ML Journal February 2022

ML Journal February 2022

It’s Time to Fix the Broken Feedback Loop

Using a Digital Twin to get feedback from the shop floor to the top floor will help manufacturers save their most precious commodity — time.   

Over the years I’ve been involved in the leadership and repair of many manufacturing operations. There has been a recurring issue in a majority of my stops — an issue that has proven to be a significant and often debilitating handicap for those involved. It’s an issue that prevents both measurable improvement and operational stability. It’s likely that you are experiencing it or have experienced it. The issue I’m describing is the broken feedback loop.

The broken feedback loop, in a manufacturing context, permits the push of critical information from the top floor to the shop floor (often via ERP or similar solution), but prevents it from being received back from the shop floor. The result is typically a one-sided conversation in which the side that actually creates value is seldom heard, or is heard too late.

The biggest, most consequential problem this one-sided conversation perpetuates is the inability to understand how our most valuable, scarce, and irretrievable resource, time, is spent — and all too often wasted.


“An effective Digital Twin will provide real-time or near-real-time updates to critical pieces of operational information.”

 

If we are to understand and ultimately influence how an operation consumes time, we need to first create the ability for the shop floor to not only offer feedback, but to offer it without delay. Additionally, we need to be able to remember feedback conversations that have already taken place in an effort to pull from them to better understand recurring issues. Technology in the form of an MES (Manufacturing Execution System) can fulfill those needs, and then some.

The Digital Twin Solution

You’ve probably heard the term Digital Twin tossed around in conversations or in publications like the one you’re reading now. But what does a Digital Twin have to do with closing the broken feedback loop? First, let’s look at a definition. The Digital Twin Consortium appropriately defines a Digital Twin as, “A virtual representation that serves as the real-time digital counterpart of a physical object or process.” This virtual representation is manifest most often, and most effectively, as a map that includes an operation’s processes and equipment. (Figure 1)

The FORCAM example of a Digital Twin shown in Figure 1 is made possible when various forms of technology combine to form the conduit for processes and equipment to speak, and as previously mentioned, to speak without delay. Recreating all of the activities on the shop floor, as they happen, and displaying them in an easy-to-understand format provides the clarity necessary to understand how operating time is being consumed in the present.

An effective Digital Twin will provide real-time or near-real-time updates to critical pieces of operational information such as equipment status, scrap generation, good pieces produced, and orders currently scheduled, to name a few examples. Since none of us can be in multiple places at one time when our feet are on the ground, it’s nice to know that the Digital Twin can help us take flight, above the operation, to see anything and everything from a birds-eye view.

Now, some of the old approaches can provide this same birds-eye view — but only after the fact. A daily combination of end-of-shift reports from each department in a plant can provide shift-by-shift clarity for all the processes or equipment in a plant, but this clarity is rendered much less valuable and impactful by the delay with which it is provided. And therein lies the beauty of the Digital Twin – it’s automated, it’s real-time, and as a result, it provides the opportunity to influence how that most valuable of resources, time, is consumed. The Digital Twin truly helps to close the broken feedback loop and as a result, addresses the first need in understanding time consumption (feedback without delay).

Historical Context Is Key

Immediately understanding how activities are consuming time is critical, but relying solely on the Digital Twin can have its drawbacks. In focusing only on minute-by-minute or hour-by-hour feedback, we eventually create an environment in which quick action is the only course of action.

We need to balance the necessity of quick action with more methodical and conscientious action that comes as a result of deeper understanding. This deeper understanding is driven by our ability to pull from history. As we all know, history has a habit of repeating itself, so we need to understand it and assume it will continue to repeat unless we intervene.

Of course, if it’s a good historical story, it’s often fine to leave it alone. If it’s not, one should explore ways to influence that story. Determining what to influence, and how and when to influence it, comes from the historical perspective provided by an MES. This is the fulfillment of the second need in understanding time consumption and it serves as the finishing repair on the broken feedback loop. An example pulled from a FORCAM dashboard will help to illustrate how historical data can be represented. (Figure 2)

Historical perspective provides foresight, and with it the ability to predict what might happen next or what is likely to continue to happen. A snapshot of performance might provide insight, but a historical compilation of data as measured in a specific time frame provides insight that is less likely to be skewed by small time frame (snapshot) influences. Combining historical performance measurements with the act of data segregation and identification of frequency can and often does arm teams with the knowledge they need to create a higher level of countermeasure effectiveness/finality. When data is grouped by appropriate windows of measurement, commonality, and type, it really does begin to pull back the veil that obscures the future.

Triage Via Digital Twin

When we combine a propensity to act immediately (as facilitated by a Digital Twin) with an ability to see into the future, we’ve created a feedback loop that provides benefit in the here and now and also down the road. Of course, maintaining a here and now/down the road posture can be a tricky proposition, unless we do something to make this approach more manageable…a division of responsibility, if you will.

A Digital Twin as provided by MES provides the information necessary to act immediately or in the short term. Those tasked with the management of daily (now) shop floor activities typically fall into the team lead or shop floor supervisor category. Therefore, it only makes sense to provide the twin to this group as their primary source of truth…an operations EKG, if you will.

The time frame for their responses is typically measured in minutes and hours, so the Digital Twin is the logical feedback mechanism as it provides minute by minute, and typically faster, updates on equipment status, quality conditions, and productivity (throughput). The Digital Twin allows for the triage of the components of the manufacturing system, and should assume that the actions brought about by its feedback will be performed by those equipped to act quickly…your leadership on the floor.

The longer term vision of operational health can and should be maintained with a foot in the past. As mentioned, a historical perspective will provide the forward-looking capability your operation needs. Those tasked with bigger picture responsibilities, like developing and maintaining a capable and stable operations environment, should be responsible for maintaining the focus that the “down the road” portion of the feedback loop prescribes.

“Closing the broken feedback loop in your operation might prove to be the most transformative professional decision you’ve ever made.”

 

These individuals or teams (Plant Managers, Engineers, Operations Execs) will benefit the organization the most by learning from history and reshaping it through analysis, projection, and the development and follow through on actions designed to leverage said learning. As Deming once described, the realm of influence grows and elongates the higher you climb the organizational ladder. That elongation, in my opinion, speaks to time. Therefore, those with longer views of performance should be tasked with focus and activity that delivers results further down the timeline. This division of responsibility or focus allows for a narrowing of focus for the first responders (acute pain identified by the Digital Twin) and the teams responsible for longer term care (protracted pain identified by historical reports and analysis).

In closing, I’d like to share that I’ve never been one to advocate for technology unless there was a clear business case grounded in tangible benefit. Industry 4.0 has proven time and time again that it changes workplaces by improving the one thing that we all could stand to get better at — communication. Closing the broken feedback loop in your operation might prove to be the most transformative professional decision you’ve ever made.   M

About the author:

Rick Homman is Customer Success Manager at FORCAM USA.

 

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