If you are running a paperless program in manufacturing or thinking about starting it, this article is a must read.

And I have chosen to start it by giving you already the three main takeaways:

  • Prone to human error, inefficient and inflexible, predisposed to decision lag are hidden costs of paper-based systems.
  • The choice of the right tool to go paperless shall consider its Integration Capabilities and Configurability, Usability, and Mobility.
  • This is a journey. Start to process your data quickly with an easy-to-use interface and soon you will get deeper insights to rethink your manufacturing processes.

Digitization implies a number of things: automating and eliminating manual collection; recording, analysis and communication of data, and even improve automated process actions. This means doing away with existing systems of jotting down data on paper-based forms, then either typing or scanning them to form a digital copy. Becoming a paperless operation is one of the key deliverables of digitization.

From a rationalization perspective, paper-based data capture systems are prone to errors, and there is the cost of maintaining those systems. Consider that one four drawer file cabinet:

  • Holds 15K-20K pages of paper
  • Costs $25,000 to fill
  • Costs $2,000 per year to maintain

Start your paperless journey understanding its benefits

In order to become paperless, the first step should be to understand the cost of a paper-based system, including data capture and storage. In addition to the costs of paper file-based storage, there are tangible benefits for going paperless: 

  • Triples processing capacity (Gartner),
  • Increases productivity up to 50% (IDC)
  • Creates immediate access to decision-critical data (which is the real goal)
  • Reduces storage space cost by up to 80%.
  • Traceability and Compliance to government-mandated regulations (21CFR Part 11, Sarbanes-Oxley, FSMA, etc.)
  • Accuracy: automated data entry gives an accuracy rate of 99.959 to 99.99 percent

Have a more sustainable approach

Softer, but certainly relevant arguments include impact to the environment. Pure costs of paper handling and immediacy of understanding events—digitizing your operations allows all data to be instantly accessible to other applications for improved production/operations management, including visualization, data storage, and MES applications.

Improving your operations immediately contributes to the bottom line: companies that have embraced a paperless shop floor have seen a 75% reduction in overtime, a 90% reduction in labeling errors and a savings of up to $7,500 in labor costs per user.

Reduce your decision latency

Staying on the subject of cost, one of the major advantages of digitization is reduction of decision latency which currently exists in all paper-based operations. Digitization allows data to be recorded and reported almost instantly; decisions can be taken much faster, preventing losses which might otherwise result due to delays inherent in the manual reporting process.

Reduce low-value manual data collections and error opportunities

Using paper on the shop floor also means that the workforce has to perform the redundant activity of capturing data at designated times and stages of a given operation, which may lead to errors in recording. Paper-based recording and errors associated with it may be extremely costly for an organization manufacturing product which are highly complex or highly regulated in nature. In highly regulated industries, a simple recording error may lead to product recalls and at its most dramatic impact, lead to financial and reputation loss, in the case of a non-conforming batch of products delivered to the market.

Share the same ease of research that you have on Google

Another clear disadvantage of having paper-based records is the fact that it becomes increasingly difficult to view and analyze historical data for trends, process control or quality management. Depending on the severity of the event and frequency of data recording, there might be millions of paper-based documents created a year. Finding a particular piece of information going back several months would literally be being like finding a needle in a haystack.

Reduce the effort of compliance management from the operational perspective

There is also the obvious issue of paper-based records not being secure enough. Important documents may get destroyed due to various reasons, as paper is perishable and prone to damage depending on conditions of storage. Documents, especially compliance related ones, if not stored digitally may be lost, leading to serious quality-related claims and non-compliance related actions from regulatory authorities.

Going paperless with MES

Paper thereby makes any process slower, costlier, reactive, risky, disconnected and inefficient. But how does digitizing your paper improve this, and would that mean a complete elimination of paper from the operation?

Digitization is heralded in manufacturing operations by a MES in most cases, an application which is designed to collect process and equipment data, record and report it in real or near real time, across the IT infrastructure, where the MES plays the role of integrating the shop-floor to the top floor. MES digitizes scheduling, pass-down and quality reports, thereby eliminating paper at the start.

