Timing is Everything

Dec. 1, 2004

On the battlefield, seconds count, and the recent revolution of highly secure, real-time information flows provide a tremendous competitive advantage to commanders making decisions in the field that will have life or death consequences. In war, getting the right information to the right place at the right time is critically important to victory.

Similarly, real-time information flows hold the same kind of strategic advantage in the competitive business world. In fact, today's technology advances are delivering valuable capabilities in tracking and tracing tools, parts, equipment, labor charges and processes for warehousing, manufacturing and vendor supply chain management. The increasingly widespread use of bar coding and RFID software and hardware technologies over the last fifteen years among manufacturers is the foundation of this process. A number of defense and aerospace contractors already make use of these technologies to comply with Department of Defense and FAA reporting and tracking regulations.

For those contractors, technology has now advanced to deliver fully integrated and real-time processes that quickly marshall and distribute information and data from the supply chain right through the manufacturer and its warehouse, and to the end user and back. The result is highly integrated information flows between different work cells, the reduction of non-value-added paper pushing, better, more informed decision-making and a more productive operation.

Termed AIDC — for automatic identification and data collection — these technologies herald a just-in-time information revolution in reducing non-value-added work and the staff costs to perform those menial tasks.

The High Cost of Equipment "Losses"

It's pretty clear that logistical support costs and equipment "losses" can take up a significant portion of the military operational budget, reducing the budgetary dollars available for front-line action. Equipment losses are a major concern for the military, which is currently considering enacting a program — called UID — to track all pieces of equipment valued at more than $5,000.

"Data-collection technologies can help to track and trace valuable equipment, manage parts flows and inventories, track labor time and assign this to specific projects, reduce paper-pushing costs and eliminate non-value-added tasks as much as possible," said Greg Watkin, vice president of marketing for Epic Data Inc. For more than 25 years, Vancouver-headquartered Epic (www.epicdata.com) has been a global provider of lean data-capture software and technologies for defense and aerospace companies such as Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, CAE, Boeing, General Dynamics Electric Boat and Bell Helicopter.

"In business, AIDC systems have become much more tightly integrated to the decision-making structure, eliminating the 'islands of automated information' that are currently the norm," notes Watkin. "The result is collaborative, real-time decision-making, and much tighter control over operations and costs."

Here are some of the latest innovations in auto ID and data capture that are now being applied by defense and aerospace manufacturers:

Building Bridges Between Islands of Automated Information

One of the biggest challenges in data collection has been eliminating the "islands of automated information" that typify older, legacy data-collection systems dating from the 1980s and '90s. It's been very difficult to get these systems to talk to each other. As a result, decisions that required collaboration and information flows between different cells and departments often had to wait until the data could be papered and shared. However, online collaborative decision-making — once only a remote possibility — is now a reality. And it often occurs in real time.

Today, Epic and other integrators' systems enable these legacy hardware and software systems to communicate with each other, breaking down the barriers to improved information visibility. Lockheed Martin Aeronautics (LMCO) recently implemented this type of system at its plants in Dallas-Fort Worth, Marrietta, GA, and Palmdale, CA, to enable the company to record and validate details of all work performed as it occurs and transmit it across platforms.

Two-way Information Visibility to the Shop Floor and Supply Chain

Previously, AIDC in manufacturing, warehousing, logistics and supply chain was about collecting information and sending it to company analysts for interpretation. Data flows went principally in one direction. Now, advanced data collection allows information to travel electronically sideways to other departments, and also to vendors along the supply chain. Two-way information flows in real time enable more data to be sent directly down to the shop floor.

How does this help warehouse staff do their jobs? Today, advanced new large-screen, data-capture terminals on the shop floor enable employees to view product drawings and pictures, safety regulations and procedures, assembly instructions, product photos and corporate phone directories. Essentially, this empowers them to make routine decisions more quickly on their own. Again, advanced technologies are breaking down the islands of automated information with the purpose of putting useful information and corporate knowledge right at the fingertips of frontline employees.

That's the case at LMCO, where advanced graphics-rich terminals in its system present "corporate knowledge" to employees on the shop floor, and also act as barriers to prevent unauthorized access to the corporate ERP system. It also enables the company to track labor costs and the work of the vendor/outside technicians who frequently need access to the system when they visit the plant.

