My MES Program Journey with AWNC, an Automotive Supplier. A Travel Log.

By Bill Wright, InSource Manufacturing Consultant

Have you ever taken a long journey? Did you track your observations every step of the way?  Did that journey turn out just as you expected? Some of you may say yes, but I believe most of us would say an inexorable, no!  The journey was over, and I moved on.  But some journeys cry out for a deeper reflection to evaluate what we saw and what we would recommend for the next traveler.

Recently, my company partnered with Avid Solutions on a journey with our client, AW North Carolina (AWNC).  AWNC, a division of the Aisin Group, is a world leader in automatic transmission manufacturing, located in Durham, NC. Our task was to custom design, build, and install a Manufacturing Execution System (MES) program to ultimately improve the efficiency and quality of operations. As we have completed a key part of this journey, I want to share what it’s been like and what we’ve learned.

To prepare, we conducted a “Discovery” exercise to align AWNC’s requirements with MES program capabilities, now and the future, i.e. how will the MES system perform in this IT structure and Operations environment and how do we want it to mature over time?  Extensive analysis of existing floor operations and IT department procedures were probed. Understand, alignment was not immediate, nor easy. In a statement, I would say that it was quite a “character building” journey for both parties. However, perseverance paid off and looking back, I would say the results ultimately set the stage for a very successful deployment.

Therefore, to document this journey accurately, I recently conducted interviews with IT leadership, Operations leadership, and Plant floor operators. (John Peterson, General Manager IT; Josh Humphrey, Chief Information Technology Architect; Tina Coleman, Assembly Manager; Alton Shelton, Operations Mgr.; Latonya Glass, Line Team Lead; Oto-Obong Okon, Offline Operator.)

Background on Vision: As an individual whose industry discipline is to develop, improve, and train Operations processes on the shop floor, I knew organization leadership vision and buy-in is critical.  I needed to understand the strategy for installing MES and how it aligned with floor operations.  How would the organization’s “system for management” ensure improvements and sustain utilization of the system.?

Q: As the leadership for this initiative, why did you need a MES on the Shop Floor?

John and Josh’s agreed that we wanted to improve in several areas, but our key focus was to lower production costs. We knew downtime was causing additional needed time to run, which led to high overtime costs. If we could control our overtime cost, the savings there would provide our base ROI.

They both agreed that this was not an un-calculated response. Josh was working closely with the operation teams and had enough knowledge to identify critical line operation opportunities. John had many years invested in past MES engagements. To John, the MES initiative was a cornerstone to his long-term IT vision for AWNC.

Q: How did the InSource and Avid team align with your team members during the project?

John and Josh agreed that they had a defined strategy and a timeline for Phase 1. However, they needed the knowledge and experience offered by InSource and Avid to know what that plan would actually look like.

“Engaging with InSource Solutions and Avid was a key first step for us to affirm our objectives and to build our approach. Tapping into their experience and knowledge was critical.  InSource’s “Discovery” process put our technical capabilities and on-the-floor assembly line processes in necessary context. Utilizing their “Brown Paper” exercise procedure during the “Discovery” was an excellent way to align our MES expectations to the floor operations. It allowed us to ensure all line machines and their functions were identified. Having a complementary team that understood the voice of the floor operations and the technical requirements together was important.”

Q: What departments had input into the MES decision and what did they hope to achieve?

Josh and John both noted that they had communicated to all AWNC departments: Engineering, Maintenance, Quality, and Operations. The MES Initiative was rolled out to the plant and its leadership in a detailed presentation. John stated, “He wanted all departments to have skin in the game.”

The engineering department was eager to identify machine faults quickly and track, measure, analyze, report, and act to remove major downtime events.

Josh stated, “In hindsight, I would require that the maintenance and quality departments have much more involvement in the initiative.”

Q: When visualizing your MES initiative, what were the key expected deliverables i.e. better visibility and tracking capability/ individual line machine data (DT and Faults), operator standard work consistency, and more accurate reporting?

“Yes, all the above”, said Josh. “However, we were looking at the benefits from 30,000 feet above our line processes.

We knew the MES technology was there to capture a real time picture of the amount of downtime that was occurring during each shift. Additionally, we wanted to capture the faults that were occurring per machine that may be leading to the cause of downtime. We needed a system that could seamlessly be utilized and installed on all our lines in the plant, even those lines that had older machines and were more complex.”

John added,” the system needed to be accepted by the floor line managers and operators.” An additional part of leadership’s vision for the plant was that all paper control sheets be eliminated. (This potential impact of this vision was validated when InSource identified that an average of two hours of paperwork occurred on each shift.)

Background on Deployment:  I’ve learned many times over that a successful MES implementation is not just about the software vendor selected. If the software wasn’t selected with the shop floor’s needs in mind, or the project objectives weren’t clear from the beginning, failure is likely.  Without shop floor supervisor buy-in and encouragement, adoption, much less enthusiasm, is a low probability. AWNC has Tonya as the MES system Subject Matter Expert. Without a good vision, deployment scope wanders, frustrating everyone.  It requires that management is knowledgeable and leading the way throughout the project.

