Work instructions are one of the first things forward-looking manufacturers want to digitize as they think about their Industry 4.0 initiatives. Work instructions are a great place to start, and if done using the right software provider, it can both be an “easy win” on your digital transformation and have a significant impact on your operations. Championing the right software can be a career-defining decision. As you evaluate which tool is the right one for your organization, ask these eight questions to ensure you make the best choice:
What is your goal?
The most important question to ask before you choose a software provider is what your goal is. This might sound obvious, but many people don’t take the time to question what they are trying to achieve with digital work instructions. After talking with hundreds of manufacturers, I’ve noticed some are simply trying to go paperless while others want to digitally transform their operations. Going paperless is a noble goal, but if it’s your only goal, let me tell you a secret: you don’t need specialized software. You might as well use the software you likely already have, such as Powerpoint to make PDF versions of your current work instructions. Save your money.
Does the software let you create smart work instructions?
If you want to digitally transform your operations, beware of “dumb” work instruction software. This is software that only lets you create digital versions of your paper-based instructions. It is software you don’t need because you could use Powerpoint or some other software you already own to achieve the same goal as we said before. If you genuinely want to move the needle in your operations, look for software that lets you create SMART work instructions. These are instructions that dynamically guide operators based on inputs from them and your devices. Among other things, smart work instructions software differentiates itself from your existing tools by allowing you to add advanced multimedia to your work instructions, such as video and CAD files. Smart work instructions software also have a robust versioning system so you can make sure operators use the correct standard operating procedure (SOP). Furthermore, they have advanced user management features that let you keep track of operator skills and training.
Can the software connect with your other tools and systems?
Smart work instructions software lets you connect with your devices and systems to provide better guidance to your operators. Imagine a process that required picking parts from bins. Smart work instructions software can connect with devices such as pick-to-light and light beam sensors to light the right bin and sense if the operator picked the wrong part. Smart work instructions software lets you use these external devices on your shop floor so you can provide operators with real-time feedback. Moreover, it allows you to connect with your other systems, such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software, so that you can present operators with the right information at the right time. As you evaluate different software providers, ask how easy it is to connect with external devices and systems? What protocols are supported? Can you connect your existing tools or do you need to purchase compatible ones? Is the connection “plug and play” or do you have to invest in costly integrations?
Does the software collect actionable data?
Smart work instructions software goes beyond guiding operators — it also collects valuable data about your operations. It achieves this in several ways. First, as your operators go through the process, smart work instructions software can automatically collect data such as cycle time per operator. You can use this data to see if operators are meeting their target times, identify high performers and give targeted feedback to under-performers. Another way in which smart work instructions software captures information is by explicitly allowing operators to input data through forms. Lastly, smart work instructions software enables you to obtain data from your machines, sensors, smart tools, and devices. For example, you can connect your work instructions to a scale and automatically log the weight of all your assemblies before you ship them.
Collecting data is only half the story. Smart work instructions software also lets you easily visualize and manipulate the data within the software itself or integrate with your existing analytics tools. As you evaluate different solutions, think about wether they allow you to create dashboards and share them with other stakeholders in your operations. This data is not only valuable to you as a manager, but also to your operators — showing them how they fare compared to their peers can foster healthy competition and engagement that increases the productivity across your operations.
How does the software add value to operators?
The number one reason why operators don’t use work instructions is that they don’t add any value to them. As you evaluate different tools, ask yourself how it can add value to operators. Smart work instructions software adds value to operators by making them excel at their job without having to change the way they work. Unlike ‘dumb’ work instructions software, it doesn’t require operators to go back and forth between the instructions and the actual work. Instead, smart work instructions “follow” operators as they do their job, displaying the most relevant information they need in order to be successful. They are interactive, giving operator’s real-time valuable feedback that helps them do a better job and stay engaged. Similarly, they collect data that helps managers provide better feedback and recognize their hard work.
How easy is the software to use?
Selling hard to use software and charging you for training is a common business model for many manufacturing software companies. The steeper the learning curve and the longer it takes you to implement the software, the more time it will take for you to see a return on your investment. As you evaluate different providers, gauge the usability of their software by asking for a demo or trial account as well as customer testimonials. Inquire about the resources they have to make you a successful customer, such as training, webinars, knowledge bases, and forums. Lastly, ask about the on-boarding process — the best vendors will have a clear plan to get you started and become a successful user of their product.
What else can you do with the software? Will you outgrow it?
Digital work instructions are a necessary step in your digital transformation, but if you chose smart work instructions software you will soon want to digitize other parts of your organization as well. If the software provider you pick only lets you make work instructions, you will have to find other providers to solve each of your needs as you continue your digital transformation. Going down that road will result in an expensive to maintain software stack with multiple data silos, rather than a single view of your entire organizations.
To avoid this situation, you can choose a platform instead of a single-point solution. Unlike single-point solutions, platforms are flexible technologies that can solve multiple problems. Think of them as Legos — the possibilities of what you can build are endless. Manufacturing Apps software is an example of this. It allows you to make smart work instructions, but is not limited to that use case. Instead, you can create all sorts of apps to digitize your operations such as quality apps, visibility apps, and many more. Since all data lives within the platform, it gives you a holistic view of your entire operations in a single location.
Will your provider still be around in a year?
Startups tend to be more innovative than large companies. They are not constrained by the bureaucracy of large organizations or existing business models, so they can be more agile and innovative. They attract the best new talent and can, therefore, come up with truly revolutionary ideas. However, buying from startups or smaller software companies rather than large established ones can be scary. IBM capitalized on this fear with their “Nobody ever got fired from buying IBM” campaign.
With that, if the company is well funded and poised to become a market leader, choosing a startup can be great for your organization as it can give you early access to new technologies before your competitors. There are a couple of questions you can ask to de-risk your decision. First, you can ask about their financial health. Top-tier Venture Capital investors, large paying customers and a professional management team are great signs. Second, you can choose a startup that is poised to become a market leader down the road. How can you assess this? You can see how fast they’re developing and improving their product. If the product has changed substantially over the last few years, you can probably expect it will continue to grow dramatically. You can also look at the team behind the company. How large is the development team? Are they from top-tier schools? Have they proven themselves in the past? Lastly, is the company under the radar of leading industry analysts? What are Gartner and IDC saying about the company?
Championing new software in your organization can be a great way to boost your productivity and career if you make the right choice. As you consider which software to invest in, we’d love for you to consider Tulip. We’re an MIT Media Lab spinoff, with multiple Fortune 500 customers, and have been named a Gartner Cool Vendor, IDC Innovator and Frost and Sullivan Entrepreneurial Company of the Year. Get in touch!