Shop Floor Connectivity | Usability

Why is usability so important in connectivity considerations?

Words by Alex Matheson
Why is usability so important in connectivity considerations?
Supply chain connectivity

Our Top 5 Takeaways

  • A usable shop floor connectivity solution shortens the gap between challenge and opportunity
  • It democratises data, allowing a variety of experts within your organisation the opportunity to engage with turning data into insight
  • Usability speeds up the rollout of scalable shop floor connectivity projects
  • Data can be harvested from everywhere, and used by everyone
  • Usability should never be the enemy of complexity. One system should be able to handle simple and scalable projects, as well as unique and complex problems.

We’re continuing our deep dive into shop floor connectivity and the factors that we need to consider when looking at systems that enable it. Last time we talked about scale in shop floor connectivity and this week we’re getting into usability.

We’ve already made the case that the fourth industrial revolution is, at its core, one that is made possible through next level connectivity. One of the leading principles of this brave new world is the blurring of the lines between physical and digital worlds.

What that means in practice is that our digital systems are becoming an integral part of our physical ones. To capitalise on the advances of the fourth industrial revolution everything from the largest pieces of manufacturing equipment to the finest sensors need to be able to connect to digital worlds.

One of the main upshots of that is the ability to collect vast amounts of data. Another is that physical systems around the globe can come together under unified digital platforms. That means data is being collected en masse, and physical systems can be controlled from anywhere.

This obviously opens up a massive amount of opportunities, but those opportunities would be lost without one consideration; usability.

Without having usability as a core consideration you’re barring entry to a much wider range of voices within your organisation. The beauty of this blending of physical and digital worlds is that experts who aren’t present, or are unable to be present, on the shop floor can help revolutionise how these parts of your organisation operate.

But, using systems that require specific expertise prohibit that. On the least worrying end of things, this could result in potential innovation failing to materialise. On the most worrying end, it could mean global rollouts of potentially game changing ideas could be stopped in their tracks.

With usability at the centre of your digital solution, you can move from the challenge of simply collecting data to the opportunity of making it work for you efficiently. Any business that wants to set in place Six Sigma techniques such as Right First Time and DMAIC methodology can do so.

Any digital platform a company chooses to adopt should make the mountains of data produced usable. That means ordering it and providing it to the user in a way that enables continuous improvement.

On the front end this might mean accessible interfaces and easy-to-use tools, but on the backend it means powerful AI and machine learning enhanced systems, capable of turning data chaos into data insight.

How does usability affect scalability in shop floor connectivity systems?

I know we covered scalability last week, but it’s so important that we need to at least touch on it here. Simply put, you can’t achieve scale without usability in the world we live in today.

Digital systems that leave out usability will slow, or even halt, progress on global projects because the specialist knowledge required to make the most out of them adds a barrier to entry for the broad spectrum of people who need to be involved.

This might not be insurmountable, but every extra hour spent training the right people to use a system, multiplied by X amount of departments in X amount of territories, means less hours spent on productivity and innovation.

How is GloboBake affected by this?

In our last article we looked at how scalability would affect our fictional global baking enterprise. We’re back looking at a similar prospect but from a different perspective.

We discussed how the simple and scalable systems they implemented could help by multiplying marginal gains on a global scale, while ensuring that complex and unique challenges were also taken into consideration. Going deeper into that concept, how does usability factor in?

GloboBake digitises one facility, connecting their simple sensors and industry standard machinery to a digital platform that will allow them to automate, iterate and improve on their baking processes. I think we can all agree, that’s a big step forward.

This pilot project, proving a success, becomes the basis for a global rollout; an update to their facilities around the world. Here’s where the usability snag comes in.

The initial pilot project was months in the making and went at a pace which allowed everyone involved to get up to speed on the use of the platform they had chosen. Due to the speculative nature of the project, this more measured pace wasn’t an immediate issue.

Rolling these innovations out on a global scale means doing it at pace. GloboBake can’t afford to have the kind of downtime it takes to train up disparate facilities full of people on a system without usability at its core.

Going even deeper, GloboBake also has some pretty revolutionary baking equipment and techniques they’ve developed themselves. These elements on their own require specialist knowledge, but could also mean big wins in the future if they see mass market adoption.

Without a digital platform that allows these complex and unique ideas to be spread throughout the business, they can flounder and die in their respective pools of innovation. While a digital platform with usability at its core might not make the specifics of these innovation projects easier to understand, they can absolutely take the hassle out of duplicating them worldwide.

Usability gets you from challenge to opportunity fast

Shop floor connectivity presents huge opportunities. As with all opportunities though, they don’t come without their challenges. The opportunities in the fourth industrial revolution go beyond just connectivity on the shop floor itself, and open your options to global communications between different devices and many people, all in a multitude of locations and facilities.

