What are the benefits of a paperless factory (or how paper-based systems are hindering manufacturing excellence)

Mila Budeva
Mila Budeva
Jul 25, 2018

Let’s look at two shop floors – one depicted in the nineteenth century and the other photographed in the twenty-first.

Powerloom_weaving_in_1835Illustrator T. Allom - History of the cotton manufacture in Great Britain by Sir Edward Baines


pexels-photo-256297Picture of the shop floor of a rocket factory.


In the nearly 200 years between the two images, we have witnessed three industrial revolutions and are currently undergoing a fourth one. Despite the technological advancements implemented on the contemporary shop floor, it still shares a surprising commonality with its predecessor – paper-based systems!



Why are shop floors still reliant on paper?

As the proponents of paper-based documentation would point out, it is not dependent on power supply and internet connectivity; it does not require digital skills to be accessed and edited; if properly stored can last for centuries in a physical archive that is invincible to cyber threats. If it’s worked for the last 200 years it must be good, right?


However, going paperless is not just a nice-to-have alternative to extant paper-based systems. It is a pre-requisite for manufacturing excellence in the digital age. If we look beyond the seeming simplicity and familiarity of paper-based systems, we will see that they are actively incurring safety, productivity and quality costs on the shop floor and are deflecting workers’ time and effort from value-adding activities.


Whether it is workers on the shop floor reporting an incident, machine breakdown or supplier non-conformance, or it is management sharing SOPs, work instructions or training materials with the shop floor, the downsides of paper-based reporting are similar.



What are the downsides of paper-based systems?

Workers filling out paper-based forms then need to transfer them to a digital system or create more physical copies to share with managers – a redundant task that increases the risk of data inaccuracy, is time-consuming and only provides management with a post-hoc overview of shop floor events.


Paper-based SOPs and work instructions pose a challenge for both the experts authoring and maintaining them and the workers implementing them.  For workers, it might mean spending idle time sifting through 100-page long manuals to find relevant information while management faces the challenge (and waste!) of updating and distributing paper documentation.



So why aren’t more factories going paperless?

Transitioning from pen and paper to a digital solution can appear an overwhelming task but it really doesn’t need to be! Digitalisation no longer means implementing a costly, overcomplicated legacy system that requires an entire IT team to be implemented and maintained. Digitalising operations can be done in days, not months, with clicks rather than code.


Manufacturers don’t need to overhaul their entire operation but could start with a single process. Operators on the shop floor do not need extensive training to use the technology, rather the technology can help them to develop digital skills as they use it. Let’s look at several examples of processes that can be easily digitalised and what the benefits would be for the shop floor and the head office.


1. Reporting incidents

Rather than filling out a paper form to then duplicate the information in an excel sheet or another digital format, operators on the shop floor can submit a digital incident report that is automatically geo- and time-stamped, only asks them relevant questions based on their input and is instantly visible for management to review. A digital platform can enable management to configure the form within minutes, selecting from a variety of questions and to edit and update at any given time.


2. Responding to performance losses

Idling and minor stops and reduced speed are among the Six Big Losses in manufacturing. The faster operators on the shop floor can diagnose and resolve equipment failure, for example, the smaller the losses. In a paper-based factory, however, operators are likely to add to idle time by going away from the machine to retrieve a manual, SOP handbook or the contact details of the maintenance team.


What is more, recording the reason for the downtime and the implemented fixes on paper makes it more difficult to share with other operators, meaning separate shifts have limited visibility over each other’s activity. Compare the above to capturing data on the downtime cause, accessing guidance on fixing it and sharing the results all in one place and with a few clicks – digital no longer sounds more complex than paper!


3. Monitoring workforce competencies

How can manufacturers whose operations are dispersed across continents keep track of the competencies of a high-churn workforce? How can they ensure consistent operational standards on the shop floor? A digital skills matrix can provide manufacturers with real-time visibility on plant and worker competency, helping them to identify and bridge skills gaps.


For example, data captured on the shop floor might indicate that idle time for shift A is 20% more than shift B. Manufacturers can then deep dive on the root cause and provide the necessary micro training to improve shift A’s productivity and performance.  While paper-based training can be timely and costly, manufacturers can use digital to share interactive learning content that drives workers’ competencies and engagement. 



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