Destination automation


Today's manufacturing project managers view complexity and uncertainty as opportunities, finding innovative ways to quickly address technology, productivity and workforce issues. BY WILLIAM ATKINSON • PORTRAIT BY JOHN SIBILSKI

Lessons Learned

img Manufacturing issues present more opportunities than stumbling blocks

img A “down” economy doesn't always apply the brakes to new projects

img The future will bring exciting innovations and unique solutions.

Ever since computer-based technological innovation began taking over business in the 1970s, the rationale has been that technology makes jobs easier. But for project managers, especially those in manufacturing and automation, execution is a wild, careening ride. Most project managers seem to thrive on the challenge— when they can catch their breath.

“Automation is definitely where manufacturing projects are heading, and we are trying to automate as much as possible, both for quality-improvement and cost-reduction reasons,” says Beth Partleton, PMP, director of program management for Miller Brewing Co., Milwaukee, Wis., USA, and member of PMI's Manufacturing Specific Interest Group (SIG). “Automation reduces down time. However, these can also be some of the most challenging projects. Shifting from a manual to automated system without losing a lot of productivity is a real challenge.”

Details are key to making a transition as quick and smooth as possible, Partleton says. “Project management needs to have a methodology for defining the end result, especially as it relates to user needs, including getting down to the details of such things as what the computer screens look like, how the operators feel about the screens, and how they interface with the screens.”

Don't make projects more complex than they need to be, says Robert Hall, a recently retired professor from Indiana University who taught operations management for 30 years. For example, Hall toured two plants in the last year that he believes were more efficient before they were automated. “They spent too much money for too much equipment that was too difficult to access for maintenance and repairs,” he says. “In addition, when one section goes down, everything else nearby goes down. Their downtime and capital expenses increased, and their throughput is no better.”

Hall sees the most consistent success when project engineers remain with newly implemented projects to help deal with problems that crop up. “They learn a lot this way, which helps them in subsequent projects,” he says.

Not only are the technology and automation challenges formidable in and of themselves, but workforce (and subsequent productivity) issues also must be addressed at higher levels than in the past. “We anticipate the effects of change on the operating processes resulting from the technical changes being implemented,” says David W. Mann, senior manager for operations change management with Steelcase Inc., Grand Rapids, Mich., USA. Mann provides support during implementation of automated planning and scheduling systems across Steelcase's factories. “Given that technical change drives cultural change, we help managers understand what changes will take place in people's daily practices, procedures and habits. We then prepare the managers to lead their people through the cultural change being driven by the technical change.”



The “ideal manufacturing project” would look different, depending on your priorities.

“The dream project from an engineering perspective, ignoring all of the business issues such as cost and schedule, would be one that identified a need and then coincided with a development program, led to an implementation program, and then moved into manufacturing and startup,” says Larry Hayes, PMP, of Johns Manville. “Often, the time to maximize technology is insufficient to gather enough information and data to develop the program.”

Hayes' vision also includes a scenario in which the engineer would have plentiful funds to develop the project. “It would be a pristine project that would run with little labor, little energy and would produce a superior product at higher rates of speed than what is being produced today.”



The “dream project” for Rich Weiner would be one with an extremely close relationship among all stakeholders. “It would be one with complete trust among everyone,” says Weiner, Applied Industrial Automation.

Second, there would be clear-cut business drivers, and everyone would understand these. “A project that comes in on time and under budget is not successful if the end result doesn't meet long-and short-term business drivers,” he says.




Managers, for example, frequently deal with operator questions such as, “What about me?” and “What about my process?” Mann's department helps managers encourage and then respond to these questions, then assists them in understanding their existing processes down to the necessary level of detail. “Over time, operators develop 'tribal knowledge' that isn't documented,” he says. “Without this information, it is impossible to determine what the impact will be on the new process. This helps to minimize the disruption when you 'go live' and shorten the time it takes to get back up above the previous level of productivity”

Even if you achieve a commendable measure of success juggling the technology, productivity and workforce issues, there still is no guarantee that your project will succeed. “A project's success is in the eye of the stakeholder,” says Larry Hayes, PMP, manager of project engineering for Johns Manville, Denver, Colo., USA, and past chair and current treasurer of PMI's Manufacturing SIG. “For example, if you implement a new manufacturing process that is on-time and within budget but doesn't make any money, a senior vice president may say it's unsuccessful. Even if it does make money, another vice president may say it's unsuccessful because the number of lost-time injuries occurring during the implementation exceeded corporate safety goals.”

