APS Plastics & Manufacturing Blog

The Digital Journey at APS Plastics

American manufacturing companies have faced an onslaught of competition over the last few decades. The primary competitor has been in the form of offshoring to low labor rate countries, like China and other Asian countries where the labor force was happy to accept much lower wage rates than US workers. Over the last few years though, the dynamic of competition seems to be changing. China’s average wages for manufacturing jobs have more than doubled over the last few years (https://tradingeconomics.com/china/wages-in-manufacturing). India’s average wages have also shown signs of increasing over the last decade (https://tradingeconomics.com/india/wages).  The social impact for these countries will be largely positive as a new middle class begins to emerge over time.

These international trends point to an important conclusion:  competition based on low wage rates for manufacturing employees is no longer the way to win. In the short term, this is a positive change for US based manufacturers. However, we can’t just wait for the rest of the world’s wages to catch up to us. It’s important that we continue to work hard to make US manufacturers the most productive in the world. This is one of the promises of the Manufacturing 4.0 revolution that is underway.


APS began its Manufacturing 4.0 transformation by focusing on digitizing as the first step on this journey: to create a “digital twin” of our manufacturing business. Digitizing is the first step because without turning information into actionable insights, it’s hard to know how best to make changes. As we finish our digitization process, we will dig into other areas like robotics and 3D printing (more on that work later).

Like so many other traditional manufacturers, APS is a mix of digital, paper, and tribal information systems. Even the parts of our business that are digital include a mixed bag of tools including our ERP system, spreadsheets, and other files. Not much of these systems and information are integrated in a way that allows us to make smart strategic choices on how to reduce costs, become more productive, and offer more value to our customers. 

We mapped out the following digital journey:

  1. Develop an inventory of all the information APS has now and document how it is stored (digital, paper, tribal, etc.).

We did this by following an order as it traveled through our shop, and documented the information this order produced along the way.

  1. Identify parts of the process to digitize first, based on the following matrix: 
    1. Impact on customer value
    2. Ease of digitization
    3. Impact on our cost

For the individual processes, we gave each of these three areas a score from 1 to 10 (e.g. impact on customer value = 10, means that digitizing this information area creates a lot of value for our customers).  Then, added the three areas’ scores for each process. With the final scores in hand, we ranked the processes from highest to lowest, identifying where to begin our work. For example, if a certain area received three scores of a 10 (i.e. creates a lot of value, very easy to digitize and has a big impact on cost reductions), it went to the top of our priority list.

Based on this analysis, one of the top priorities discovered was “quality processes”. This insight has led to implementing some easy to do changes like adding Bluetooth transmitters on our measurement tools to skip the manual data entry step.  We also invested in a vision-based KEYENCE IM-7000 Series-362498-edited-219276-edited.jpgmeasurement system from Keyence that quickly and accurately uses a camera to dimensionally inspect parts. It is a matter of placing a handful of parts in any orientation on the stage and pressing a button – to have it measure up to 99 dimensions on up to 99 parts simultaneously. The system identifies the part and correct program, automatically adjusts the lighting and focus, compares to pre-programmed tolerances, produces a pass or fail for each dimension/part, and saves the data. It concludes with a print out of full inspection report. The Keyence IM Series Instant Measurement system has dramatically reduced inspection times while providing a higher level of trustworthy, quality data to customers.


Benefits of using Keyence IM Series Instant Measurement System:

Reduction in inspection time

Higher reliability of measurement data

Data automatically digitized and transferred to a spreadsheet or quality management system

benefits of using keyence.png


Going back to the creation of a “digital twin”, the Instant Measurement System is fully networkable, which enables the sharing of programs, measurement results, and inspection reports world-wide. The built-in SPC software also allows the data to be easily imported into any SPC software already implemented within a company. With these capabilities, manufacturing businesses can create consistent inspection processes, share data in real time, and produce products to the highest level of quality possible.

The next step in APS’s “quality processes” is the implementation of a quality management systems by uniPoint.

As APS travels down the digital path, we will share more of what we learn. Stay tuned for developments ahead.

Topics: Insider Quality Communication technology manufacturing 4.0 Industry 4.0 advanced manufacturing