Manufacturing cycle times may be a basic measurement on the shop floor, but they provide the insights to improve nearly every aspect of the business. Yet among the manufacturers we’ve spoken to, only about 30% are taking advantage of cycle times to strengthen their operations and decision-making. As a result, they are missing opportunities to maximize productivity, increase business with customers, and grow their profits.
Understanding Manufacturing Cycle Times
So, what are we referring to when we talk about cycle times? There are three important units that manufacturers should track.
- Cycle time is the actual time it takes for a part to be made—from the time a machine starts the process of making a part to the time that the process for the next part begins. In addition to the machine, this measure also includes any human interaction involved in that timeframe.
- Cycle time counts look at the number of cycles it takes to complete a job or the number of cycles completed during a shift.
- Lack of cycle times, also known as downtime, tracks which machines are not being utilized on a shop floor. Since manufacturers make money on every part being made, a lot of downtime translates into a big problem.
The technology to track cycle times runs from very basic cycle counters to more comprehensive solutions, such as a manufacturing execution system (MES). The advantages of MES—particularly when it is fully integrated with a manufacturing enterprise resource planning (ERP) system—is that not only are cycles tracked, but the insight gained from tracking cycles and cycle times is updated or back-flushed to the ERP system where it broadly informs the manufacturing operation all the way from the sales desk to the shipping department.
ERP with integrated MES is an excellent example of the three fundamental concepts of Industry 4.0. Its use of sensors to capture machine data is an Internet of Things (IoT) technology; the integration of the machine data to the overall business controls of ERP is an example of systems integrations; and the triggers, alerts, and process control data MES generates is the real-life application of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI).
With these technologies in place, there is a seemingly endless range of ways that manufacturers can use what cycle times are telling them to improve their business. But let’s look at the top 10 uses being applied by manufacturing firms today.
10 Ways to Use Manufacturing Cycles to Improve Your Business
- Dynamic Production Scheduling – When real-time data is collected and passed onto the MES system, it can be set up to automatically interact with production scheduling software, so manufacturers can make their production schedule dynamic. For example, if there is unscheduled downtime, production scheduling can dynamically reschedule the parts to another machine to complete production on time. This would be impossible without collecting cycle times.
- Optimized Purchasing – Cycle times can be used to predict exactly when a manufacturer will run out of a specific material, making it possible to maintain lower inventories. Additionally, the MES software can feed data into the purchasing module of an ERP system, which then auto-generates purchase orders for materials that are being used on a specific machine on the shop floor, ensuring greater accuracy and utilization.
- Proactive Warehouse Management – Cycle times can help manufacturers get raw materials to the correct machine when they’re needed and avoid downtime. Here, real-time cycle time data in the integrated MES system is fed into warehouse management software, which uses this information to automatically direct forklift operators or other workers on where to deliver raw materials for use at a specific machine.
- Automated Inventory Management – Manufacturers can use real-time counts fed into the MES system to ensure that jobs stop exactly when they produce the required number of parts. Information is then automatically sent to the integrated inventory management system to provide accurate updates on completed parts or products.
- Responsive Customer Support – Cycle times captured in the MES and inventory management software enable manufacturers to instantly answer customers’ questions based upon what’s happening on the shop floor, helping to create customer confidence. For instance, the company can let customers know when their part is scheduled to be made or how many parts are already in inventory if they want a partial delivery.
- Accurate Sales Quotes – Insights from cycle times enable sales representatives to create highly reliable, accurate quotes in seconds. Here, real-time cycle counts are combined with large sets of historical data on bills of materials (BOMs), previous job quotes, and other factors. Next, AI or machine-learning runs correlations and statistical analysis on this data. Then the results are fed into the quote engine of the sales or ERP system to automatically generate the quote.
- Real-time Quality Management – Manufacturing cycle times as a machine process can provide a measurement of a correct part and lead the MES to trigger alerts when cycle times fall outside of accepted parameters. For example, temperature can affect how quickly plastic parts go through an injection molding machine, affecting the size and shape of the part. By capturing the machine cycle times to produce parts and receiving alerts when they fall outside acceptable parameters, manufacturers can avoid creating hundreds or even thousands of defective parts.
- Predictive Machine Maintenance – Cycle counts can be a great indicator of when to perform standard maintenance. By capturing a machine’s cycle counts in an MES, manufacturers can determine wear on the machine and schedule maintenance at a time that minimally impacts production. Additionally, cycle times that change or differ from expectations can indicate a machine issue to address before it becomes a problem.
- Data-driven Management – Cycle times provide immediate feedback on shop floor activity to all levels of management, from supervisors to the CEO. With a bird’s eye view of every machine, they can instantly see which ones are down, running slow, producing on time, or moving ahead of time; drill down on the details; and then respond to issues in real-time.
- Tailored Training – Cycle times can vary depending upon how each person interacts with a machine. So, by looking at the variations of cycle time from shift to shift, a human resources or plant manager can understand training needs on the shop floor and create programs to help employees operate at their highest and safest level.
The ten scenarios covered here are just a few illustrations of how cycle times can be used to strategically optimize a manufacturer’s business environment. However, they represent some of the greatest opportunities for manufacturers to turn their shop floor machinery into strategic assets for attracting and retaining customers, cutting unnecessary costs, and increasing productivity—enabling greater profitability and growth.