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I just invented a new cliché: Think Outside the Factory

I often wonder where clichés like ‘think outside the box’ came from. Even though some of them are irritating, most hide a deeper truth. When we ask people to ‘think outside the box’ we want them to be more creative and change their mindsets. That’s what I want to do on the subject of the Smart Factory. So, I thought it would be good to adapt one cliché to reveal a truth which I think will be vital to the future of all manufacturers in the digital era.

Think outside the box

The phrase, ‘Think outside the box’ has an interesting history. It began as a theoretical puzzle: try to connect nine dots arranged in a square grid on a piece of paper by drawing four straight lines in one continuous motion. The Oxford English Dictionary states that this can only be done if you ‘think outside the dots.’ In 1971 a data scientist morphed that into ‘think outside the box’ by relating the ‘box’ to organization charts. He wrote, ‘If you have kept your thinking process operating inside the lines and boxes, then you are normal and average, for that is the way your thinking has been programmed.’[1]

I believe that our thinking has been ‘programmed’ so that it’s only focused on what happens inside the factory. We’re working to create smart factories that begin and end at the factory gate. What we really need to do is to think outside those boundaries so that the manufacturing process extends all way back to the beginning of  the supply (and value) chain, right though to the final consumer who takes the product off the shelf or gets it delivered by Amazon to their homes.

Thinking outside the factory

That is what I mean by ‘thinking outside the factory.’ The smart factory is not a place or a set of physical processes which reside in that place, it’s a flow of data, innovation, and experiences which inform each other – back and forth across the entire end-to-end value chain.

That sounds theoretical, but it’s eminently practical. Digital technologies enable manufacturers to capture the power of data and feed it back into the entire set of processes and relationships so that it can boost efficiency, productivity, cost-savings, and customer relationships and loyalty. Back and forth, flowing freely forever.

The point is to think about your factory – and all the elements beyond the factory (backwards and forwards) – as one thing. One process. One set of relationships. Something that can grow organically. Or at least think of it as a set of seamlessly integrated processes.

Time for a coffee

That’s still theoretical, so let’s get practical. Think about two very different but related products: coffee and the coffee machine. There’s been a huge rise in the sales of home coffee machines – think Nespresso, which is just one of many – and, in turn, the demand for coffee (beans, ground, or in capsules) has increased too. Both are essential to the other. And both require intensely complicated manufacturing processes.

When you think outside the factory and use digital technologies to do it, you start to see the process of getting coffee from the field where its grown into a capsule or bag, and then to the customer (so they can use it in their machine). If there’s a problem with a crop of coffee plants – signs of blight perhaps – then if it’s not dealt with quickly the subsequent loss of production will affect the factory. There won’t be enough coffee to pack and dispatch.

The manufacturer has a stake in enabling the farmer to recognize signs of trouble and deal with it quickly. Right now, in many places, the farmer sees a bug or a patch on a leaf and calls in the experts to check for disease or infestation. That takes time. The factory doesn’t know there’s a problem until – after what could be weeks – the diagnosis of the agricultural experts has been delivered. Then it’s communicated to the factory. That’s usually too late to find alternative sources of coffee, which means there will be a gap on the supermarket shelves, or a regular delivery won’t arrive. Consumers decide to try a different brand, and the you have to work hard to win them back.

Add digital technology to the field – linked to the factory – which enables the farmer to get a swift diagnosis and action can be taken quicker. If there’s no problem, then production continues with confidence. If there is, then it can be dealt with swiftly, and alternative supplies found so that the production lines meet their targets and the packs of coffee (or pods) reach the shelves in time for consumers to buy their favorite brands.

The same is true for the manufacture of the coffee machines – high end electrical goods depend on the same flow of data and raw materials to get them into the stores. And the manufacturers reach extends to the relationship with the consumer, data can flow back which informs everything from performance to what kind of features get used the most so that the design of the machine keep improving.

The changing factory

A factory used to be a box in which you made things. Now it’s a seamless flow of data and processes which extend from field or quarry through to the consumer’s home. That’s why you need to ‘think outside factory’ – and it’s something we’re doing at Fujitsu’s own factories. We are breaking down silos and improving efficiency so that it can leverage our relationships with suppliers and consumers. It’s the point of improving efficiency in the first place.

[1] Quoted in Who Touched Base in my Thought Shower: A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon by Steven Poole 2013

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