The First Step Toward Industry 4.0: Replacing Paper

Jul 21, 2022 9:15:00 AM . Julia Walsh

The value of digitizing the plant by replacing paper forms as your first step in the Industry 4.0 journey

Industry 4.0 and the benefits it can potentially bring are often misconstrued to be a ‘Big-Bang' change in the way a company operates. Overnight, the automation of plant workflows and AI-driven business results are achieved to yield far-reaching and unprecedented benefits. This view of Industry 4.0 adoption has some serious flaws.

Even with the top management of most organizations recognizing the need to digitally transform and pursue Industry 4.0, (especially since the pandemic), the operation at the grassroots remains siloed and dependent on paper-based forms, clipboards, and manual data collection/entry. Typically, different functional areas have their own unique way of operating within a defined process, which includes IT applications in use and the way in which data generated is captured, analyzed, and reported.

The Problem with Paper

Workflows depend on paper for data capture, work instructions, and notifications, which can take many forms. Job cards move with individual orders and require employees to physically accept them to execute a particular process step, and then scan the document post-completion of their task and pass it to the next station. Aside from job cards, frontline workers are required to fill out forms pertaining to product quality, machine/equipment readings, and other compliance-related activities. Maintenance too requires forms to be filled out, from requesting a maintenance task to filling out the nature of work performed in order to correct the problem reported.

Then there are forms for material movement, from the requisition of raw materials to the delivery of finished goods. Everything that happens needs someone to either sign a paper and submit or retrieve a piece of paper to move along with their tasks. Even CAPA (Corrective and Preventative Action, a good manufacturing procedure for many industries) as an activity requires forms to be filled, which means a piece of paper must move across departments in order to be fully executed.

Quality as a function suffers the most from its dependence on paper-based processes and forms;. Everything from inspection to GMP verification is done on paper-based forms. In-process QA checks, inspection reports, inventory, and raw material inspection/control all depend on paper-based forms, which means the efforts of personnel meant to ensure the right quality goods are used/manufactured/shipped are wasted on filling out forms and creating records, most of which might get buried under a new pile of the exact same documents.

Whether viewed from an efficiency perspective or from a compliance or business risk one, working from paper-based forms has some obvious flaws. Paper can be easily destroyed, and with it the information, learning, and knowledge it holds. Filling out paper forms is cumbersome, prone to errors, and there is no version control or good way of authenticating a given paper record, not to mention that the use of paper isn’t exactly environmentally friendly and is a massive cost; the need for actual physical storage space for paper is another disadvantage of having a paper-based system.

Paperless should be a priority

For any company considering digital transformation, understanding your current dependence on paper forms and manual data entry should be a primary concern. Digital transformation and the pursuit of a paperless manufacturing operation truly go hand-in-hand. McKinsey highlights the different ways in which companies will approach digital transformation. They assert that with drastic changes in operations and information technologies come massive capital investments, and there might be great benefits to obtain by simply retrofitting their existing operation with the right digital technology initially.

McKinsey states that companies can pursue Industry 4.0 without making drastic moves or massive investments, which advocates the popular ‘Industry 4.0 as journey’ viewpoint. The way in which companies can accelerate digitalization is by adopting digital workflow and work instructions, digital performance management; digital maintenance and retrofitting existing equipment to further the case of IIoT on the shop floor.

Source: McKinsey

Most of the moves McKinsey proclaims should be pursued in an accelerated manner point directly towards digitization of workflow and elimination of paper-based systems. In order to digitize workflow and performance management for plant and personnel, the first logical step to be taken is the elimination of paper-based data collection and process management. Only after all forms and paper-based instructions/reports are digitized can a company start their Industry 4.0 journey.

So, any manufacturer looking to make rapid gains in digital transformation should first analyze the current process and the extent to which it depends on paper for execution, and determine the best way to digitize as their primary action item on their transformation project. Simply replacing paper-based processes and paper forms can mean deriving massive value in terms of process efficiency, employee performance, quality, compliance improvement, and cost savings.  

Go Paperless the Right Way

Over the years spreadsheets and electronic forms may have helped alleviate some of the dependence and flaws of a complete manual and paper-based process execution and monitoring paradigm. But in order to really jump-start the Industry 4.0 journey, while ensuring all the organizational knowledge within current paper-based documents is preserved and there is 100% assurance in quality and compliance management, merely shifting from paper to spreadsheets or electronic forms requiring equally tedious data entry and restricting frontline workers to work-stations will not be enough.

In order to fully digitize the workflow, a platform-based IT application is needed, which not only digitizes workflow and work instructions, but allows users to key in or retrieve requisite data sets intuitively. Where workers can use their own mobile devices to gain access to the process and use a single tool for execution of their tasks, creating logs, making notes, sharing data, scanning/recording the equipment/product-related information/status. A platform that is integrated with enterprise applications such as ERP or MES while being connected to IoT devices and sensors, enabling automated capture of both instructions and process data is essential.

Such a platform would allow quality and compliance-related forms to be validated, versioned, and electronically signed, enabling the creation of detailed execution history and product/process quality records. Workers could use such a tool for collaborating on maintenance activities and CAPA creation, submission, and approval. Remote working and social distancing norms can be proliferated and preserved by such a platform.

Webalo is the platform that enables the complete elimination of paper-based systems, by improving the process through digitization to make work convenient and efficient for frontline personnel. As McKinsey advocates, the lowest hanging fruit when it comes to Industry 4.0 is the digitization of workflow and worker management. Webalo helps achieve this through a well-defined, process-specific platform, which helps to eliminate the use of paper right from the issuance of raw material or spares until the time products are shipped or a maintenance docket closed. The platform doesn’t simply convert paper forms to digital ones, it optimizes the workflow which creates the need for these forms to begin with, rationalizing the way in which data is procured, entered, and accessed. The ability to add electronic signatures and access control ensures data is both validated and secure.      

Every facet of the operation benefits from a platform like Webalo. From workflow to visualization to optimization, it provides an environment for the workforce that underscores mobility, security, and workforce productivity. The ability to create custom workforce tools ensures that it gets accepted fast with minimal resistance to change. And, once the existing workforce and supervisors accept a digital tool and see it helping their work improve, they will be open to bigger digital changes, which in turn leads the company further on their Industry 4.0 journey.

Remember, the first step in this journey is going ‘paperless’ and the platform you choose to do so can determine whether or not you gain the full benefit from pursuing digital transformation!