If there’s an overheard mantra in the public debate on politics and economics, it’s that manufacturing is in deadly decline. At least, that’s what many have said in the first (and the second, too, to be fair) world for at least the past twenty years. Allegedly, it was going to be the linear outcome of the combined effect of different phenomena: automation obliterating blue-collar workers, globalisation increasing offshoring of low-skilled jobs to developing countries, tertiarisation surrendering national economies to the monopoly of the service sector.
Well, in the end, it seems like that’s not going to be the case. After the premature declaration of the death of industrial production, we added a question mark to what had been taken for granted for quite many years. The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) makes it clear in its research The Future of Manufacturing. The added value of industrial activities might have encountered a few bumps, but it’s still increasing. An indisputable sign that we might have spoken a little too soon.
The study says loud and clear that technological development and increased participation in Global Value Chains are what could keep manufacturing alive and even make it flourish. But increased international competition makes the adoption of productivity-enhancing technologies in manufacturing a necessary stepping stone, rather than a choice. It becomes crucial then to cut the underlying losses that cripple productivity in the industrial sector. Software developed by Estonian company Evocon tackles such hidden inefficiencies. But to properly understand how it works, we need to take a step back – of just about 100 years.
A car, an icon, an efficiency revolution
Quite a big jump, true, but the core concept of Evocon was actually developed back then. It is the idea of Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE), formulated by Emerson and Taylor’s theories of scientific management. Back then it was put into practice by a man called Henry Ford in December 1913, in a factory producing black cars in series in Highland Park, Michigan.
OEE is a fundamental framework for monitoring, evaluating, and improving processes in industrial production. It allows to measure the efficiency of the pipeline by identifying and quantifying the potential underlying losses that impair full effectiveness. When lean production is in place, the output consists of only good products (full quality), assembled at the maximum speed (full performance) and without unplanned stops (full availability). These three indicators offer managers an accurate and holistic picture of what is going on in the factory.
The innovation introduced by mechanical engineer Frederick Taylor and entrepreneur Henry Ford was to put these principles to test in a real environment. Focusing on task composition and duration, Taylor used a timekeeping device to monitor how long workers employed to carry out each step of their work. Moving then to understand how these tasks could be broken down in smaller, simpler parts, they would be rearranged or distributed so to provide the most production-efficient assembly line. It was a ground-breaking novelty, one that Henry Ford made go down in history with the cheaper, renewed mass production of his Ford T. There, the focus was on tasks and human labour, and it was about a century ago. With Evocon, the magnifying glass moves to machines too, and it’s happening today.
Data and transparency enhance productivity
As an OEE software, Evocon plays a determinant role in achieving operational excellence. Improvements in production chains effectiveness recorded by customers range between 15% and 20%. Terminals are installed on all machines of the factory part of the assembly line, from supply to output. The software functions as a tracking tool, monitoring the pace of production not only with regards to human work, but to the functioning of machines too. The data collected is then translated into a user-friendly visualisation interface, accessible both by managers and machine operators, providing full transparency on the progress of the production process.
Evocon allows access to information easily and at any given time, enabling users to always keep an eye on OEE performance indicators. In this way, in addition to the real-time status updates on the production process, operators can do targeted interventions on unplanned stoppages, and managers dispose of richer data to review and adjust productivity goals. The software is a tool equally in the service of machine workers and the higher ranks, fostering machine/human interaction through design.
Martin Lääts, responsible for Design & Service at Evocon, unravels the rationale behind the solution. “A lot of our focus goes to visualisation, ease-of-use and simplicity. This means that when manufacturers use Evocon, we do our best to help them clearly understand how they are using their resources and what they need to do to realise their full potential. Or to put this in other words – Evocon is the intermediary between production data and the understanding of that data for manufacturers,” Lääts states.
If knowledge is power, design is the enabler
It doesn’t come as a surprise that design is the second core element that makes Evocon ultimately unique. The company won the 2019 Design Implementer of the Year award in the national entrepreneurship competition held by Enterprise Estonia. An achievement that Lääts salutes as “a reflection of the hard work that everyone at Evocon has put into the success we experienced so far.”
Probably the reason why manufacturers are sometimes regarded as slow adapters as compared to other sectors of the economy does not lie in a lack of agency. It could be a matter of usability and access to effective IT solutions.
“I would like to think, instead, that this is how it used to be. And quite frankly, I believe the reason for it was that service providers for the industrial sector have made it very difficult and expensive to implement new IT solutions, and this generates disappointment. Utilising design allows us to take the perspective of the customer and design a service that solves the challenges that customers face. That’s also why all manufacturers interested in Evocon can try our production monitoring solution for free in their factory, so that it’s completely transparent what they will be buying and what the benefits are,” Lääts explains.
A scalable solution across countries and industrial sectors
So far, indeed, Evocon is used by manufacturers in 44 countries and across 14 subsectors of industrial and manufacturing activities. Customers to date include French leading company Saint-Gobain in the construction sector, Torm Metall in mechanical metalworking, Scandinavian food products manufacturer HKScan. And such variety of sector applications shows why Evocon is the perfect match for their activities.
“It’s mostly about the company and its culture, rather than the sector. All our clients who understand that it’s all about transparency, and about seeking the way forward based on what the data says, achieve the highest gains. Our goal going forward is to help manufacturers get even more value from their production data by integrating Evocon with other IT solutions in the factory. In this way, we empower other departments (e.g. planning, maintenance, finance) with the knowledge that data provides,” Lääts concludes.
For nine years and counting, Evocon has relentlessly worked towards making an impact in a crucial sector of every nation’s economy. With the help of innovation and design, the end of manufacturing might not have come just yet – and, probably, it still won’t for quite some years.