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Leveraging marginal gains to improve manufacturing performance


Connected Technology Solutions spoke to Dave Hughes, presales director UK at PTC, to discover how they are improving their customer’s performance by adopting a strategy that was made famous by the success of the British cycling team

From elite sports to education and manufacturing to retail, people are discovering that one per cent certainly makes a big difference. But why is this concept of marginal gains such a compelling strategy for business? “It simply means focusing on small changes to everything in the business one per cent at a time,” Dave Hughes, pre-sales director UK at PTC, says. “There is still a time and place for broad sweeping transformation change, but it is risky. By concentrating on making multiple incremental, one per cent improvements, the compound effect will be significant while avoiding the risk of considerable upheaval.”

The principle came to public attention through, Sir David Brailsford, the performance director of British cycling. The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by one per cent you will get a significant increase when you put them all together. It certainly worked with the UK cycling team topping the medals table with 12 medals. Including eight golds.

“Internally, we have discussed Dave Brailsford and how he challenged the notion that massive success can only come from massive actions,” Dave Hughes, pre-sales director UK at PTC, says. “His mantra was to aggregate marginal gains up to something more meaningful and improve everything by one per cent. This got us thinking around how we go into the manufacturing space to see where we could make some small changes that, over time, compounds into something more meaningful.”

Building on a digital backbone

Although the philosophy sounds simple, its success relies on an effective schedule and plan to be built and monitored on a digital backbone to allow visibility. “If you improve something by one per cent every day, you get something like 30 to 40 times improvement over the year, but you must do this against a schedule. The schedule and the planning are as important as just assuming you can improve something by one per cent.

“If we relate that to the manufacturing space, the approach that we take with an organisation is to not rip and replace current enterprise systems they, but rather to wrap and extend around a current OT infrastructure. We recognise typically that CapEx spending in manufacturing has very long budget cycles, and there is already lots of investment today in OT infrastructure. We would look to aggregate content through the existing infrastructure from the shop floor up to the supervisory level and gain insights into machines by using the connectivity capability offered by the platform. The notion of intelligent asset optimisation can be augmented at a smaller scale at the lower level in that stack to start to understand uptime and when maintenance may be required.”

That approach is crucial when looking at marginal gains projects because although aggregated benefits may be huge, the small gains from each project may make securing support budget difficult. “It goes back to the concept of identifying low-hanging fruit,” Hughes explains. “Maybe there are a couple of legacy machines that have not been connected in the past. They have not necessarily been incorporated into an extensive cost-benefit study as part of a typical CapEx budget cycle. It is all about providing financial and technical benefit by considering discrete parts of that infrastructure, rather than taking the infrastructure as a whole.

The need for a solid foundation

One challenge that manufacturing faces with the strategy that does not apply to many sports teams is the highly integrated process where small changes can affect the whole. “It does not always have to be based on technology,” Hughes adds. “We like to enable the operators to understand what the existing process is, see if it is fit for purpose and whether there is an opportunity to enhance or improve the process. However, we can look at how workers operate on the shop floor and how they must interact with the machines. Suppose we can start skilling up semi-skilled operators to do more of the activity themselves. In that case, suddenly we are starting to make some inroads into performance and operations into efficiency. Then we do not have an operator always waiting for somebody else to enable their activities if there is an issue.”

Much like the elite sports teams, the marginal gains strategy is far more effective for manufacturers when implemented in companies with a certain degree of digital maturity. “It comes back to the bottlenecks in the process, that depending on where you are starting the journey to where you are going, is going to be slightly different,” Hughes explains. “Some areas where we have seen some excellent usage of our technologies is in manufacturing execution systems (MES). Typically, you would go to an MES vendor and procure a solution that does many things, some of which you will never use.

“You are paying a lot of money for a system that effectively has a capability that may be too mature or complex for your organisation. But because that has been the traditional route, you have been led to that area of massive expenditure to get success. In our strategy we may only be capturing the work order, or the manufacturing actions, or the operations required to perform that manufacturing or assembly capability. This can start very small but then build over time, depending on the maturity or otherwise of the organisation that we are engaged with. The spend against that schedule can be very much smaller than going in with the big bang in the first instance, and gradually layering capability onto the top of a light MES approach in the first instance.”

One of the other significant use cases to apply marginal gains is digital workforce productivity, by moving from a traditional paper-based approach to standard operating procedures and manufacturing instructions to using augmented reality to provide and then deliver those instructions. “We are trying to link that to the engineers of tomorrow as well,” Hughes says. “To cater for the YouTube generation many engineers today do not want to get a crusty old manual off the shelf. They want access to digital content very quickly, at the point at which they need to use it anywhere through the process.

“That is undoubtedly an area that we can very quickly start to make not only marginal gains but some pretty significant gains. That could be as simple as working with 2D drawings, for example. Part of the issue is that 2D drawings typically have to be printed off and taken to the point of view, which can be time-consuming. If we can serve up that 2D drawing onto a handheld device, suddenly we have saved multiple hours over a year.

Taking a holistic view

One of the primary advantages of a digital transformation is the greater visibility gained as companies strive for the much spoken of single pane of glass view. That increased visibility into all facets of the process has the added advantage of making it easier to isolate areas of concern that can be targeted with a marginal gains strategy.

“What we are trying to do is digitise the process more effectively and include some of the assets that traditionally would not have been digitised,” Hughes concludes. “But also understanding that organisations have spent a lot of money and investment in the era of PLM and much of that design information is already stored somewhere in the enterprise. But because of the typical siloed approach to engineering against manufacturing, sometimes these organisations do not necessarily get access to a lot of that design information and digital representation that has been heavily managed and heavily processed in the PLM space and engineering domains.

“This comes back to what I was discussing earlier about this light MES approach that can leverage the investment in CAD and PLM, making it available downstream. Now, in this case, it is engineering, but it could also be into sales and marketing, service, or anywhere else in the lifecycle, to maximise the investment made in that digital representation through the design activity and to use it elsewhere.”

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CTS The industrialisation of IT
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