Peter Drucker, the giant of business management education, has many famous quotes.  Perhaps the most well-known of the bunch, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it”.

Any self-respecting manager instinctively agrees, and billions are spent annually in its pursuit.  Yet many shop floors still don’t have full visibility into their production, a shortfall that inflicts a myriad of hidden costs and diminishes enterprise value.

There are many reasons for this – legacy ERPs that are difficult to extend, analog (i.e. sensor-free) machinery, inertia of paper-based processes – but the unifying result is a loss of efficiency.

Thankfully, a collection of next-generation technologies is making the task of production line measurement and optimization dramatically easier.  And because the instruments used to collect data also provide a means of communicating with workers, these same platforms are providing businesses with a platform to close the shop floor communication loop, providing structure and repeatability to previously fragmented processes such as training and production.

Where to Start

The high-level task of leveraging data to optimize production operations has three basic components:

  1. Source the data
  2. Consolidate the data
  3. Action the data

The platforms doing the best job addressing these three areas are cloud-based solutions that sit on top of existing machinery and system-of-record applications (e.g. ERP, MES).

Because these systems leverage what’s already in place and don’t require on-premise IT, they can be deployed rapidly.  And thanks to their no-code application development environments, the power to develop workflows resides with production managers and line-level workers, the owners of tribal knowledge.

Two firms leading the way here are Tulip Manufacturing and Red Zone.  Although similar in several aspects, the companies have taken different approaches relative to their go-to-market, a distinction with implications to their underlying products.  Where Tulip targets manufacturers across verticals, Red Zone focuses specifically on the food and CPG industry.


Tulip bills itself as “the digital manufacturing platform that grows with you”.  To provide maximum extensibility, Tulip comes with an I/O gateway designed to connect with existing devices and sensors.  It also has the ability to integrate with antiquated analog equipment, as evidenced by Taza Chocolate, an artisanal chocolate manufacturer who leveraged Tulip to extract data from its well-aged production equipment enabling tracking of machine availability and performance.  This information allowed the company to proactively identify bottlenecks and increase machine uptime, increasing the number of pieces produced per shift by 10 – 15%.

The consolidation of data and the ability to put tablets in workers’ hands has unlocked several additional use-cases, including the accelerated training of employees and the ability to seamlessly pull data from ERPs in situationally appropriate ways.

By leveraging Tulip, Dentsply Pirona, a dental equipment maker, cut new employee training time by 75% (down from six months to less than two months).  And RBW, a manufacturer of lighting equipment, was able to extract and print UL compliant labels housed in their NetSuite application in the flow of their production work.

Extending Tulip’s applicability to the real-time production process, contract manufacturer Jabil was able to increase employee throughput by 50% by using Tulip manufacturing apps to guide operators through complex assembly processes in their high mix environment, simultaneously increasing velocity while decreasing defects.

Red Zone

Focusing on the CPG and food manufacturing scene, Red Zone bills itself as “the Digital Production System”.  Similar to Tulip, Red Zone gathers data from production machinery, consolidates it in its cloud-based environment and makes it accessible to both line-level workers and production managers.

Red Zone customers, which have formed a rich ecosystem of evangelists, often speak of “focused kaizens” where data is analyzed, changes are made to production and the results are rapidly evaluated.  This quick-feedback, closed loop system enables companies to very rapidly make improvements to specific areas that need attention, issues that were often initially surfaced by evaluating data captured by Red Zone itself.

Additionally, given that it focuses specifically on CPG / food manufacturing, Red Zone comes pre-wired with many industry specific KPIs in areas of food quality and compliance.  In other words, it automatically generates a critical mass of metrics that plant managers in this space care about.

The utopian vision of technology has always been that it democratizes data, makes workers lives better and enables companies to focus on what matters. Through the maturation of these tools, the manufacturing world has gotten one step closer.