Industry 4.0 transformation starts with identifying acute pain points that impact productivity, quality, and cost, but the endpoint is the full integration of operational and information technologies. This convergence—the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)—offers new opportunities to improve operations in exciting new ways and to boost the bottom line.  Operational data from sensors and machine-based systems integrated with IT data from connected worker platforms and other systems influence operations, quality, maintenance, and engineering across an organization.  Digital transformation efforts are designed to bridge that gap and modernize every element of industrial and labor-intensive organizations. Yet many companies lack the budget needed to retrofit machines with smart sensors and the cloud infrastructure needed to collect and interpret huge datasets. Therefore significant innovation can be made in the way front-line workers are embedded into digital transformation initiatives and how they communicate with one another and the rest of the organization. The digital andon cord is designed to fill that need. 

What is an Andon Cord? 

Developed by Toyota as part of their revolutionary Toyota Production System, and the Jidoka principle followed by the automaker since its founding, the original andon cord was just that – a cord. Sometimes the simplest ideas are the most revolutionary. When pulled, the andon cord would stop all work at a workstation immediately, and anyone on the front line could pull it if they thought there was a quality or safety issue that needed to be addressed. It wasn’t just about giving employees a voice – some new privilege that had been denied to them before. It was about giving them ownership over the performance of the entire line. Each individual, from a trainee on the floor to the supervisor with twenty years of floor experience, was tasked with constantly looking out for the quality of the products they produced. Once the cord was pulled, a supervisor would determine why it was pulled, address the issue, and get everyone back to work.  While fewer companies still use physical cords or boards, many are implementing digital versions of the andon cord. Netflix practices their own version of Toyota’s Jidoka and has even gone so far as to implement a system that intentionally triggers failure in their servers periodically just to ensure the response is sufficient. Toyota started phasing out the andon cord in 2014, replacing them with call buttons, and now many companies are looking at how a digital replacement can help even better connect front-line employees. 

People Are Not Connected

The andon cord solves a very specific problem. The inability of someone working on the frontline to get immediate assistance if they have a question. What happened in the past was that these employees would just guess, and more often than not, this would lead to unnecessary quality issues and incorrect practices.  The iceberg of ignorance that develops when frontline workers address problems outside of prescribed best practices can create massive issues in the future. Maybe a small number of quality issues are spotted. But hundreds more lurk beneath the surface.  In the age of digital transformation, most front-line workers remain disconnected, and while physical andon solutions stop a problem from getting worse, their basic functionality is akin to sending up a flare in the wilderness. Sure someone sees it and will come to find you, but other than knowing that there is a problem, the “rescuer” has almost no information. What if a supervisor, whose job it is to respond to andon pulls, isn’t free or there isn’t an expert on the floor who can answer the question? What if the problem reported can’t be fixed by the supervisor and involves others such as maintenance, engineering, or even the maker of the machine?  There will always be exceptions, and when no one is available, people either guess, or the work station where the issue occurred is stopped for much longer than necessary. This directly impacts quality, productivity, delivery, safety, and ultimately cost.  

The Role of a Digital Andon Cord 

This is where the digital andon cord comes in, keeping every worker in a frontline organization connected 100% of the time. A digital andon cord leverages any connected device (tablet, phone, computer) and smart algorithms to connect frontline workers with the right person in the organization depending on the nature of the problem. Moreover, the system provides access to crowd wisdom that helps improve every element of work. If a supervisor isn’t free, another person in the organization who happens to know the answer can step in. A digital andon cord:
  • Minimizes Mistakes – Fewer mistakes are made because frontline workers have instant access to a pool of knowledge throughout the company, not just in their physical proximity. 
  • Is More Agile to Implement – A digital solution requires no expensive hardware integrations and can be accessible within any budget. Adoption is fast due to a social media-like interface that is familiar to most workers and accessible from mobile devices.
  • Provides Instant Access to Data and Relevant Information – All relevant data is organized and instantly accessible via smart dashboards. Furthermore, problems can be communicated more concisely by leveraging the use of pictures, written or multiple choice style explanations, and other evidence that can help teams troubleshoot more accurately and respond quicker. 
  • Supports Adding Pictures and Evidence to an Event – Problems can be communicated more concisely with pictures, written explanations, and other evidence that can help supervisors troubleshoot more accurately and respond quicker. 
  • Collects and Organizes Tribal Knowledge – Data can be collected and mined to detect trends, with solutions to repetitive problems organized into a shared resource pool for employees. Machine learning helps capture the input that is normally lost to implement Kaizen practices at scale. 
Even with physical andon cords, the iceberg of ignorance limits how effectively supervisors can respond to situations, sometimes resulting in major potential issues. And while productivity does increase after traditional andon cords are introduced, it’s a missed opportunity in digital performance management to not leverage hugely impactful digital solutions.

Leveraging the Andon Cord Across Industry

While the andon cord was developed for auto manufacturing, the digital andon cord is a revolutionary solution that can be leveraged across industries. Not only is it a showcase of the ongoing and necessary convergence of OT and IT, but at a more practical level, for any labor-intensive organization, the technology changes the way digital transformations can be initiated, accelerated, and ultimately benefited from.  Empowering a company’s frontline with a connected worker platform that incorporates a digital andon cord such as Smart Work Station, built by Andonix, will have a lasting positive impact on the operational KPIs of the company. It also prepares the company for further Industry 4.0 oriented initiatives and investments. This can help meet new competitive challenges and keep your company resilient in light of disruptive forces such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.