On the night of Saturday, June 3, Dave Saunders was jolted awake by a distressing phone call: An alarm at National Lumber's Reliable Truss facility in New Bedford, Mass., had just been tripped. As Reliable's vice president of operations, Saunders was listed as a first respondent, and the alarm company wanted to know if it should immediately dispatch some squad cars. After a brief moment of panic, Saunders held the line while he booted up his home PC and loaded a secure Web page showing live video feed from the plant's 19 programmable monitoring cameras. Instead of thieves, masked intruders, or spies from a competing lumberyard, he saw Reliable's cleaning crew hard at work keeping the shop at its spotless and uncluttered best. Saunders informed the alarm company that the situation was normal, saving himself a Saturday night trip to the yard and saving the company the fees associated with sending police out to respond to a false alarm.
Since incorporating the video system into the state-of-the-art, $7 million remodel of the Reliable Truss facility in 2003, Saunders and the rest of the Reliable/ National Lumber team are still finding unique uses for their “eye in the sky,” as Saunders calls the system. From analyzing work patterns and material movement for greater efficiency and productivity to tracking inventory, Reliable's camera-based observation system continues to offer bottom-line impact as the company seeks to contain operational costs associated with running the truss and wall panel manufacturing plant and adjoining lumberyard.
“We're in a labor business, and anything—whether it is software or video conferencing or here with the cameras—that you can use to improve the efficiency and productivity of that labor is an asset,” says Saunders, a self-described tech junkie who first used cameras as a contractor prior to joining National to monitor his tools and job-site. Saunders says security and surveillance are still important areas where he leverages the camera system, second only to productivity. Case in point, the Saturday-night cleaning-crew alarm, or the time when an employee was suspicious that his truck was being maliciously damaged. “In a very short period of time, the entire property can be seen from various angles to cover any kind of problems with theft or vandalism,” Saunders says, explaining that the video system was able to zoom in on the truck in question and help Saunders deduce that a forklift carrying trusses—not a lumberyard malfeasant—was accidentally responsible for scratching the roof of the truck.
“It's amazing once you get used to using the system and discover all the little things that spoil you,” agrees Reliable president Manuel Pina. “We had planted all new grass and someone made a U-turn through it right after it was hydro-seeded. We went back and zoomed right in and got the license plate number of the exact vehicle that pulled through and ruined the lawn. But those things are gravy. We really look at it to monitor productivity and what is happening in general around the whole complex. It gives us solid information to make decisions on things like how many people we need, what is happening in the movement of material, and how we go to production.”
Tale of the Tape While keeping tabs on component shop productivity is nothing new, Reliable's video system allows for advanced precision concerning time-in-motion and work-zone studies that is impossible with the naked eye. Without even donning a pair of safety glasses, Saunders can access everything from the shop floor via video feeds and prerecorded film from a joystick-enabled console in his office. Prerecorded tape can be examined frame by frame, forward or backward, at up to 20 times normal speeds, and can be paused and enlarged with a zoom function. Camera movements can be preprogrammed, or the joystick gives real-time control of individual units, enabling Saunders to pan left to right, move up and down, or zoom in and out of any particular video feed.
By speeding up video, Reliable management can better analyze work patterns in the plant. Repetitive tasks that might be made more efficient, periods of unproductive and idle time by both man and machine, and the overall speed and evenness of material flow and product output all show up more clearly when film is accelerated, according to Saunders. To examine complex issues or conduct problem solving, the reverse is true. “If there is a critical issue, I will often look at the video frame by frame,” he says.