads.
“Today’s collaboration technology offers the best of all worlds: expert resources made available to any site in real-time. With the right tools, teams can quickly locate a remote expert, conference them in and resolve the issue. Collaboration technology also allows outside suppliers or equipment manufacturers to quickly help their customers fix problems,” adds the paper. And through the use of “videoconferencing and high-definition cameras… remote experts can view and resolve problems at the source of the issue without having to be onsite.”
Some additional pointers to keep in mind: collaborative technology is only effective when outside parties cannot hack into your system. The paper notes that the technology used by collaboration platforms must not reduce security and “should support end-to-end encryption to keep content safe.”
Evan Rosen, a well-regarded communications and collaboration specialist, has penned several books about the benefits of collaborative action in the workplace. As Rosen points out in his 2014 article ‘Collaborative Manufacturing Creates Value’ for IndustryWeek.com, collaboration depends as much on company culture as it does on technology. He recommends that manufacturers adopt what he calls an “all-access people policy,” in which all employees share ideas through technology.
“Technology lets us interact with anybody on the fly regardless of level, role or region,” writes Rosen, adding, “Adopting an all-access people policy means everybody has immediate access to everybody else regardless of level, role or region.” In companies that lack an all-access people policy, information can easily be lost or buried, he argues.
Rosen also encourages manufacturers to collaborate with customers. A simple way to do this is to solicit feedback via email, text or an online template from people who buy your products or use your services. These tools can help manufacturers find out what clients are looking for and determine what complaints they may have.
Supply chains are also becoming increasingly global and complex, and manufacturers must establish close relationships with vendors, no matter how far-flung they might be. This is where collaborative technology can play a major role.
“Real-time video and voice collaboration solutions keep information flowing between manufacturing locations, suppliers, vendors, and customers. Better information leads to improved customer satisfaction, faster response to market and sounder upstream/downstream supply management,” states a September 2008 paper entitled ‘Collaboration in Manufacturing’ from Polycom, a communications and collaborative technology solutions firm.
Yet another facet of collaboration comes in the form of remote maintenance and quality control. In the past, to ensure products and services were attaining high standards, inspectors would have to visit factories and plants in-person. While in-person inspections are still important, technological tools provide a helpful alternative.
In a blog post cheekily titled, 9 Benefits of Collaboration in Manufacturing You’d Probably Never Think Of technology firm Upchain says a collaborative framework can also help firms recognize new directions with potential.
For manufacturers, “The cost of exploring a new market is high, and the risk associated with building a new product (especially if there’s no client) is considerable,” writes Upchain. “Design, engineering, sales and marketing, plant managers and team leads all have different data silos. By uniting that data and using tools that make collaboration easy, businesses can identify and exploit new opportunities faster and more effectively.”
A collaborative set-up, complemented by remote monitoring, can lead to preventing, finding, and fixing mistakes more effectively. Better error correction entails more than just reviewing problems remotely and resolving them in a collective fashion. It can also mean eliminating errors in the first place. Collaborative technology can help manufacturers reach this goal by reducing what Upchain refers to as “file confusion.”
A collaborative environment creates transparency for file versions. Users are able to view the latest version, changes from previous versions, who changed it, and who approved it, explains Upchain.
A simplified, centralized file storage system, in the cloud or elsewhere, results in not only less confusion among employees but a reduced risk of sending the wrong work file to the factory floor. A cloud-based system is also helpful if a manufacturing plant uses collaborative software such as CAD programs.
“At the data level, cloud platforms not only offer multiple options for data storage but also make it very easy to distribute, geo-replicate, cache and backup this data for optimal performance and reliability,” states Diego Tamburini in his June 2018 article How the Cloud Enables a Collaborative Manufacturing Enterprise for the Manufacturing Leadership Council. “Collaboration among software applications can be achieved by exchanging data or exchanging messages. The cloud is an ideal platform for both of these types of communication.”
Also, any manufacturers serious about collaboration really need to explore cloud computing for easy storage, retrieval, and sharing purposes. “The cloud computing model can enable collaboration in manufacturing companies in multiple ways, including among software applications, machines, people, and between people and machines,” says Diego. “Collaboration wasn’t born with the cloud, but it is definitely much easier to enable in the cloud.”
Ideally, collaboration entails “the best minds solving the biggest challenges together, a continuous flow of new ideas among team members [and] customers contributing to company and products,” according to IVCi, a self-described provider of collaboration solutions based in Hauppauge, New York.