Manufacturing: Analogue to Digital
Last week I fell off my mountain bike. Sorry, correct that. I was catapulted/hurled off my mountain bike. My mate who was riding ahead of me advised me there were no witnesses to my accident so no one is able to describe to me exactly how it happened, and why. Safe to assume, I was probably on the ragged edge of grip, launching over a huge jump and to avoid crushing an innocent wild kitten I flung my bike down the hill, sacrificing my helmet, my bike and my memory. Yes, my memory.
I have no recollection of riding for the previous hour, no memory of crashing, no memory of being out cold for what may have been 5 minutes or more and certainly no conscious thoughts relating to violent vomiting, shirt removing, ambulance riding, needle probing, and CT scanning. In total, I think I lost about 4-5 hours with one vague memory of being moved onto the X-Ray table (I told them I was heavy and not to drop me). It is a scary thought how fragile our lives and bodies are. One small miscalculation has left me with a very painful shoulder, splitting headaches, loss of memory, reduced concentration power and to top it all off, I have to buy a new helmet!
Unlike an iPhone or a computer, humans are not equipped with a system restore function. It was impossible for me to quickly revert back to a saved time to gain back what I had lost. My one hard drive is composed of 75% water and is the fattiest organ in the body and judging by the CT scan of the neanderthal looking object above, I also have a small spider inside mine which probably doesn't help either. Despite the recent memory loss, I have been thinking a lot about this system restore function, and what it means for companies that rely on data, backups and server systems to keep their business running. And those that have quite simply...nothing.
Back in time
Earlier this month Craig Haywood and I travelled around the bottom of New Zealand, catching up with old clients and poking our noses into local industry to see what was new. What was immediately apparent is that a lot of manufacturers and engineering shops are still doing exactly the same thing they were 15-20 years ago. The same process, the same equipment and in most cases the same one person behind all the ideas, inventions and mistakes.
It is easy to just point fingers at people who are "behind the times", but the reality is a lot of these people might not know any better. An age-old recipe is passed down through the generations and then slowly adapted to suit the needs of the individual and/or company. Unfortunately, structure and following a design or manufacturing process will not necessarily be high on the priority list. These business's struggle along without much real profit or growth in the customer base. Often it is local loyalty that keeps them above water, for now at least. The owners work tirelessly, obligated to carry on the family tradition, product or service. Kudo's to those guys; I don't know how they do it.
Going, going, gone
The most disturbing thing, however, is to see a complete lack of technology. We saw chaotic workshops, ancient templates scattered on floors and hung on walls and hand sketches of unique products, stacked in old drawers, or just left on the factory floor. In same cases, there was not a single USB drive to be found anywhere. I wasn't around in the 1950's but it was almost like stepping through a portal to go back in time!
I am not one for catastrophising, but if there are any business owners reading this, what comes to mind? As we know New Zealand is essentially one big fault line, and as we saw in Canterbury, prone to rattling a bit. Ask around the industry in Christchurch and you will soon discover that a lot of information was lost during the earthquakes, companies completely wiped out as they didn't have a single scrap of data to fall back on. I won't even delve into the fire hazard side of things.
The changing of the guard
What we did also see is a slight change slowly moving through some companies. The son/daughter who has grown up with Dad knocking together trailers from scraps is at the point where they see the benefits of investing in technology. This younger generation is moving more and more into the business, the parents are older and more tired and want to hand things over to someone they trust/can keep an eye on. The resistance to change is not there, especially when it comes to what it could mean for the bottom line of the company. After numerous conversations, we could see thoughts starting to form and a slight hint of excitement at the prospect of something new, innovative and ultimately cost saving.
Here is an example. Not to float our own boat too much, but we talked to one trailer manufacturer that was still building them exactly the same way they always had. Historic hand sketches that belonged in a museum, hastily scribbled changes on grease covered shop drawings, and on a weekly basis, a continuous stream of costly rework. The material cut list was 'invented' by a guy who has most likely retired and is completely unmatched to the product being manufactured. Now I know some of you will be saying, "C'mon mate, it's not hard to build a trailer!" You would be correct; a trailer is one of the simplest transport structures to knock together with nothing more than some scraps and a lot of elbow grease. But what do you do if you really want a trailer that is world class; a product that outshines the rest, is consistent in its design and function. And what happens when you want to make 100 of said trailer?
We offered them a very basic answer. Using CAD we 3D model their most commonly sold trailer to their exact specification. From that, we extrapolate manufacturing drawings all individually labelled with the product name and/or code, with part numbers for each component. A specific cut list is then generated, along with dxf files or similar to be sent off to the plate processors or CNC routers etc. Run the shop drawings through the laminator, and stick them on the wall as the process to follow. Need a trailer slightly longer? Simple, update the model dimensions and regenerate the cut list appropriately.
Consistent design, a big reduction in material waste, less or even nil rework, easy to follow manufacturing drawings, reduced frustration, a refined product and what we all want to see, a higher profit margin. Emailed, backed up, secured, safe. We will even chuck in a USB drive.
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