Tracking, Tracing, Security and Compliance

Just as Fedex does for its customers, real-time AIDC technologies enable managers to track parts, equipment and inventory wherever they are located through the use of bar codes or RFID technologies. They can also track and total labor time and assign these costs to particular projects and monitor processes to determine upcoming work. In addition, by assigning every employee (and visiting vendors and technicians) a unique numerical code, their access to the main computer system either through the shop-floor data capture terminals or through the PC workstations can be monitored and strictly controlled. This is a valuable benefit in the post-9/11 world.

One important goal of every AIDC system is to automate and reduce the cost of complying to regulations while feeding the manufacturer's quality system with information that can be applied to deliver continuous improvements in efficiency and productivity.

Bell Helicopter, for example, has a system whereby employees must swipe their employee cards through a scanning unit when they work on different projects. This enables the automatic assignment of costs to particular projects, an important consideration for defense suppliers. In addition, Bell tracks — automatically and electronically — some sixty different kinds of "transactions," among them time and attendance clocking, inventory and parts control, tool tracking, material handling and time and labor project tracking.

"Complying with government requirements like the UID tracking regulations can sometimes be onerous. However, a properly configured AIDC system reduces the reporting work involved to a minimum," notes Watkin. "This has been the case in aerospace manufacturing compliance with DoD and FAA requirements."

The "Electronic" Supply Chain

In many industries, shop-floor auto-ID and data-collection technologies are now being extended outside the organization through the Internet or virtual private networks to connect directly with supplier information systems. They are used to develop an "electronic" Japanese-kanban-style "pull system" for parts ordering and inventory management, and to integrate information flows and decision-making from the end user in the field right back to the manufacturing and design process. Within the manufacturing process itself and in dealing with the supply chain, integrating these processes means tremendous opportunities to improve information flows and enhance collaboration.

SMI (supplier-managed-inventory — meaning the supplier is responsible for monitoring and responsible for replenishment parts' stores) already provides significant lean benefits to suppliers and manufacturers, and also enhances the ability to identify which supplier provided a given part. The use of bar codes or RFID tags and scanner technology will enable the customer to track parts from specific equipment, right back to the date and time the part was produced, and by which company.

"Over the last few years as new hardware and software technologies have been developed, their application in manufacturing data capture and collection has delivered impressive gains in what can be achieved," says Watkin. "Today, extending far beyond simply eliminating the use of paper, these systems can now integrate information and speed up decision-making in all areas of the company. It's been a revolution for manufacturers."

And it's the same in the military, which has already experienced the significant benefits that come from real-time integrated information flows on the battlefield. Looking behind the lines, the question needs to be asked: If the benefits of real-time can be extended to the military logistics, warehousing and supply chain information systems, why shouldn't it be done?

Shuffling the "Electronic" Paper Trail

The residual benefit of real-time data integration has been faster decision-making about people, parts and processes throughout the organization and greatly reduced paper flows. For example, if a worker in a military warehouse scans a part and the readout shows the supply needs to be replenished, the employee can press a button on the computer and an order is sent up the line automatically to Purchasing, and from there on to the supplier.

If the supplier has been pre-approved and pre-authorized for regular replenishments, they can download a bar-coded shipping label from Purchasing's website, print it off on their own printer and ship the product straight to its destination. When the shipment arrives at receiving and the quality and quantity is confirmed by the receiver, a scan of the bar code registers the receipt and the receiver acknowledges by confirming on the screen. Accounting is sent an invoice automatically by electronic means and payment is initiated according to normal procedures.

In addition, if a warehouse worker finds that a particular part is defective or incorrect, he or she can quickly alert Purchasing that there is a problem via the shop-floor data-capture terminal. Purchasing can then contact the vendor electronically to address the concern in a much more efficient process.

In fact, some companies with advanced systems provide shop-floor employees with the ability to shut down the assembly line whenever a problem is detected. In addition, improved process visibility for the cell manager enables changes to the daily work schedule to be made on the fly if a problem in a certain process requires other work to be shifted up on the work schedule while the error is corrected. With fully integrated real-time information flows, issues that used to delay work for hours or days can now be resolved much more quickly, at reduced cost and using much less paper.

Data Capture in Lean Management

Data capture's involvement in lean management is comprised of two aspects. First, it helps an organization to understand its administrative weaknesses by quantifying the inefficiencies and waste in each process or transaction, and pinpointing where processes might be bundled or eliminated through the use of bar codes, RFID or other technologies.

Second, by applying data-collection technologies within the process, the non-value-added paper shuffling and work that adds an extra expense layer to operational budgets is greatly reduced. The result is less unnecessary work, allowing the organization to re-assign staff to more valuable tasks. In short, it helps the organization to focus its attention on producing value and cutting excess cost.