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UX in the manufacturing process

User experience is more important in production lines as data and user interfaces become fundamental elements in modern manufacturing processes.

Written by Fiona Murphy and David Delahunty

User Experience can play a critical role in the manufacturing industry. Creating effective and efficient applications that support employees on production lines can significantly improve productivity, support management oversight, and produce considerable business benefits.

UX supporting the Operator

At the operator level, this means supporting the task at hand by giving them timely and easily accessible tools and information e.g. visual instructions, part lists & ordering, alerts, WIP reports, etc. The physical context also needs to be considered i.e. the ease in which an operator can interact with the application and, often, more importantly, any physical constraints. The choice of digital devices and input tools can play a vital role in optimising operator efficiency & effectiveness, and application UI’s must support these physical contexts. Objective observation of existing terminals and workstations can provide deep insight. Operators may not always conduct tasks as intended. So understanding the reasons behind behaviours and tapping into what is intuitive will help inform effective solutions. Once designs become tangible, test them iteratively. Often this can be achieved through ‘smoke and mirrors’ prototypes, but it is important to test in the right environment (i.e. at the workstation/terminal) and with the right people i.e. the end-user/operator. Getting the design as right as possible prior to full implementation will avoid costly redevelopment further down the line ($1 spent on fixing a problem in design costs $5 to fix during development, and $30 to put right post-release).1

However, it’s not all about improving effectiveness and efficiencies, improved UX can have considerable impacts on employee satisfaction, removing frustrations, increasing their sense of productivity and providing more flexibility to move between terminals – good UX can even improve safety.

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Insight to Empower

From line managers and process engineers’ perspectives, tools should provide oversight and flexibility. Real-time visibility and feedback are critical. Without delay, line managers need to know when and where problems arise and if operators need support. They also need to monitor KPI’s and identify where improvements can be made. Often vast amounts of data are collected across terminals and lines. Filtering this data to highlight key metrics is important but not at the expense of missing hidden contributory factors. Dashboards with the ability to delve deep into data and export reports are essential. In addition, data is often shared with third party customers and suppliers. Agility and responsiveness can be impacted hugely by the UI that delivers this information and related tools to respond. Again, understanding end-user needs is important. Research with line managers and process engineers will identify typical needs and use cases. Flexible, modular solutions allow individuals to customise for their specific requirements.

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Flexibility to adapt

Over time, insights will inform modifications for further improvement, slight changes in circumstances or requirements will need to be accommodated – systems must adapt without undermining their core integrity and line managers must be empowered to make these adjustments (or you potentially run the risk of them creating ad-hoc solutions themselves). In many incidences, modularity of systems helps. Lines can be custom built from a suite of focused modules, that not only integrate with each other but also overall reporting. In addition, if architected correctly, ongoing improvements should cross-pollinate to parallel production lines.

Digital simulations of modular configurations and how they will interact with the physical environment can also be useful in initial line set-up and line modification, particularly when communicating across stakeholders. They help identify potential issues and transform the abstract to the tangible prior to full implementation.

UX means Business

Creating and demonstrating effectiveness and efficiencies in manufacturing processes can have significant business impacts, whether your organisation produces their own products or provides manufacturing services to product companies. Efficiencies save money, effectiveness improves product/service quality, and employee satisfaction increases retention and flexibility. UX plays a significant role in all of these goals including:

  • Improved time to task.
  • Decreased need for training, documentation, and support leading to workforce flexibility.
  • Increased employee satisfaction (reduced frustration and job-related fatigue).
  • Reduced errors and work-related injuries.
  • Increased line visibility for management and rapid response to issues identified.
  • Flexible and modular solutions support quick implementation and updates to lines, knowledge retention and cross pollination across lines, and the ability to compare performance across lines and terminals.

Get in Touch

If you find the ideas we have explored in this article to be interesting and relevant to your corporation then contact Henry Poskitt, our expert on this topic.

Our multidisciplinary software design team is based in our studio in Dublin, Ireland. Unlike most design consultancies, our research is conducted by professional researchers while our design team have over two decades of experience in complex systems, software programmes, usability, psychology, data visualisation, computer science and business process improvement. We engage with all stakeholders, understanding their environments and creating solutions that work at every touchpoint. Contact us to collaborate on your upcoming software project.

1. Ref: “The ROI of Usability.” – Forrester – 29 October 2013.