Information is power. And today’s manufacturers are more informed — and powerful — than ever before. Owners and managers can assemble volumes of data, ranging from real-time information gleaned from machines and RFID readers on the plant floor to regular input from customer service and sales staff.
But data collection is only part of the story. Once you have all this information, what do you do with it? In broad terms, data analytics can be used to improve your business processes, refine operational efficiency and even transform your existing business model. Increasingly many manufacturers are investing large sums in analytics technology.
Upsides of Analytics
Let’s take a closer look at three specific ways analytics are likely to benefit manufacturers:
1. Enhanced cost efficiency. Manufacturers have made great strides in reducing costs by implementing lean manufacturing and Six Sigma programs. Such approaches have enabled many companies to improve yield and quality while reducing variability and production process waste.
Nevertheless, certain manufacturing niches — for example, chemical and pharmaceutical companies — typically still experience significant variability due to production volumes and the complexity of their processes. These niches may need to take a more granular approach to identifying and correcting process flaws. Analytical tools, including ratio analysis and statistical trends, can help. Specifically, manufacturing managers may focus on historical processing data to understand relationships and patterns, then use the analysis to optimize production.
Companies may “slice and dice” real-time information from the plant floor, as well as performing sophisticated statistical assessments. For example, a biopharmaceutical manufacturer that produces two batches of a specific substance using identical processes might experience a yield variation of 50% to 100%. Such broad variability can affect both quality and quantity. However, the company can use targeted data analytics to identify key variables and enable it to eliminate waste and reduce production costs.
2. Improved productivity. Data analytics can uncover unexpected or overlooked opportunities to maximize production efforts. Even if a manufacturer has been in business for decades and has seemingly exhausted opportunities for greater efficiency, management may find room for improvement by exploiting the information now at its disposal.
Management consulting firm McKinsey points to a mining company that discovered, from data collected from environmental monitoring and control systems, a positive correlation between worker productivity and oxygen levels in mine locations. Recognizing this factor, the company altered the oxygen levels in its underground mines, thereby increasing average yield by 3.7% over a three-month period. On an annual basis, this simple modification boosted profits by roughly $10 million to $20 million — without requiring any incremental capital investment.
3. Higher customer satisfaction. For most companies, customer satisfaction is a top priority. However, before you can meet the needs of customers and earn their long-term loyalty, you must obtain information about customer practices and preferences.
Online surveys or questionnaires can be used to collect data from customers, and then the results can be analyzed and shared with members of the management team. It’s important to identify similarities and differences between customers. Although you can’t satisfy all of the people all of the time, you can adapt enough to meet the needs of most customers and engender broad support for your brand.
For example, German automaker BMW uses big data to analyze input from manufacturing outlets and dealerships around the world. Before full production of a car begins, BMW tests its prototypes, identifies any problems through analytics (a single prototype might have more than 15,000 data points) and makes necessary adjustments. As a result, BMW enjoys a reputation for manufacturing luxury cars that include features that customers appreciate (like laser cruise control and in-vehicle infotainment systems) and that cost less to produce and require fewer repairs.
Surviving and Thriving
Manufacturing is a competitive industry. Surviving and thriving requires your company to seize opportunities and implement reasonable cost-saving measures. It’s critical that you collect and analyze data — and use it to change your production processes, as necessary. Talk to your financial advisor and consult technology professionals about how your company can profit by using the latest data analytics tools.