Q: As floor system users, what did project leadership initially communicate about the MES pilot? How was your initial experience?

Tonya shared, “We were told that a company was coming to conduct interviews with us and watch how we worked the C1 and C3/C4 Clutch Assembly lines. But, we did not specifically know about MES pilot. Trent and Bill, with InSource, interacted with us very well. They seemed to understand what it is like to work on an assembly line and were able to identify the day-to-day tasks that we do and some of the issues we constantly face. They were patient, asked good questions, listened, and verified what we told them. They also explained what their purpose was in observing and goal of the pilot. Knowing that this tool was not going to eliminate our jobs was a relief.”

Q: As floor system users, did this new technology (MES and electronic forms) change how you did your job? Change how you perceived your role? Did it make your job easier or harder? Concerns?

Tonya and her team stated “At the beginning of the pilot we were not aware how it would change our job. We were told what the purpose of the system was and how it would identify lost time issues and capture when faults occurred and on what machines.”

Tonya and her team agreed that the MES system was easy to learn.  Initially there were some network and/or system glitches, but they got past those quickly. “It helped that the new interactions with the HMI did not disrupt what we did before it was installed. The electronic forms were also fairly easy to use because the quality and production analysis forms were designed exactly like our paper forms. We really looked forward to using the electronic forms instead of manually filling out paper. The electronic forms did take more time to set up to work for us, but once it was able to automatically capture MES data for our Production Analysis Sheet (PAS), it did make our job easier.”, Tonya noted.

Tonya suggested that “operators on the other lines need to focus on using the system more consistently.  The InSource folks partnering with us did a lot of work to help us over the hump. Bill understood how the systems needed to work and was there to watch and observe the issues we faced. That really helped. “She also observed that a few paper forms remain on the line and once they are eliminated, she thinks it will be much easier to completely accept the new digital way of doing business.

“My main concern at the beginning of the project was that the system would also be used to track how well we were doing our work. The fear was that the tool would be used to show that we didn’t need the number of operators we were using on our lines. That hasn’t been the case.”, Tonya said.

Okon added, “I am sure that the system will eventually do away with all paper and that will be great.  It is sometimes difficult to get back to the HMI workstations to capture faults and record downtime issues and we resort to paper when we know we shouldn’t.  When we transition to tablets, I think that will help drive compliance.”

Q: When Electronic Forms were introduced to the floor, what was the response by the floor operators?

Tonya Glass team’s overall response revealed that once the tool was working without delays, it would save an hour or more in having to do manual paperwork. For production management, it points to real time downtime events that enable them to correctly identify the cause and machine where the downtime occurred.

Q: What were your lessons learned after phase 1 of the MES initiative was complete?

Josh expressed that he would recommend not deploying MES and Electronic forms simultaneously if he had that choice again. He would want to ensure MES had more time to run and the operators have learned and used MES correctly consistently.

John, on the other hand, felt it was important to give the floor operators a win by eliminating manual paper line controls early on. Therefore, installing Electronic forms and MES together enabled quicker adoption to the systems.

Tina Coleman, Operation Line Manager, commented that “We’re learning more and more with every new line deployment. During the pilot installation, we started identifying real time downtime but also increased offline and inline operators’ understanding of what was causing the downtime events. Their insights really helped the engineering team make permanent improvements. We’re working better as a team.”

Q: Have you seen improvements since deployment?

The consensus from John and Josh was that they are seeing continuous improvements. Especially, after more accountability is occurring with the line leaders.  They noted:

  • 99% reduction in labor required for collecting and analyzing machine fault log data
  • 40% reduction in machine stoppages within the first four weeks of MES installation.
  • 95% reduction in post-production overtime thru elimination of manual activities associate with collecting line & machine faults.

In conclusion: 

AVEVA MES technology now digitally monitors the heartbeat of AWNC operations. J5 Industrial Forms is the industrial management control tool for their daily life. Both technologies have been customized with features critical to AWNC operations BUT on a smart platform that can be implemented in a low cost and sustainable way. However, this great technology would not have been half as effective without a a) vision of what needed to happen with management support b) a strong deployment and project management team and c) recognition of the importance of integrating the new systems into day-to-day routines on the shop floor.

Finally, because leadership has chosen to introduce the program in stages, operators are better poised to readily accept a new digital world.  And management has good data to plan the next leg of the journey.

Having been engaged with AWNC from the start of this journey, I have had the privilege to witness the good, the bad, and sometimes the ugly along the way. This project has reinforced for me how important it is for manufacturing organizations to make the needed investments into technologies that provide real time data. In this case, the MES data, enables AWNC to meet the quality and delivery requirements necessary to stay competitive. I applaud AWNC leadership and line for making the commitment. The best may still be yet to come.

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