The COVID-19 pandemic is providing manufacturers with an opportunity to pause and take a fresh look at their operations. Whether your company is an essential business that’s remained open or a non-essential business that is getting ready to restart manufacturing, you can sense that more is changing than just a proliferation of personal protective equipment (PPE) on the factory floor. As the experts in a recent Smart Industry article predict, COVID-19 will change manufacturing in some important ways.       

To succeed in the “new normal”, manufacturers need to re-examine productivity, efficiency, quality, and safety. Productivity and efficiency are related, but they are not the same. Quality and safety are hardly new concerns either, but their new importance requires a deeper understanding of their relationship to your operations. Elasto Proxy wants to help your business succeed during these challenging times and is applying insights from Smart Industry to help you become a smarter manufacturer in four ways.           

# 1 Productivity

Productivity is the amount and value of work that is completed over a specific period of time. It is a more useful measure of performance for people than for machines. That is because properly-functioning equipment performs a set operation at a consistent rate. For example, a water jet cutting machine will cut lengths of 60-duromter EPDM rubber at the same rate. A worker may cut these same lengths more slowly on a Monday than on a Wednesday. Different workers cut rubber at different rates, too.

Productivity is even more important with an operation like door gasket installation An employee doesn’t attach rubber extrusions to a door frame, cut them to size, and then bond the cut lengths. Instead, the worker cuts, bonds, and installs in that order. There is a better way, too. A worker who receives a finished gasket that is already cut and bonded can install it right away. This allows a single worker to install more gaskets over time. The worker can also work independently while maintaining physical distancing.       

Yet productivity isn’t just about the amount of work completed. It is also about the value of that work. For example, an employee who receives a finished gasket can get a completed part that is both marked and taped. Parts marking makes it easy for installers to reference work instructions – and ensure that the right gasket is installed in the right location. Taping also adds value because it eliminates the need for messy liquid adhesives that require time-consuming cleanups and additional PPE.       

Productivity is clearly a useful measure of performance, but it is not all that you need to consider. Surely, you’ve heard the phrase “work smarter, not harder”. That was good advice before COVID-19. Now it is even better. Split shifts with fewer workers may reduce the risk of infection, but this arrangement leaves fewer people to do the work. To get more from less, look for ways to eliminate waste and consider new ways to accomplish essential tasks. That’s why efficiency is so important.     

#2 Efficiency

While productivity is about time, efficiency is about resources. More specifically, efficiency is a measure of output from resources for a particular task or set of tasks. Here, it is important to consider everything that is involved in an operation like gasket installation. The cost to your company isn’t just on the assembly line. There are also costs in purchasing, receiving, inventory, and accounting. Failing to optimize scarce resources, wasting material, and failing to even recognize waste are enemies of efficiency.

“We can do it more cheaply in-house” is an assumption that’s worth questioning. Think about all of the rubber products that your company purchases. If you buy them from 10 vendors, that’s 10 scorecards you need to review each year. Efficiency also suffers if you order different rubber products from different vendors for the same build. Each product needs its own SKU. Each shipment arrives separately. That’s more shipments to receive, more trips from receiving to inventory, and more invoices to review and pay. When assemblers are ready for installation, there’s picking plus trips to and from the production line.

Efficiency also suffers if you ask a skilled worker like a welder to install rubber parts. If the welder is well-paid, you’re adding extra costs. If this worker is the only welder on a reduced shift, there won’t be any metalworking happening while rubber parts are installed. You could assign an entry-level employee instead, but this worker might make more mis-cuts, which increases your material costs. Plus, you may never know how much material was wasted if mis-cut lengths of rubber end up in the trash. 

Kitting and custom packaging can eliminate these problems and increase your efficiency. You can order all of the rubber parts that you need from a single vendor. Then, all of the parts for a build can arrive in a single box. With just-in-time inventory, this box can travel from your receiving area right to the assembly line, bypassing the warehouse. On the assembly line, a worker opens the box, removes the topmost part, and installs it. All of the rubber parts are packaged in order of installation for optimal assembly efficiency.     

#3 Quality

Rubber parts that arrive kitted and custom packaged can also improve quality, a growing concern for manufacturers in the age of COVID-19. When there are fewer people to do the work during a shift, reducing rework becomes a priority. Quality was important before the pandemic, of course, but defects reduce net output over time. Quality is also related to efficiency because asking engineers to troubleshoot problems adds resources and costs. Besides, engineers who are working remotely may not be available.     

Quality is also related to buyer behavior, which affects your company’s sales and overall profitability. Consider the example of a poorly-made door gasket on a piece of mobile equipment. A potential buyer open the door, notices gaps and jagged cuts, and makes negative assumptions about the overall quality of the machine. “If the manufacturer can’t get this gasket right”, the buyer wonders, “was there attention to detail for all of the parts that I can’t see?”         

#4 Safety

Long before COVID-19, manufacturers valued good workers because they were scarce. Now, protecting your company’s investments in its most important assets – it’s people – is more important than ever. Split shifts and physical distancing can help keep workers safe, but communication and collaboration may suffer. Equipping workers with tablets and scheduling video conferences with personnel who are working from home can help. Addressing worker concerns about safety is also critical.

Providing workers with face shields does more than demonstrate an employer’s concern or comply with some regulatory requirement. PPE combines actual protection with a sense of security that helps people to focus on the task at hand. In this way, safety is not separate from productivity, efficiency, and quality. Do you remember how before COVID-19, we all kept hearing how robots would take our jobs? Now it’s people – not robots – who will change manufacturing.

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