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Small manufacturers get hammered by forces beyond their control. Tight-fisted clients, whip-sawing commodities prices and margin-melting competition are just a few of their many challenges. One thing they can control is their employees’ ability to stay in constant communication to keep production humming at full capacity.
As communications gear — from digital two-way radios to wireless networks to RFID tags — becomes more powerful and less costly, smaller manufacturers will have a strong motivation to invest in technology that can do more than pay for itself: It can improve productivity and profitability.
Here’s a look at how the latest wireless communications technology is helping people throughout the small-manufacturing sector.
Top managers are installing sophisticated digital wireless networks (WLANs) that can broadcast Internet connectivity to everyone on the shop floor who needs it. They can talk to anyone in the plant by pushing a single button on a two-way radio, and that’s just the start.
They also can invest in machinery with sophisticated sensors that communicate using the WLAN to enable predictive maintenance, which tells managers the right time to replace worn components, preventing unexpected (and expensive) downtime.
Technicians fixing downed production lines need to know if the spare parts they need are in inventory. Portable two-way radios save a trip to the parts department, reducing downtime dramatically. Some more-advanced radios have phone-calling capability, enabling mechanics to call outside sources to track down parts without having to leave the work site.
Instant communications are an incredible boon to the engineers who set up production lines. Smaller factories may have less-complex production lines than larger companies, but they may nevertheless use extremely complex automated machines imported from far-flung locales.
Because digital two-way radios encode the human voice into packets of data that can travel on the Internet, engineers can confer with machinery manufacturers in real time anywhere in the world, making it much easier to resolve technical challenges. Of course they could use a cellphone — if there’s any connectivity at the work site. A digital radio network and a WLAN can guarantee there’s always connectivity.
As machines become more technically advanced, they pose ever-more thorny challenges to operators trying to explain malfunctions to engineers and mechanics. A simple portable radio can be vital to helping technicians walk machine operators through basic repairs, freeing the techs to work on more complex problems.
Even small assembly lines have become far more automated in recent years, reducing the number of people available to spot problems and send for help when something breaks. Two-way radios can fill this gap. Digital radios can be configured to send a specific text message — whether it’s an emergency alert or a signal that inventory needs to be refilled.
Cleanup crews can coordinate their efforts and be called in more help quickly if they have radios handy. This allows managers to cover more ground with fewer people, saving on personnel costs.
While a two-way radio has been the security guard’s constant companion for decades, digital technology is bringing far more tools to security work. Digital radios can be programmed to perform specific tasks like turning on surveillance cameras or unlocking gates. Digital radios also have built-in encryption, enabling the security staff to do their jobs without worrying that people might be listening in on their conversations.
A warehouse might have a half-dozen workers covering hundreds of thousands of square feet of inventory. Radios are the key to keeping people talking across these vast distances — even out in the yard.
Digital devices that read RFID tags help warehouse workers track inventory and fill orders. The latest digital radios can be programmed to receive messages from these inventory-control devices and forward them to other radio users, speeding up order-fulfillment processes.
When it comes to adding productivity, safety, and efficiency, a two-way radio network that delivers instant communications and enables operational flexibility can provide significant benefits in just about any manufacturing plant.