For this reason, you must understand what will constitute success before the project gets underway. Currently, for example, Johns Manville is shifting its building insulation to a formaldehyde-free product. “We didn't launch this project with cost as a primary driver,” Hayes says. “Instead, our project goals were to provide a better product for our customers while reducing our air emissions. We definitely consider this project a success. A lot of competitors now realize that they will have to follow us, and we expect to pick up market share in the meantime.”

On or Off?

“In a traditional economy, marketing would report what they needed, and management would then determine what kinds of projects were needed and allocate the capital for them,” says Richard Weiner, president of Applied Industrial Automation, North Charleston, S.C., USA. However, today's businesses can't determine where the markets will go. “Without this lead, it becomes difficult to allocate capital,” he says. “As such, management tends to allocate the minimum amount of capital necessary to whichever facility has the greatest need to keep production going for the short-term.”

What's more, low company stock prices limit the amount of capital available for projects. “There are a lot of systems in place, and companies are adverse to just throwing them out and replacing them with something new,” Weiner says. “As such, if they do consider new projects, they often want systems that have enhanced capabilities, but also factor in as much of the existing systems as possible.”

Despite these challenges, Weiner believes companies still must seriously consider projects during this economy. “If you wait to launch projects, you can risk additional downtime due to the inability to meet rapidly changing customer needs,” he says. “You can also experience downtime if outdated equipment goes down and you aren't able to repair or replace it quickly.”

Other professionals echo Weiner's belief in the wisdom of moving ahead with projects, albeit for different reasons. “As long as a company has the potential of increasing efficiency or getting better control of its process, the state of the economy shouldn't make a difference,” Partleton says. “For us, the beer business doesn't tend to slow down in a weak economy.”

Down the Road

Although the future is uncertain, some professionals are willing to make educated projections on the direction of manufacturing projects.

“I think we will become a lot more automated, especially with data recording technologies,” Hayes says. “We will be monitoring our processes and operating parameters more closely. We used to rely on the experience of human operators. We now plan to become more involved in statistical control in order to reduce the human variability factor.”

Hall says that, while some future projects may aim to completely eliminate direct labor, a balance is needed. “The goal is to find a way for man and machine in a system to work together in the most efficient way,” he says. “It is important to have someone available who can exercise judgment outside of the system itself.”

Regardless of the role humans will play in the factories of the future, Weiner believes that all manufacturing projects will be scrutinized much more carefully. “There will be a lot more skepticism and caution about how new technologies will be specifically useful,” he says. “Companies will be more concerned with questions such as, 'How are e-com-merce or new networks going to help me?'”

Over the last 10 years, a lot of companies invested in new technologies where payback analysis was difficult. “Many of these companies still haven't seen the results they expected,” Weiner says.

While views on the future may differ, it's clear that the demand for speed will increase. “A project that took 18 to 24 months five years ago is now expected to be completed in 12 to 18 months,” Hayes says. “In two years, it may be down to eight to 12 months.” PM

William Atkinson is a freelance business writer based in Carterville, III., USA. He has contributed to Public Power, Southern Business Journal and Electric Perspectives.


While uncertainty and complexity can be roadblocks, Arnoud De Meyer, deputy dean and professor of technology management at the Singapore campus of global business school INSEAD, and two of his colleagues studied companies that embraced these concepts as key success elements.

In automation projects that are based on well-known technologies, where the primary focus involves integration and systems engineering, De Meyer sees two major challenges: complexity and duration. “The keys to managing the complexities of this type of project are being able to gain a broad buy-in by all stakeholders, being a very good upfront planner, mobilizing partners such as suppliers, and having strong integration and scheduling skills,” De Meyer says.

Extended project timelines can lead to excessive turnover in the project team. The result is either a “not invented here” syndrome (if the implementation team stays in place) or a lack of continuity (reinventing the wheel). “The key here is to carefully plan the composition and evolution of the project team,” De Meyer says.

In small efforts where the manager carries out pilot projects or experimental projects, project managers may experience unexpected events during implementation. “Here, the project manager needs to have the creativity and imagination to be able to turn a disruptive event into an advantage, such as a creative new solution,” De Meyer says.

The second challenge is transferring learning from one project to another. “You need to be able to ensure that the experience resulting from small automation projects can be diffused throughout the organization or can be maintained over a longer period of time,” De Meyer says. To accomplish this, the project manager must think carefully about the learning system (how documentation takes place and how knowledge spreads throughout the organization via strategies such as job rotation, conferences and billboards).





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