11 Dec 2023

The slow journey to the paperless factory

A sheet of A4 is convenient. But your data won’t be exact or real time. Kevin Bull is product strategy director at Columbus UK, reports.

More than a decade after we started talking about the paperless factory, it has yet to arrive. While the internet has revolutionised how we operate, with connectivity transforming how information moves around the enterprise, it is common to see a lot of paper moving around too – and this is especially true on the shop floor.

I am fortunate to have the opportunity to visit many manufacturing businesses every year. Each one of them is unique and at a different stage of their digital transformation journey. Yet even on the most digitised factory floor, I still see a lot of paper.

Symptom or sickness?

Why is this? Do practical problems connecting systems mean that they only have faith in paper documents? Are the physical properties of paper, which can be stuffed into a pocket or quickly pinned up on the wall of a break room, somehow more convenient? Is the widespread use of paper in itself a problem? Or is it potentially the symptom of a problem?

I believe that the production of these documents alone must be considered a form of waste that requires elimination – and that’s without considering the regulatory and quality management consequences when paperwork goes missing. The capabilities that come under the term ‘digital transformation’ can address this problem, introducing large-screen displays, electronic data collection methods and automated data analytics tools into day-to-day shop floor activities.

Paperless – the first piece of the Industry 4.0 puzzle

Columbus has recently published a wide-reaching industry report, looking at how manufacturers can embrace emerging Industry 4.0 technologies to capture and action large datasets, develop a future-proof digital strategy and work towards closing the UK skills gap. Achieving a fully paperless factory is just one step in the journey towards ‘Manufacturing 2020’.

I’ve seen tremendous success in a number of manufacturing organisations who have made the ‘untraditional’ leap to move to go paperless. In one case a manufacturer improved their production efficiency ratings by over 35%. They also improved timeliness of deliveries, boosting customer satisfaction levels and competitive edge, not to mention the cost savings and (paper) waste reduction. In a paper environment, your data may be close but it won’t be exact, and it’s certainly not real time. Only live, accurate, connected data gives you the tools you need for deep analysis, highlighting inefficiencies in your supply chain at any point of your choosing, which you can then improve.

The many success stories of paperless factories make adoption seem like a no-brainer to me. Yet I am sure that on my next factory visit, I will still be digging through piles of paper to find the latest productivity report.