The Paperless Factory

We’ve been hearing about the paperless office and the paperless factory for decades, but the promise of a digital future has remained just that – a promise unfulfilled. But our paperless dream is now rapidly becoming a reality thanks to a convergence of technologies that are not, in and of themselves, aimed at eliminating paper.

Many manufacturers have installed plant-floor devices in conjunction with automated data collection initiatives to eliminate manual reporting of shop activity using bar-code scanners and touch-screen entry. Data collection technology eliminates the traditional job tickets, cards and “slips” that workers previously relied on to provide feedback to the plant’s scheduling and job costing systems. There’s no doubt that automated data collection is faster and more accurate…and reduces paper.

But the interesting thing is that many of these shop-floor devices also host a copy of the production schedule and priorities as an aid to the reporting process and for validating the transaction as it is being collected. Once the schedule is out there at the workstations, there’s no longer a need for the daily work list (dispatch list) that’s always been problematic because it is essentially obsolete as soon as it’s printed: Better information – less paper.

This is a rather small victory in the paper-elimination battle, however. Plants still create a “shop packet” to go with every job that contains routing/schedule information, material pick list, drawings and instructions, and other documents that are often used as a medium for worker sign-off that builds the audit trail (meaning it is stored indefinitely after the job is complete). However, there has been a steady movement towards the acceptance of electronic records for such things as FDA audits so the shop packet and manual sign-offs are slowly going away. Along with the shop-floor terminals for displaying work instructions and schedules, there is less and less need for all that paper on the shop floor.

Nevertheless, old habits die hard. Supervisors and managers still rely on the paper trail to keep things in control and help with problem solving and schedule changes. But two developments are changing the reliance on paper. One is the increasing complexity brought about by the Industrial Internet of Things – more data from more sensors and connected devices is making the paper trail more burdensome and less valid as paper cannot be updated quickly enough to effectively exploit the real-time tracking that is becoming more available.

Technology may have created this problem but technology is also providing the solution in the form of more robust networks and increasingly “smart” and affordable mobile and wearable devices to display, analyze and search job status, priorities, events and activities. Everyone has a smart phone; most people have access to tablets or similar devices. The Google Glass experiment was not especially successful but follow-on wearables and augmented reality headsets are just around the corner and will accelerate the more to the paperless plant floor.

We’re not paperless yet and may never be completely paperless in the plant but it won’t be long before the shop packet will be replaced by a barcode or RFID label and all that paper documentation will no longer be accumulating in dusty file cabinets in the accounting office.

Dave Turbide

Independent Consultant, Educator and Freelance Writer
Dave is an independent consultant, educator and freelance writer serving both the developers and users of software and systems for manufacturers. He has performed analysis, written hundreds of articles, blogs, white papers and case studies and advised software developers on direction and focus. He is an APICS Chapter President as well as a recurring presenter and instructor and is a certified trainer in The Fresh Connection supply chain simulation. Dave can be seen in print and on-line publications and his website is