One of the main challenges obviously exists in the physical world. To get all of these elements to talk, they need the means to do so. Whether that’s using inbuilt networking tools, or connecting them to local systems that can communicate globally, some things will always have to happen in the moment, on site.

Without a digital platform that focuses on usability as a core philosophy, getting a myriad of devices to come together as a cohesive whole can be slow or impossible. A usable system is one that allows experts in the mechanics of shop floor equipment to meet in the digital realm with experts in logistics or data analysis or supply chain management.

How does GloboBake get from challenge to opportunity?


Shop floor connectivity was initially about making GloboBake’s production facilities work more efficiently. These systems existed in closed ecosystems and were presided over by very specific sets of expertise. Innovation could happen, but it happened in pockets, siloed from the rest of the business.

With the fourth industrial revolution allowing connectivity not just between different bits of equipment, but between entirely different locations and areas of the business, the opportunity to make use of data on an unprecedented level became apparent to the bright minds at GloboBake.

With an open and accessible platform that links a digital thread running all the way from ingredient sourcing to customers purchasing baked goods, anyone along that thread can make use of that data.

One GloboBake employee, having recently become versed in the ways of Six Sigma, realised now was the perfect time to revolutionise things for the business. They saw potentials for improvement that were being missed out on.

Their main goal was to introduce a First Time Right (FTR) programme, and for that they would need access to usable, useful, impactful data.

FTR means that the output of a process is right every time, from the first time. This will never be possible without measuring current processes, understanding them, and improving them. They needed good quality, usable data and they needed to put it to use. This GloboBake visionary needed to employee DMAIC or:

  • Define
  • Measure
  • Analyse
  • Improve
  • Control

Defining the problem is simple enough. Our employee looks at the global data for bread production and sees that there is too much wastage in production. Something, whether that’s the machinery itself, a lack of training in staff, or any other factor, is resulting in a less than 100% success rate in their baking processes.

Measuring the processes involved, seeing the resources used and the people engaged in it will begin to build a picture of what the issues are. Data on when errors occurred, where, and what reasons were logged for them, all need to be collated and compared to find patterns and potential hotspots for trouble.

This data could be reported in technical terms from the machines themselves. It might be delivered by shop floor managers or in feedback from employees. It could be logistical data from throughout their supply chain.

Each data point could be delivered in different ways, in different values, and for different reasons. Their digital platform would need to be able to handle such a wide variety of data, both ingesting it and returning it to our GloboBake employee in a way they could make use of.

Analysing all this data is where the usability jumps up a notch. Everything we’ve mentioned above can be collected with relative ease. But, making these data points usable is another thing. A digital platform that enables its users to find trends, compare and contrast data sets from unique sources, and to map out patterns is one that makes analysis available to everyone.

Improving the processes is about eliminating the sources of errors you’ve found through analysis. Within a unified digital ecosystem this could be done as a logical extension to the analysis phase, allowing users with varied expertise to instantly correct flaws and iterate towards the perfect process.

Controlling these processes moving forwards involves having a platform smart enough, and usable enough, to keep an eye on the flaws and deviations you’ve found, alerting users to their future reappearance.

With data collected, organised into usable information and acted upon in real time, our enterprising GloboBake employee is able to implement an FTR programme that can now be rolled out globally, using data their digital solution has handed to them on a plate.

Moreover, they have processes in place that are intelligently tracking the areas of concern, alerting users to potential pitfalls and fixing errors before they happen.

Usability doesn’t mean exclusively simple

We should never confuse the idea of usability with terms like ‘lightweight’. Just because a platform can be picked up simply, regardless of your background, doesn’t mean it can’t be capable of handling complex tasks.

Shop floor connectivity is absolutely a complex consideration and it is broad in its scope. We’ve already talked about how connecting potentially thousands upon thousands of sensors, for example, is a relatively simple task. It’s big, but no single part of it is overly complex.

But a system that does only that effectively is a system that misses out on the innovation potential of more singular, complex ventures. Adopting a digital solution to large scale connectivity challenges that doesn’t allow the mad scientists in your operation to create mechanical marvels that fit into the bigger picture and change the world, that’s a pure representation of wasted potential.

It’s a fine line to tread, but any system you adopt needs to have the strength and efficiency to handle massive rollouts where marginal gains mean global impact, as well as the world changing projects innovators in your business might be working on.

Usability should ultimately remove concerns

At the end of the day, usability is necessary so you don’t leave anyone behind. Whether you’re just starting out or transforming a multinational enterprise, any system you bring will return dividends if it’s accessible to the largest number of people within your organisation.

That’s not to say that usability is the only concern, but if you choose something that does its job well, but only for ten percent of your workforce, you’ve made an error.

A good digital solution for any business is one that can be approached by your IT professionals as easily as your front line workers. It’s a system that can provide that ease of entry, whilst also having the power and functionality to make changes both simple and scalable, as well as unique.

We’re proud to say that this is the goal behind our software and one we strive to meet every day, with every iteration of Atlas.

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