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A Smart Connected Operations Use Case: Resource Optimization at Rockwell Automation

The road to digital transformation is often paved with false starts. To drive true business value, and to move from proof-of-value activities to scale, it helps to learn from others.

Since Rockwell Automation is both a manufacturer and a digital transformation services provider, we’re happy to share our experiences with a digital initiative focused on improving resource optimization on the shop floor.

In this article, we’ll detail a recent digital initiative in one of our own factories, including the five major lessons learned. In sharing these lessons with you, we hope to provide guidance that helps drive value and scale for your own digital transformation journey.

Project Introduction

Rockwell Automation is an industry leader in technologies that facilitate process automation and digital transformation for our clients. Well-known for high quality products, Rockwell has extensive manufacturing operations with 18 factories around the globe managed by Rockwell internal experts.

This pilot project, which was part of a larger Smart Connected Operations (SCO) initiative, focused on resource optimization in the material kitting area of our printed circuit board assembly (PCBA) plant. This global and multi-year SCO transformation initiative was aimed at digitizing our entire manufacturing and supply chain network.

It began with the global deployments of our warehouse management, enterprise resource planning (ERP) and manufacturing execution systems (MES), which focused on core business processes. It then followed with an IoT platform implementation and the application of advanced analytics, which focused on other high-value opportunities. This project was designed to address specific challenges associated with the material kitting process.


Located in the Asia Pacific Business Center, Rockwell’s Singapore manufacturing center manufactures more than 1200 SKUs and produces an average of 400,000 pieces of intelligent hardware each month, including PCBAs and programmable logic controllers (PLCs). With each production work order running for only a few hours in between changeovers, this high-mix/low-volume discrete manufacturing model creates various operational challenges, similar to that of our customers.

Here are two main challenges this project was designed to address.

Challenge 1: Labor Efficiency Losses

Production planning teams commonly scheduled two to three days’ worth of work orders in advance to ensure appropriate staffing and material preparation. During the daily Gemba Walks on the shop floor, management often questioned the overwhelming amount of kitted material on the shop floor. “Do you know for how long these kits will last? How do you keep track of everything?” Too often, the answer was unclear.

Deeper investigation revealed that operators had been over-kitting just to make sure manufacturing lines would not starve. There were at least 18-24 hours’ worth of materials sitting by the manufacturing line, while in theory, six hours’ worth was more than enough.

Furthermore, there was a problem with operator workload allocation due to over-kitting because it significantly limited operators’ availability to be redeployed to other stations when needed.

Overall, this not-just-in-time kitting strategy caused unnecessary overtime and opportunity cost. With limited space, this also led to tripping hazards, obstructed walkways, and misplaced material.

Challenge 2: Order and Changeover Delays

To manage this kitting process, the operations team initially deployed a traditional magnetic whiteboard for operators to understand, debrief, and manually shuffle order cards to track progress. But due to the subjective and laborious nature of this process, up to 20 minutes per kit (approximately 22% of the average kitting time) were spent on non-value-added tracking activities.

Miscommunication and incorrect placement of order cards would often result in 15-30 minutes of changeover delays, since operators had to manually double-confirm with various parties to ensure material readiness and sequence correctness. These combined challenges contributed to prolonged changeover times and lost output, which are detrimental for any manufacturer running at high capacity.

Solution and Results

With these challenges identified, Rockwell Automation rallied a cross-functional team of technical, operational and design professionals to solve the problem using digital strategies and technologies.

The team leveraged an agile methodology to shorten the time-to-value of the implementation process. This method allowed us to quickly identify requirements, and then develop, test and deploy functionality on the shop floor.

By integrating information from multiple data sources such as SAP, FactoryTalk ProductionCentre MES and third-party OEM Oracle’s databases into a unitized platform, the PTC ThingWorx industrial internet of things (IIoT) platform was deployed to provide real-time tracking and instructions to operators, giving them better visibility.

