Competitive Advantage Getting Short Shrift?

Dec. 18, 2013
MESA research shows that many companies still do not have modern information solutions implemented in their manufacturing and production areas.

Manufacturers have historically kept their operations hidden from outsiders so as to not give away competitive advantage. Yet if manufacturing is such a competitive differentiator, why aren’t companies investing more in this area? MESA research shows that many companies still do not have modern information solutions implemented in their manufacturing and production areas. It’s a crazy paradox.

It’s not because the software is not proven, or the success not documented.

For the past 20 years, I have seen and written case studies of successful manufacturing software implementations that point to an easy business case for investment. I’ve been waiting for the manufacturing plant floor software market to grow exponentially. Yet it has not happened.

Perhaps it’s because many are not educated to the role and capabilities of today’s manufacturing enterprise solutions. I can also say I’ve seen a few manufacturing software failures in the past, mostly because of process and organizational issues. If you don’t understand the software and the concepts, and see the wider implications of a project, you can easily be disappointed. Part of MESA’s mission as a not-for-profit industry association is to raise the level of education about these solutions.

Today’s software for production plants is:

Tailorable. The very fact that every manufacturer believes they have secrets in their production area might point to some of the challenge. Every production plant is somewhat different. So if companies tried to apply software too long ago, the implementation may have created upheaval, not have met expectations, or may have failed completely. Today, most credible manufacturing software is quite capable of handling the detailed differences from one facility to the next. There is also some variety in software available to provide visibility in production areas, based on industry, level of user guidance, and performance reporting needs.

Adaptable. Competitive advantage may also be seen as a specific technology, procedure or material in the plant. If that is the view, you might never notice that real sustainable competitive advantage comes from production facilities that can reliably shift to new products and materials that continually improve processes and keep up with the times. A rude awakening waits for those who believe their competitive advantage is anywhere but in how effectively you manage the constant change in products, materials, processes, personnel and technologies.

Lean-friendly. In the early days of lean, the wisdom was not to use software. The reasons were sound then, but are not now. For one, most of that was about ERP software, which inherently uses the push and not pull concepts. Another reason was that people needed to understand the principles of Lean first. For many companies, that is already the case—basic Lean knowledge is in the workforce. What most companies now need are ways to be more responsive, flexible and streamlined in reporting operation performance. Software can also help collect and normalize the data need for effective root cause analysis, decision-making, allowing more confident and rapid action. It also can support the ongoing success of new processes and prevent backsliding.

Integratable. Manufacturing software has a critical role to play in keeping information flowing across a manufacturing enterprise. The ISA95 standard provides a firm foundation to understand how to integrate from the plant to the enterprise. MESA’s B2MML and BatchML XML instantiations of these standards take that the next step to help you architect data flows between your business-critical systems. Modern manufacturing enterprise solutions nearly all recognize and map neatly with these standards and the XML integrations you build.

The technology has come a long way, and manufacturing software implementations that do not live up to expectations are almost never because the technology is not capable. Usually the issue is a poorly constructed business case, limited project scoping and business support, unwillingness to change processes or performance metrics, or a mismatch between project objectives and company needs.

If you are not sure whether you know how to do all of those things, you and your team probably need education. It would be a shame not to provide every opportunity for your competitive advantage.

>> Julie Fraser, [email protected], is Outreach Director for not-for-profit association MESA International (