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OM in the News: The Turning of the Screw

May 21, 2013
Harley's York PA plant

Harley’s York PA plant

Companies’ pursuit of “big data”—collecting and crunching ever larger amounts of information—is often thought of as another way to figure out exactly what customers want. But big data is also a means of measuring millions of little things in factories, such as how many times each screw is turned. That is what Raytheon is doing at its Alabama missile plant, writes The Wall Street Journal (May 16, 2013). If a screw is supposed to be turned 13 times after it is inserted but is instead turned only 12 times, an error message flashes and production of the missile or component halts. Improvising with a defective screw or the wrong size screw isn’t an option.

Similarly, At Harley-Davidson’s plant in York, Pa., software keeps a constant record of the tiniest details of production, such as the speed of fans in the painting booth. When the software detects that fan speed, temperature, humidity or some other variable is drifting away from the prescribed setting, it automatically adjusts the machinery. In the past, says Harley’s VP, operators had leeway on paint jobs and each could do the work in a slightly different way. Harley has also used the software to find bottlenecks that could keep it from its goal of completing a motorcycle every 86 seconds. Harley managers recently determined that installation of the rear fender was taking too long. They changed a factory configuration so those fenders would flow directly to the assembly line rather than having to be put on carts and moved across an aisle.

Harley and Raytheon are just two of many manufacturers installing sophisticated, automated software systems, known as manufacturing execution systems, or MES, to gather and analyze factory-floor data. Semiconductor and other high-tech companies were early adopters of MES, but now others are catching up. Suppliers include Apriso, GE, SAP, Siemens, and Rockwell Automation.

Discussion questions:

1. Why is MES a valuable operations tool?

2.  By what other names is MES known in manufacturing?

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