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What is a Visual Factory?

A visual factory really isn’t all that dissimilar from a smart factory in the way that it is providing a way for people on the floor to understand where they stand at any given moment. But, it doesn’t have to be smart to provide value like a smart factory would. Your visual factory can be a smart factory…. or not. Really, you could achieve a visual factory with traditional tools like Andon systems, whiteboards, or communication boards. All of these tools are going to provide a visual that conveys the progress of the plant.

To recap, a smart factory is a digitized plant that collects and contextualizes data through connected machines, people, and processes. It is commonly used in conjunction with the terms IoT (Internet of Things) and ‘Industry 4.0’, the fourth industrial revolution that targets connected technologies in manufacturing.

Really, what you want to do is strive for the simplistic visuals that people do manually and make those automatic so you don’t have to update the data all of the time. It makes things simpler and more time efficient. That’s where you will start to make significant gains, but we will discuss that further in the blog.

A visual factory is just like every other lean tool in the way that you’re making processes more efficient. How do you visualize what’s going on in the factory?

Can you look at something, whether it’s an Andon system or whiteboard, and understand what’s going on? If yes, you’re making strides towards a visual factory.

That’s the essence of a visual factory. How do you leverage data visualization in manufacturing

What Components Do You Need for a Visual Factory?

A visual factory wouldn’t be a visual factory without the lean tools and resources that make it what it is. 5s, standardization, Andon systems, whiteboards, and Kanban cards are all examples of the resources you could use to build a visual factory (but of course, you aren’t limited to just those named – there are others out there. It all depends on what’s going to work for your plant specifically).

5s is a part of a visual factory because if we’re being honest, this concept is not just about visualizing. Yes, yes, we know – we’ve been explaining what a visual factory is in the sense that is very visual. So, how could there possibly be an additional component that goes beyond the visual aspect?

5s is a *visual* way to figure out where your tools go and how processes stay organized. Essentially, it’s a system designed to create a designated place for each thing in the plant and maintain cleaning standards, too.

Oil on the floor is a good example, too. If this is normal because cleaning standards aren’t required, you won’t think twice. But, if part of your job is to clean the station after every shift, oil on the floor is going to be an indication that something is wrong with the machine.

This kind of goes hand in hand with the concept of standardization. When you standardize the plant (as Nick Hinman at Tacony mentions in his episode “The Foundations of Lean” on the Zen and the Art of Manufacturing podcast, it helps to create order.

Andon is another example of a visual factory floor component. If there’s a problem, you can pull a cord, flip a switch, send a note, whatever the method may be to draw attention to the fact that someone on the line needs assistance. Often that system triggers a light, horn, or message – all visual alerts.

Kanban cards are yet another example of a tool to be used in a visual factory. It’s even used for scheduling. Essentially, production schedules are categorized into bins, and before beginning work for the day, an operator grabs the work orders assigned to his line or machine from the bin. This allows people to see visually, by every machine or cell, what is being worked on. Additionally, this type of system improves communication so everyone knows what’s going on at any given time.

What are the Benefits of a Visual Factory?

This is going to a short and sweet answer because there’s one huge benefit worth calling out. One of the biggest advantages to a visual factory is that it brings manufacturers away from the habit of hiding data in an ERP system and spreadsheets. A visual factory brings the data out to people who can benefit from it the most, like your operators who need to know if they’re producing to target or not.

There is immense benefit to a visual factory. That benefit is amplified when processes are automated rather than done manually, too.

Best Practices in a Visual Factory

As for best practices, there are a few we highly suggest people follow when implementing and using the concept of a visual factory.

Think about what data you should track. As Stuart Fergusson, Director of Solutions Engineering of Fiix Software said in one of Zen and the Art of Manufacturing podcast episodes, “A Healthy Maintenance Culture”, you want to track the data you can actually affect. There’s no sense in tracking too much data or data that you can’t improve or change. And there’s a very important reason for this.

You can do all kinds of crazy things with a “visual factory”. Just Google “visual factory” and look at the images. There are examples of whiteboards with a crazy amount of data and colors. Now, think about who that’s helping? Probably not many people.

It’s too much data. You don’t want to go overboard and have too much data and as a result, doing the opposite of what you’ve intended. Instead of clarity and simplicity, you’re making the process more confusing.

Another best practice is to make sure people understand what you’re showing. This may sound self-explanatory, but we’ve found that many people just assume everyone is going to get it. They may. Or, they may not. If it’s not simple, it’s not done. You have more work to do.

It’s best to tell everyone what your goals are by implementing a visual factory and how they can use those tools to affect change and make improvements.

Visual Factories Focus on Improvement and Achieving Goals

And last but not least, of course, you implement and benefit from a visual factory with manual processes and tools, but the goal is to drive towards accomplishing this goal with automatic means. There’s less work in writing everything down and it makes it much easier to keep track of all of the data flowing in and out of the processes. Keep this in mind when you’re creating your own visual factory – manual reporting is not lean.

Truthfully, we don’t think a lot of manufacturers are using a visual factory to its full benefit. Sure, they have whiteboards and reporting, but it’s overly complicated. Or, these visual systems are implemented in some areas of the plant, but not others. It’s not a fully implemented visual factory, let alone done with automated processes.

It’s hard to make a visual factory simple and easy to understand. This is probably why more manufacturers aren’t doing it, but once you figure out what’s important, and what’s not, then you’re already one step closer. The key is to not make it overly complicated.

Really, once you’ve implemented a visual factory, it almost turns into an all-encompassing lean principle tool. And, when it’s implemented correctly and everyone understands the processes and goals, it will make your day-to-day focus that much easier.

So, what are you waiting for?

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.