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Stop the Madness & End Manual Data Collection in Manufacturing

Manual reporting is the final frontier of innovation in manufacturing. If manufacturers eliminate manual data collection and get rid of the mounds and mounds of paper and Excel documents running the plant floor, they’d be in a much better position to take advantage of future innovations.

When you think about it, ERP systems replaced a ton of old-school infrastructures like paper and Excel files, everywhere except for the plant floor. It really automated and digitized all of these other processes. Processes like accounts payable and accounts receivable to purchasing to planning, even HR systems. They’re all completely digital, yet manufacturers still have all of this paper that exists on the factory floor.

And, we’re not just talking about drawings and job travelers. All of this manually collected data encompasses the quality data, production-related data, even time cards detailing how much time was spent on each task. Sure, the payroll side of that is automated with ERP systems. There’s an automated, digital process to track when employees show up, when they take lunch, and when they leave for the day, but the accounting for “What did I do during the day?”, often isn’t a digital process. It’s still manual, even in companies that have tried to deploy tools to help fix that exact problem. Nothing has been able to really automate and digitize this process, until now.

These outdated, traditional, manual processes are hindering manufacturers from fully innovating and embracing Industry 4.0. Can you imagine a scenario where a manufacturer uses lean techniques to improve production but when collecting and contextualizing data, those lean techniques go out the window? We can. It’s very common.

Manufacturers put all of the time and effort into becoming lean manufacturers and implementing lean thinking, yet when it comes to reporting, that system is anything but lean or efficient. Hundreds and hundreds of hours a month are spent on reporting and collecting data. This isn’t lean. It’s not efficient. And, it’s not helping manufacturers innovate.

We put together a video about replacing paper and Excel with an automated system and why it’s important.

We still stand by that. However, it’s worth expanding on why an automated system is important in today’s day and age.

Manual Data Collection Methods Aren’t the Future

Many manufacturers have relied on existing, older systems to automate data collection. The problem is that the traditional ERP is too rigid and only allows you to enter what is pre-set and this doesn’t evolve over time. You don’t have the ability to customize what it’s going to collect, at least not very easily, based on the different things that you’re doing. It prevents operators from collecting the data that is actually needed. This is exactly why everyone falls back to manual data collection methods – recording it via paper and whiteboards or typing it into an Excel spreadsheet. Maybe, they’re even using a super outdated, hard-to-use homegrown system.

That’s why it’s done via manual processes. It’s easy, and it’s flexible. It doesn’t require education to use a pencil and paper and record data. Everybody understands this.

But, that doesn’t mean it’s the right way.

Most of these existing systems or papers aren’t cost-effective or simple to pull data from the machines. Some of the readings that you may want like temperature, humidity, vibration, or different points of process data that are critical to quality, traceability, or the broader manufacturing processes aren’t easily collected. This isn’t the case anymore. It can all be calculated automatically.

Reporting doesn’t have to be manual or time-consuming! Mind-blowing, right?

With automatic data collection and reporting, the value-added processes can flow without interruption, and employees continually working to improve can be a reality.

This is our advice: step away from the whiteboard.

Everyone has whiteboards (though, tracking small continuous improvement projects with whiteboards is beneficial…) Manufacturers write down hourly data on the whiteboards. They answer the question, “If I didn’t hit my numbers for the hour, why not?” which includes all of the data points that explain why not. Then, someone has to go look at that. Then, someone has to transfer it into a spreadsheet. How much time did all of this take? Compound that with the fact that most manufacturers don’t just have one whiteboard – they have one per machine or per line. So, if you’re spending 5 minutes at every whiteboard writing down information, how much time is spent, per hour, per day with 25 whiteboards?

Not only is this process manual, but it’s taking away precious time that could otherwise be spent on value added-tasks, ones that actually help you make a profit. You don’t need an operator to write numbers down on a whiteboard, a supervisor to review and copy the data, a person in an office to compile the data into a spreadsheet, and then repeat the process. Drop the dry erase markers. There’s a better solution.

In the end, “the ultimate goal of lean manufacturing is to the ideal of one-piece flow,” Jeffrey K. Liker, author of The Toyota Way, explains, “to all business operations, from product design to launch, order taking and physical production.”

Jeffrey K. Liker

Ditch the outdated whiteboards and manual reporting system. Practice lean manufacturing and one-piece flow by implementing a reporting system that works in real-time, to show you the problems that arise, as they’re happening. Save your operators, supervisors, and reporting staff time and effort.

Example of Manual Data Entry Problems: Inaccurate Data Entry

Think about the process of mistake-proofing things. How do you mistake-proof someone writing down information on a piece of paper, someone else transferring that information to Excel, another person summarizing the information, and then finally, yet another person distributing that information? The honest answer is, you can’t. You can’t possibly mistake-proof a manual data collection process involving multiple different people at different times.

The potential for mistakes and problems is abundant. There is an unbelievable amount of waste involved in these types of manual processes.

This manual production reporting process exists in real-world manufacturing and is surprisingly, very common. It’s not unusual for an operator to record data on paper reports. Then, a supervisor walks around to each station to collect the reports the operators have created. The supervisor brings those reports to the back office where someone compiles the data records into a report. Sound tedious? It is, but there’s even more.

