Made in China: Using Manufacturing Intelligence to Overcome Shifting Dynamics

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By Matt Tweedy

Made in China is one of the most ubiquitous phrases in the modern manufacturing era. To many, the made-in-China tag is a symbol of the decades of manufacturing and economic growth that has propelled China to greater prominence on the world stage. For others, a string of high-profile recalls and other quality issues are driving a parallel narrative about made in China -- one of cheap, mass-produced products that don’t meet the global consumer’s high standard of quality.

Chinese manufacturers do not underestimate the challenges in maintaining their strength in international manufacturing. A growing Chinese middle class has increased the demand for higher salaries, more benefits, and better working conditions. The changing cultural dynamics and slowing growth in Chinese goods, including a decrease of 0.3 percent in the China's manufacturing purchasing managers index (PMI) in April, are making Chinese manufacturers more aware of the fact that they cannot continue to do the same things now as they did during the decades-long growth spurt.

To overcome these challenges, and to renew the pride of the made-in-China label, many companies are placing a heavy emphasis on maintaining strength through the use technology. Methodologies are emerging that use manufacturing intelligence to increase operational efficiency, supply chain visibility, and more competitive product quality from design to distribution.

Many Chinese manufacturing firms, however, only house basic IT infrastructure, if any at all. The market is demanding solutions that are quick to deploy, have a small IT footprint, and provide real-time visibility into manufacturing-process performance data that clears the path for efficient and consistent production. There are technologies readily available across China that will help, but success requires identifying an enterprise-quality software application that utilizes mobile and cloud-based technologies, and is also powered by a centralized statistical process control (SPC) engine. This type of software configuration and functionality can offer a cost-effective, rapid deployment that will enable the collection, monitoring, and analysis of plant floor data. The key to selecting the right software application is finding one that adequately addresses the quality needs of the manufacturer and remains highly functional in a cloud environment.

Many Chinese manufacturers are already taking the steps necessary to understand data collection and analysis better and to achieve the common goal of using the most effective tool to improve quality processes and to produce consistently high-quality products. Among these innovative manufacturers, companies such as Bohai Piston (Shandong), EMBRACO (Beijing), SanDisk (Shanghai), and Singu Keller Automotive Cold Forming Parts (Beijing) have seen decreases in scrap and expenses and increases in profits, employee skill levels, and quality awareness directly attributed to the successful use of SPC methodologies and manufacturing intelligence.

Mobile technology and the cloud
As of November 2012, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) said there were 1.104 billion mobile phone users in China, which translates to about 82 percent of the population. This means that manufacturing employees are likely to own mobile devices that they already use to access the cloud for personal communications, making it easy for manufacturers to implement bring-your-own-device (BYOD) strategies for a cloud-based software deployment. To facilitate this, the software application must include easy-to-use mobile data collection functionality and user interfaces with a centralized database that seamlessly integrates data from nearly any source, including enterprise systems like ERP or MES, measurement tools such as CMMs and scales, or even supplier facilities to track raw material production.

With the data entered into a cloud-based centralized database through any mobile device, plant floor operators, management, and customers can analyze the data as it is sliced and diced in the SPC analysis engine. The resulting manufacturing intelligence yields opportunities for improvement in both manufacturing processes and product design. For example, one global bottling company used SPC to reduce overfill, which not only saved the company nearly $300,000 in two years, but also challenged packaging design engineers to review the actual bottle designs and ensure ideal liquid fill amounts without compromising overhead space.

There is a sense that, in the era of mobility and advancements in housing and sharing data, Chinese manufacturers are not restrained by the long deployment timelines and high cost of decades-old IT infrastructure and methodologies. The improved systems that exist today mean they don’t have to “plow the same field” as their international competitors did. They are looking to gain an advantage by using a common-sense approach that matches the technological reality of the last five years rather than that of the last 50 years.

If Chinese manufacturers continue on the path to quality-driven manufacturing operations, there is little doubt that the phrase "made in China" will once again stand alongside “made in Germany,” “made in Japan,” and “made in the USA” to represent quality products.

Matt Tweedy is the vice president of product management at InfinityQS.

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