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The Digital Smart Shop: What’s Possible Today and What’s “Star Trek”?

Once upon a time, wood manufacturing facilities were quite basic. Then, industrial engineers helped business owners discover a “shop within their shops,” massively increasing productivity with innovative technology and processes. It was as if each facility suddenly was creating the output of two facilities.

The same thing is about to happen again – this time with digital smart tech and interconnected solutions. Using the power of solutions like robotics, RFID, manufacturing execution systems (MESs), and even autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs), wood manufacturers are going to find that yet another shop is hiding in their shop.

However, it’s useful to separate a) what’s possible today from b) what’s not possible just yet (i.e. is just “Star Trek” technology for now).

The point we’ll be making today is that a fully interconnected smart shop with substantially increase productivity is indeed feasible right now. In fact, there are forward-thinking manufacturers that have already interwoven advanced technology into their facilities and have reached levels of efficiency and competitiveness that many organizations are only dreaming of.

But, as we say, it doesn’t have to be a dream.

Below we’ll cover a few key pieces of technology and describe what’s possible today and what’s not really feasible for the moment. This will give you a better idea of how smart, digital innovations can help your productivity immediately, making your facilities far more profitable.

“Why should I bother with next-gen smart tech?”

That’s the big question, of course.

Simply put, having an interconnected shop helps you drive productivity and profitability to levels you might not even think possible. When you track your parts and analyze your operations end to end, you’ll be able to see hidden opportunities to optimize and plan production. Your processes will become faster, more accurate, and more efficient. It will enable better pricing and competitiveness. You’ll have way better information to guide decision making. And ultimately, it will help you address one of the biggest problems in wood manufacturing: the lack of skilled labor. Having a smart, interconnected shop allows you to do more with the team you have, maximizing productivity by leveraging technology.

So, as we said, there’s another shop in your shop. Let’s talk about some of the places it’s hiding.

RFID Tags (Radio-frequency identification)

If you’re like most folks in wood manufacturing, you don’t see much practical usefulness to RFID technology. After all, RFID tags are stuck onto the surface of parts, and we’re in a business that sands, polishes, paints, and generally goes to town on surfaces. What you might not know, however, is that it’s possible to insert an RFID tag inside a part. Costs have also come down to the point where RFID tags cost cents, not dollars, so price isn’t really an issue anymore.

So, what’s the benefit? Well, your parts become trackable. Instead of getting held up because you started production, but then realized you can’t locate certain parts, you’ll know where things are 24/7. This makes planning much easier, and frees up your team from manually scanning barcodes.

Of course, RFID can’t pinpoint the exact physical location of parts down to the inch, nor can it pull a needle from a haystack when parts are stacked in a pile. It’s the first step, though, in getting the basic information you need to know where parts are in their journey through your factory. This basic data unlocks the power of a smart factory’s brain: the ERP and MES systems.

ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) with MES (Manufacturing Execution System)

Decades ago, ERP systems were only for big businesses. But now, the cost of these systems is such that nearly all manufacturers can use them. They’ve also become much easier to integrate than they were years ago.

You’re probably already using parts of an ERP, if not an entire end-to-end solution. ERPs can cover all aspects of your business, from sales estimating, to materials purchasing, to tracking shipments, and more. Having everything in one system is incredibly powerful for putting your team on the same page. However, one limitation is that not everyone can alter your central database at the same time. In order to keep the system as a single source of truth, it is often necessary to have one point of data entry, instead of having everyone editing records at once.

One important part of these systems in an interconnected shop is the MES, which records part locations and movements, launches the correct production programs, and more. It’s also powerful for planning production. Using knowledge of your upcoming orders, time to process parts, and other data, your MES can then suggest an optimized production schedule. This can ensure that you’re making what you should be when you should be.

At the moment, an MES that changes on the fly during the day is still “Star Trek” technology. But if you’re capturing the data on parts and production as you go along in the coming years, a system like that could be possible in the future and you would be positioned to make good use of it.

Robotics

Robotics are dramatically increasing your ability to make product with the team you have. They’re super useful for freeing up your team from repetitive tasks like loading and unloading parts, affixing labels, inserting dowels, sanding, finishing, and so much more. They’re incredibly flexible and can be reprogrammed according to your needs. In essence, they maximize the flow of product through your facility, working hand in hand with the MES to ensure that you’re getting the most you can out of each square foot of your operations.

There is a robot that’s still a little bit into Star Trek territory, for the moment: the AGV.

AGV (Automated Guided Vehicle)

At the time of this writing in late 2020, AGVs are coming into regular use in a number of opportunities. Materials handling is generally one of the biggest opportunities to adopt technology to become more efficient, and AGVs work directly on this critical issue.

One of the most interesting uses for AGVs at the moment is removal of “problematic parts.” For many facilities, things go on pause while the issue with the problematic part is resolved, and then normal production flow is resumed. But getting that part out of the way can keep production from getting stuck. That is, AGVs can take problematic parts, go park them in a Time Out spot, and then return them at the appropriate time when working on the part would be less disruptive to production. It’s a surprisingly valuable way to make use of robotics, especially in certain applications.

Let’s cover one final piece of advanced technology: augmented reality.

Augmented Reality

An example of augmented reality technology would be something like a pair of smart glasses that allow your employees to see a part on the floor and also see an image on the lens of the glasses showing the remaining design of the part left to be completed. You might see one side of a cabinet and then see the remaining sides as a superimposed dotted yellow line connected to the part on your augmented reality display. It saves countless trips to the computer or to another kind of screen, and is just another way to increase efficiency by putting information right where it’s needed instead of sending people running for it.

The main issue keeping augmented reality technology from being implemented is battery life, currently sitting at about two hours on standard equipment. As that increases to meet the length of the average operator’s shift, the feasibility of augmented reality could change. In addition, the application ecosystem needs to develop and mature to help you make best use of available equipment.

So, what’s possible today? A fully integrated, far more productive facility.

As we said above, it’s already possible to make use of available technology to create a totally interconnected production line. Parts can be tracked with RFID, manipulated by robotics, and the entire thing can be orchestrated and analyzed for optimization by your MES and ERP systems. If your shop is like many others and struggling to find ways to do more with fewer skilled operators, this is a powerful solution. You’ll get better information, become far more efficient and productive, cut down bottlenecks and wasted labor by your team, and in general transform into the hypercompetitive advanced facility many business leaders dream of owning.

It’s not Star Trek – it’s today.

Set a course to find the next shop hidden in your shop.

Engage!

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