All of those reports typically only reflect a snapshot of a single day. If you need a week’s worth of data, you have to roll up all of the days of the week into a single weekly report. Monthly? Quarterly? It’s the same, tedious, manual process.

Then, let’s say an Exec is reviewing the quarterly report, but he or she has a question about what happened during a specific week, on a particular day. The Exec goes back to the person that compiled the report, but they aren’t sure because they didn’t report the data on that day, only compiled the report. Then, the Exec asks the supervisor, but they don’t remember that far back. So, both go to the operator, but the same problem results – no one can remember a specific day because although the data was recorded, there was no real-time data that indicated a problem so the issue wasn’t found until days later, and now, no one can remember what happened on a specific day.

The whole manual data collection process is incredibly error-prone. There is a whole group of people tasked with collecting, analyzing, and putting together spreadsheets. It’s taking up a lot of valuable time, isn’t lean, or particularly helpful.

Why is Manual Data Entry a Problem?

But, the problem doesn’t even really lie in the person writing it down, not really. Sure, if you can collect the data automatically, it reduces errors and allows the employee to dedicate their time to more value-added tasks, but the real benefit lies in the reporting that flows throughout the plant.

If data is recorded manually, all of that data has to move through the rest of the company. More than likely, it’s not just written down on a piece of paper and then forgotten about. It’s summarized in a report somewhere. Somebody has to pick up all of that paper, they have to organize it, they have to type it in a spreadsheet, then they have to send it out to the rest of the team or company.

If it’s just historical information, they’re having to store it somewhere and maintain it. Even if it’s not going into an electronic spreadsheet and it’s simply filed in a physical file, someone still has to collect all of the information and maintain the filing system.

We’ve been over this. It’s not a new concept, but the fact remains – the manual data collection process that absolutely inhibits communication.

There’s a lot of time, effort, and labor associated with all of these manually reporting tasks. It’s not very accessible or easily maintained.

The real reason why you don’t want to do manual data collection and reporting is not so much about the person writing down the data as we said, but it’s everyone else in the organization who has to use that piece of data that the person wrote down.

Trying to eliminate all of those manual processes that are often subjected to a high probability of mistakes and opportunities for things to get lost is a win-win. Having the ability to easily access information any time you need it, from wherever you need it is incredibly beneficial. Automated reporting creates communication and transparency throughout the plant.

Manufacturing Automation Transforms Communication in the Plant

At Mingo, we like to use examples to explain. So, let’s pretend you’re the plant manager at a bottling plant, and there’s a problem with the bottles that were made 1 week ago. The data about the bottles was written down on a piece of paper and filed away in a file cabinet. Now, somebody has to go rifle through all of that stuff, and hopefully, it was organized and put away properly so that person can see what the settings were on that machine to figure out how many other bottles could possibly be affected by this issue and potentially be recalled.

Think about all of the efforts that have to go in to make that happen. It’s a lot.

Whereas, if that one piece of information was entered or automatically collected in an electronic system, somebody can just push a button and look it up.

Think about how much time your people spent compiling and analyzing data that lives in Excel that otherwise could be done automatically and swiftly. How much time could you potentially save by eliminating manual data collection and reporting? The return on investment is unfounded.

You can calculate your ROI of Mingo in just 30 seconds. See how much time and money you could save by eliminating manual processes.

It’s an hour and a half every day that someone is spending manually collecting and reporting data. You’re essentially losing a whole data messing with reports. What could you do with that time instead? And, typically, it’s just not one person doing this work. Typically, it’s multiple.

And, if you had used automated manufacturing technology, you would be able to figure out the extent of your bottle defects without spending time rifling through stacks of paper.

Automated Manufacturing Technology is Here to Stay

The time spent on traditional manual data collection and reporting methods isn’t feasible or beneficial to manufacturers. It doesn’t bring any sort of efficiency to the process. If a manufacturer is taking the steps to embrace and implement IIoT, why would reporting be left out of that improvement?

In the book, Lean Thinker, authors James Womack and Daniel Jones (and quoted by author Jeffrey K. Liker in The Toyota Way) explain lean manufacturing as a 5 step process:

1. Defining customer value
2. Defining the value stream
3. Making it “flow”
4. “Pulling” from the customer
5. Striving for excellence

To be a lean manufacturer requires a way of thinking that focuses on making the product flow through value-adding processes without interruption (one-piece flow), a “pull” system that cascades back from customer demand by replenishing only what the next operation takes away at short intervals, and a culture in which everyone is striving to improve.”

Jeffrey K. Liker

If the goal of lean manufacturing is to try to eliminate non-value-added steps in the process, then manual data entry and reporting need to be eliminated and replaced with manufacturing automation.

Not only are there immense benefits in the number of hours you’ll get back to spend on more important tasks, but it gives you a competitive advantage, too. Imagine what you could do with data at your fingertips, giving you insight into what went right, what went wrong, and how to make improvements.

You’d end up way ahead of the competition.

Bryan Sapot
Bryan Sapot
Bryan Sapot is a lifelong entrepreneur, speaker, CEO, and founder of Mingo. With more than 24 years of experience in manufacturing technology, Bryan is known for his deep manufacturing industry insights. Throughout his career, he’s built products and started companies that leveraged technology to solve problems to make the lives of manufacturers easier. Follow Bryan on LinkedIn here.