Making numbers talk

By Michael Hughes

In a world swimming with data, your old performance boards are not adequate.

So writes Michel Baudin in this month's cover story, "Using data science for better manufacturing." Since May's issue explaining how blockchain could revolutionize business contracts – upending everything from supply chain to the music industry – our cover stories have targeted how the 21st century is changing the arenas ISEs play in: Artificial intelligence in June, augmented reality in July; automation and lean principles in August.

Now, we have Baudin's basic primer for manufacturers. While universities stick their data science programs into a scattering of departments, manufacturing is where the numbers can really sing – or at least tell a story that can guide decision-makers.

True, it's difficult taking all that info from old school to new. Data must be wrangled from "smart" product numbers, where a "1" in the fifth character signified the color green. Some values are missing, free-text comments contain important information and supposedly unique names apply to multiple objects.

Giving up yields nothing. Baudin writes that continuous improvement is just as important with information systems as production layouts, logistics and everywhere else ISEs look for answers. If you don't improve today's system, don't expect tomorrow's to fix things.

Now you can take those numbers and find the story of your facility, production line or entire enterprise. And while simple summaries and plots can answer many questions, more intense analysis requires choosing from a bevy of tools, many of which weren't devised with manufacturing in mind.

As with lots of things in business, the venture will be an exercise in futility without properly communicating the results. For that, Baudin recommends the old-fashioned business report. Properly constructed (perhaps you should hire a writer?), a good business report written in layman's terms will allow executives to read a one-page summary, check the research in a few spots, and make the right decision. Visual aids, from charts to A3s to electronic scatterplots, can boost understanding.

So click here to find out how data can define your future. And check back next month when we examine how ISEs can play in another new arena – the shared economy.

Michael Hughes is managing editor of IISE. Reach him at mhughes@iise.org or (770) 349-1110.