Replace paper-based systems that inhibit online visibility and efficient control of operational quality by integrated real-time based system.

Modern MES applications are capable of capturing data directly from the process equipment, depending on the level of automation which already exists in a plant. Since the shop floor applications collect data directly from the process, it eliminates the need to manually record this data on a piece of paper. This means at the very first instance a MES frees shop floor personnel to perform more value-added activities, while the infrastructure captures events as they happen.

As shop floor events are captured and reported in real time, the decision lag we mentioned earlier, is drastically reduced. The most modern MES applications can not only collect data, but are capable of performing analysis and adding value right at the edge where data is collected, which means any anomaly in the data would raise alarms almost immediately. This allows process owners to take necessary actions to contain the reported issue and take actions to ensure process continuity, for example by rescheduling a production lot or changing a recipe.

Since an issue is reported as it occurs or is about to occur, depending on the MES and its capability, the resulting damage from said event can be contained/reduced or even eliminated, as the lag time to process manually-entered data is eliminated.  Decisions can be taken in real time, rather than waiting for a paper-based report to be filed and subsequently analyzed; the cycle from an issue detected, to problem area to be located and then finally an action to be taken can be reduced by 50-75%. 

Usability and convenience are essential criteria to support the interaction of operators with systems. Let us not forget that their focus are the operations itself and everything must be oriented to simplify it.  

It is not only Manufacturing industry already has a long past of bad memories about human-system interaction, but at high complex industries, the design flexibility is a must to improve the performance of complex processes. The solution shall provide flexibility to modify the user interfaces to meet widely varying needs, rather than assuming that one size fits all, as well shall be easy to incorporate accumulated experience, and even new needs, and consequently provide flawless human-system interaction just by configuration.

Another important fact is the performance of the system itself, in other words, the entire architecture of the solution must design to reduce and optimize each byte and server transfer to reduce the user’s (and even equipment) wait time. Manufacturing segment is well-known for its low tolerance to any speed loss factors.

Operators and Supervisors need to make decision traditionally based on information from many sources and in many forms to deliver and the MES shall act as the tool to digitize this information. Given the characteristics of operational work, only mobile-ready solutions should be considered for the sake of convenience and speed (following the motto: ‘Right’ Information, at the ‘Right’ Time, in the ‘Right’ Place, in the ‘Right’ Way, to the ‘Right’ Person).

Most data become irrelevant if not processed fast enough

Last but certainly not the least, the MES actually gives a voice to otherwise ignored process data, which existed in silos as part of a forgotten file in some storage rack on the shop floor, never to be reviewed again. Equipped with AI, MES can actually transform historical data and current data being collected from the process to give unprecedented clarity and unique views of the process to all stakeholders. These views may not just aid continuous improvement efforts but might even lead to innovation, something paper-based systems may never achieve, and it is the very foundation of Industry 4.0.

Usual constraints to have in mind when defining a “going paperless” strategy 

As with all transformation processes, there are challenges that must be taken into account and the following image summarizes the barriers that we may encounter in moving from a paper-based system to a digital system. (source: Challenges to overcome during the transition to Digital. Adapted from Accenture Industry X).

As all manufacturing pundits would agree, digitization is the only way forward for manufacturers who are to survive, let alone thrive, in the new market dynamics shaping up in the wake of the pandemic. Digitization itself implies being paperless and for manufacturers the path is using a MES to replace paper-based data capture processes with a digital one.

The extent to which paper is replaced will depend on several aspects: the way the MES is employed in the process (oversight/control/system of record); the role of the frontline workforce (process enforcement/data capture/recording) and the level of complexity of the manufacturing process itself are all key factors in determining the level of digitization required or desired.  Replacing your paper-based processes with MES is the first step to better understand your processes, provide useful analytics for your workforce, and establish your Industry 4.0 framework.


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