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Biz / TechThursday, February 23

A Hack for Productivity

More and more things are connected electronically these days. It's known as the Internet of things, and even a low-tech approach to the concept can yield impressive results.

Workers at one factory that produces engine parts and brakes perform exacting tasks on aging equipment. Half the machines are more than 20 years old.

Tetsuya Kimura is the company's president, and recently a major automaker began sending him bigger orders. Kimura didn’t have the money or space to expand, so his only option was to optimize the machines he had.

"We fitted a simple magnetic sensor to this machine, which was built in 1978. Whenever this bit moves, it sends a signal to say the part is complete," Kimura says.

When one machine finishes a part, the orange light flashes. An optical sensor has been fitted to it, to connect the signal with the data network. It's an economical fix, as each sensor costs less than 3 dollars.

A basic software application shows how long each part takes to produce. Workers can also tell when a machine stops, and for how long. They found one machine slowed production more than the others. In fact, it stopped operating up to 60 times a day.

The machine makes towing eyes and it stopped whenever metal shavings got caught in the threads. The workers devised a brush to remove the waste and now the machine stops only 3 times a day. Production has risen by 60 percent.

"With the new system, we can immediately see the results of any adjustments we make. The whole process is much more rewarding when we can see the results of our changes," says Haruki Masuda, Improvement group leader at the firm.

Kimura has now connected about 100 machines to his IoT network. Expanding the plant and buying new equipment would have cost over 2.5 million dollars. But in the end, he spent less than 11,000 dollars.

Kimura has started packaging the system to help other businesses raise their productivity.

“Our company has already established a positive cycle in which employees innovate and make tangible improvements. I hope other companies will try the system out, since it’s made our work more enjoyable," Kimura says.

His next aim is to develop systems for companies that have factories outside Japan. Thanks to the Internet of Things and some creative thinking, small companies are finding ways to keep growing.