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Completing the Loop: Communication on the Manufacturing Cloud

Machine shops see efficiency improvements with manufacturing cloud software to keep communication organized.

A couple of years ago, a thought-provoking Modern Machine Shop article on manufacturing communication systems kicked off with this sentence: “If you want to know how well a machining job shop is doing at communication, talk to the people who do the estimating and quoting.” 

The reasoning for this tip was sound and insightful. Yes, every shop function benefits from timely, accurate exchanges of information, but quoters are in a unique position. Good quotes and estimates are fully dependent on getting the right info at the right time from the right people. An accurate, prompt quote requires insights into things like:

  • Machining processes
  • Cutting tool considerations
  • Workholding and fixturing options
  • Current material costs
  • CNC programming strategies
  • The work of other inside collaborators

And the list goes on. It’s a challenging set of inputs to gather even for an experienced quoter. Shops that are doing well at communicating understand that production might flow in one direction (from the quote towards the shipment of the finished product), but communication needs to go both directions. The only way to become exemplary at quoting is with a feedback loop that includes every downstream stage of the shop’s workflow.

Top-down vs. Bottom-up Communication in Manufacturing

Top Down

If your machine shop mainly uses a top-down approach to communication, you're not alone. This is a common way of doing things. Ownership or top level management sets priorities and communicates them to the next level — perhaps production managers, engineers, and sales leads. They’re then in charge of defining and routing work, scheduling tasks, and instructing the folks on the shop floor.

However, this approach also creates a disconnect between operators and management. The people bringing in work, writing the Bill of Operations (BOO) for each job, and delegating jobs on the floor might not always have up-to-date information on the exact status of existing jobs, outstanding material needs, current inventory levels, or any unexpected delays.

It also makes it harder to accurately quote incoming work opportunities.

Bottom Up

Bottom-up communication keeps feedback flowing backwards — from the shop floor staff all the way up the chain to leadership and from the completed project all the way back to the quoters who will prepare the next estimate on a similar job. This can often be easier said than done.

CNC shop owner Dan Villemaire explained the pain of gathering feedback for a quote in the same MMS article referenced above:

Often, the quickest way to move a quote along was to make numerous treks to different expert sources for essential information. I would walk to the desk of a process engineer, to a programmer’s cubicle, to the machinist, to the setup person or to the tool room clerk. That was a lot of walking, and not every trip paid off.

Management is likely to feel the same pain, often making decisions relatively “blind” to the up-to-the-minute reality of progress and statuses on the shop floor. If you have systems in place to resolve these issues, you can empower your operators to help the decision-makers above them make more informed, more effective decisions. They’ll know in advance if jobs are running late or costing more than predicted, which can inform the next quote and also help your schedulers to make responsive adjustments that will keep other upcoming work on track.

None of that is possible with a top-down approach, because the information simply isn’t available quickly enough to react.

Manufacturing Cloud Software Completes the Feedback Loop

The advent of digital manufacturing cloud solutions has been a game-changer for job shop communication, getting shops off of inefficient legacy systems, Excel spreadsheets, or worse — fully paper-based processes. 

Cloud MES software keeps the whole team connected with a single, shared repository of information for every stage of production. Operators on the front lines can have a tablet in hand with sequential work instructions and an easy way to snap a photo or leave a comment that is immediately visible to the production manager, material purchasers, and sales team.

Eliminate Miscommunications and Information Siloes

Info on quotes, materials, parts, work orders, lead times, and assignments, and everything else should not be siloed to each department or rely on paper duplicates that may no longer be accurate in the event of a recent change. 

Cross-department connections and a single source of truth ensures that everyone is using the same information and a shared set of understandings to make decisions. When a cloud manufacturing system makes information accessible to all departments:

  • Sales won’t overpromise on incoming work
  • Production will see clear goals and deadlines to work towards
  • Operators can provide real-time feedback on status, possible improvements, etc.
  • Problems will be resolved more quickly
  • Customer conversations can be informed by accurate, current information
  • Everyone stays on the same page

Promote Collaboration and Conversation

Management is not the only team focused on efficiency and improving the company. Freely volunteered feedback and comments from front-line operators can be instrumental in eliminating waste and avoiding setbacks. The ones physically doing the tasks are generally the ones who know best how it might be improved — and they take pride in a job well done as much as management does.

Including operators in the conversation also encourages innovation and helps every member of the team feel valued and capable of taking action to solve problems. You’re fostering a culture of teamwork and initiative.

Get New People Up to Speed Quickly

Ideally, you’ll have a historical repository of communications on every project so that team members can easily follow conversations they haven’t been involved with until now. This is especially important if a critical team member is out sick or unavailable and someone else has to step in to move a job along.

You’re also streamlining the process of onboarding new hires, because standardized and information-rich systems keep instructions clear and can make each step feel automatic. With good enough documentation and communication in manufacturing, it’s possible to bring on a new team member and have them running your parts in a week without much guidance.

Improve Quotes, Improve Results, and Improve Profits

Once you’ve empowered employees to contribute and created a virtuous feedback loop, you’ll be better at identifying what makes good work good. Operator feedback on jobs your shop could potentially see again helps your whole team to get better quoting the work and creating the part → therefore saving time and increasing quality → therefore improving profit margins and customer loyalty.

Set Your Manufacturing Cloud In Motion With StartProto

While your company can likely achieve a certain amount of growth under top-down management and communication, sustainable growth takes a capable team of empowered employees with easy access to all the information they need.

StartProto is a cloud-based MES and MRP solution that ties everything together in one interconnected system. Production managers, sales, quality control, shop floor operators, and more can stay in the loop with all job information tracked and stored in a central repository for a streamlined feedback loop from quote to finished product. With a shared cloud manufacturing execution system in place, you’ll facilitate the real-time, bottom-up style of communication that helps top job shops continuously grow and improve.

Get in touch today to give StartProto a try for free!

Tim Felbinger

Founder & CEO