The team replaced the manual magnetic whiteboard with a smart connected scheduling dashboard built on the IIoT platform. This gave shop floor operators total visibility into production plans, order pipelines, materials availability, and kitting status. It was also integrated with barcode scanning to track the movement of physical goods.

Business rules were also summarized and embedded into the dashboard, giving the material preparation team easy-to-understand instructions and eliminating material over-delivery. With wearable devices assigned to the operators, order information and kitting agendas were accessible remotely, informing operators when to stop material delivery, when to stand by for changeover and when to deploy to other stations.

As a result, we saw tangible benefits within six months of deployment. We improved labor efficiency by 25%, reduced work-in-progress inventory by 30%, and implemented 30% faster changeover time.

Five Lessons Learned

#1 - Executive sponsorship is critical

Digital transformation impacts people and requires behavioral changes to succeed and scale. To give end users a higher level of comfort during adoption, Rockwell appointed a “Digital Transformation” senior executive sponsor from operations.

This executive sponsor focused on generating meaningful business impacts, minimizing risks to her organization and acted as a catalyst for the change management process. She also collaborated with IT and other key technology partners to enable this transformation and created alignment as part of the governance process.

#2 - Incorporate end user feedback from beginning to the end

Shop floors can be stressful, and manufacturing teams are often very pragmatic, so they are more likely to accommodate new tools that they believe will be useful and beneficial to their daily lives. When driving changes, it was essential to survey and capture end user voices from the beginning.

During the design and implementation phases, the project team actively sought feedback from operators through interviews, surveys on UI designs, and mockups of workflow changes. When their inputs were properly captured, a stronger sense of ownership and satisfaction helped to drive toward continuous improvement and buy-in for the final product.

#3 - Simplify user experiences to minimize subjective interpretation

Digital technologies can provide dizzying amounts of data and information onto dashboards and reports. But from our conversations with operators, they expressed that viewing a dashboard with an overwhelming number of instructions and KPIs does not actually make them feel more informed.

By continuously validating the new workflow with operators, we captured and simplified critical instructions that they could act on, such as providing direct alerts to changeover activities, pausing delivery activities and prioritizing order notifications one step at a time. These simple prompts eased the onboarding processes and minimized confusion and subjective decision making.

#4 - Establish a governance team for standardization and continuous improvement

The expected benefits were not achieved overnight. It took six months after deployment to upskill operators and solidify changes before reaching stable operations across three factories. We benefited from setting up a governance team to standardize practices and benchmark individual plant performance against each other.

The governance team conducted fortnightly pulse checks and knowledge sharing sessions to jointly surface and address challenges. This consistent cadence and leadership support contributed greatly to the momentum need throughout the change process.

#5 - Start with an MVP and achieve a scalable ecosystem

Leveraging point solutions might seem like an economical way to start, but standalone applications are hard to scale, and they hinder cross-application data analysis. The key is to make sure the pilot project creates noticeable value, generating executive interest and furthering investment while building and deploying a project with future scalability in mind.

Rockwell followed Kalypso’s scalable minimal-viable-product (MVP) approach which makes speed-to-value a priority when selecting a project. Instead of building digital capabilities to be generalized across multiple use cases, we focused on the one with the most potential to prove the value of digital investments to leaders.

Since our future vision is to connect machines with people across the entire enterprise, we needed an open and scalable IoT platform. We chose one that can expand to other use-cases while serving as a single source of truth and enabling interoperability and standardization.

The Bottom Line: Start with the High-Value Problem Statement

There is no shortage of digital technologies to choose from, but long-term success requires identifying and prioritizing the right problem to solve. To align with long-term business strategy, a fruitful first step is to understand technological and organizational readiness. Evaluate readiness with a comprehensive framework that balances future goals with immediate opportunities to help identify and prioritize initiatives.

While Rockwell Automation decided on resource optimization as our pilot project, the low hanging fruits in your organization are highly unlikely to be the same. But wherever you start, don’t focus only on technology (or proofs of concept designed to demonstrate technology). Focus instead on creating digital proof points with measurable business value. Think about the application of the technology, and the purpose and value of solving a particular business challenge to drive big impact.

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