In February 2016 a colleague and I gained access into the hallowed portals of a large global pharmaceutical company’s manufacturing heart.
It was clear, even within the PLC head office, that the manufacturing division was a close knit group and it was very difficult to gain entry. Once on-site its clear that it’s a close, familial environment and the manufacturing team support and protect each other; great for a company that produces a high specification range of products where quality and consistency are paramount.
They told us how they operate the factory floor, how the manufacturing process works, how the production line runs, how it is serviced and how that servicing is scheduled
They had investigated trying to automate the servicing schedule and use the production line machines intelligence to inform them on how each part moved and when it needed attention. A bit of context here – these machines are fundamentally doing the same thing as they have done for the past 10 – 20 years. They are very expensive pieces of machinery and they have been lovingly serviced and cared for. The items they produce hasn’t changed therefore the need to swap out machines doesn’t exist. However the production line machines is talking Olde English and the ERP software it is trying to communicate with is talking rap speak so the ability for the production line and ERP system to become one is non-existent.
A firm of middleware consultants had been granted an audience and delivered a compelling solution to provide the broker between the production line and the software. They were given the opportunity to present to the MD of manufacturing. The middleware consultants delivered their presentation, gave the compelling view of what the world could look like with machines talking to software and making their production line ‘smart’ to the point that the MD was saying “where do I sign?”.
Then it all fell apart. The sales guys were rolling up their flip chart and causally said –
“you are on the latest version of your ERP system aren’t you?”
“Err no…… we are 5 versions off the latest one” came the response.
“Ah – in that case we have a problem – upgrade to the latest version and we can make your production line ‘smart’.”
“But that will cost me £1m+ and I cant guarantee that I am going to generate multiples of that in production line savings. How do I sell that to the board?”
And so the dream came tumbling down and no deal was done. At the time of our visit the production line was in a maintenance cycle of taking a whole production line out every 6 days to service it – effectively trapping themselves in a corner and fearful of stretching it to 7 days just in case. Think how much more that company could do if they understood what the production line really needed from a service perspective – it could be game changing but the software said no.
(Please accept poetic licence here – I wasn’t in the room so I cant say this is verbatim what happened but it’s the picture I painted in my head)
When I heard this story I thought – this is SO WRONG – how can a large piece of software run the manufacturing production line and have such a powerful hold over a company’s ability to understand whats going on in its world.
And so the seed of Direc-Tec was born. Im no computer programmer but with the world of connected devices and the Internet of Things exploding I thought there must be a way to overcome this. And to be fair – in this particular instance they may have found a way forward – I haven’t been back in touch – yet.
What I know is that if we went to that company now, knocked on the door and were allowed in and given some time we would fix that issue. But I know they cannot be alone in that experience. Unwittingly we have all sleep walked into a world where the software is king and we all do things the way they encourage us to do them rather than the way we want to. To be fair new software is far more instinctive and delivers value to business. But the gulf between the latest and greatest version of software and the machines installed throughout production lines across the globe will deliver to a lesser or greater degree a challenge similar to that described above. If you could unlock just a fraction of the information the production line is generating the power that gives you as the manufacturer is enormous especially when the focus is on data, data, data and all it can potentially deliver.
Whats great is my seed of an idea became Direc-Tec and we have a few really great clients. Every day we talk to them, understand their world and how what we are delivering needs to be created to deliver maximum value. Then we say yes, we can help you overcome that challenge – give us 6 weeks and then we do it! I heard, third hand that one senior manager said – how nice to hear a supplier says yes all the time.
That makes it all worth while and I hope I hear more third hand, and first hand comments like that.