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Of paper trails and spreadsheets

7 december 2022

A recent article on Forbes brought up some interesting numbers.

A company called iBASEt did a survey across 400 manufacturing companies in the US and UK. They found that 95% of them still manage part of their processes on paper (27% even more than half of their activities) and 98% use spreadsheets instead of dedicated software.

The survey was used to indicate that although these companies have heard about digital transformation and even planned for it, they seem to not be going through that transformation.
That triggers several questions, the first one being: What is digital transformation? 

Not a goal
Many different explanations are going around, using more or less heavy wordings, but the bottom line is that digital transformation Is another moniker for Industry 4.0 or Smart Industry: use computers and software to manage business processes digitally, improve them and even set up completely new processes. 
The way the article and the survey are written feels a bit as if digital transformation should be a goal in itself. That is not true of course - digital transformation is a means to achieve the things mentioned above. It’s about better managing processes and defining new ones, to make a business more effective, efficient, sustainable or profitable -whatever key driver you want to support.

So why do it anyway?
With that out of the way, a second question that comes up is Why is using spreadsheets not a good idea? With that question we skip a similar one about paper, but most of what follows applies to paper as well.
A spreadsheets is very generic, very flexible utility. You can use it to format tables, to automate calculations and to create graphs. That makes it a low threshold solution for many things, including planning and managing production in a factory. At least, if the factory is small enough or if you do it only for a single department. Because that is the biggest problem with spreadsheet solutions: they do not scale. Once more work needs to be managed, and more people get involved you will get to the point where the spreadsheet way of working breaks.

  • Once spreadsheets get to big they become hard to sue. To solve that, people will just every project, month, or year and start over with a clean sheet. That works, but it makes it almost impossible to collect historical data and use it as input for future improvement.
  • When working with spreadsheets, you can share them on the network, but at some point they will start getting distributed in different ways. Through e-mail, on USB sticks, in backup folders, up to the point where different people will end up working from different versions of the same sheet, causing unexpected problems.
  • No matter how well designed, spreadsheets are hard to test and at some point mistakes in calculations will show up. That seems not a big problem, but combined with the two points above it might become bigger than you’d expect. Just as a reference, JP Morgan once lost 6 billion dollars due to a mistake in an Excel sheet.  

So, digitalisation?
And that is where digitalisation comes in. Apart from the three big problems with spreadsheets, they also are hard to connect to machines, so getting data from machines or sending instructions to machines becomes manual labour, using operator panels or dedicated little software tools.

In a properly digitalised machine, dedicated software is used for all of these things: 

  • ERP for company wide planning and management
  • MES for production control and monitoring, 
  • MRP for manufacturing resource planning
  • WMS for warehouse management
  • SCADA for machine monitoring
  • And more if needed

That looks like a lot, but these tools do solve most, if not all of the problems we have with spreadsheets. Data is managed In a central place, no copies lying around. All data is kept together and made accessible in a sway that provides a basis for all kinds of use, including historical analysis and all calculations are tested and checked.
As a bonus, they are maintained by their suppliers, so bugs are fixed and new features are added by them. By them, instead of by factory managers and operators who’d probably spent their time on other activities than developing spreadsheets.

Yes of course, a MES or ERP package comes with a price that that is a hundred or thousand fold bigger than an Excel license. However, the time spend on designing, managing, updating and correcting spreadsheets also doesn’t come for free. And the benefits of having your data available to analyse in real time or over a given period may bring in more than a fraction of the investment. Return on Investment, indeed - a return bigger than what a spreadsheet will ever be able to bring.

That’s why we recommend getting away from spreadsheets and invest in a proper set of software packages. If a factory doesn’t need a hug ERP or MES package that’s fine, there are small and affordable ones as well - and all of them are better than doing things with digital paper, which is what a spreadsheet is in the end.