Digital Technology in Manufacturing: Shaw Industries

Digital Technology at Shaw Industries

Roddy McKaig, the Vice President and CIO and VP of Shaw Industries shared his thoughts about digital technology in manufacturing during the first meeting of the DR1 Partnership. Shaw is one of the world’s largest floor covering manufactures. Shaw makes diverse floor coverings, from carpet to tile and everything in between. The company was founded in Dalton in 1946, and still has its headquarters there even though it has global operations and is part of the Berkshire Hathaway family of companies.

Shaw Industries started with automation in distribution, but now its manufacturing operations are fully automated, too. Digital technologies make all of this possible. Computers inspect materials to determine how to best use the materials and how much to pay for them. Bar coding and RFID (radio frequency identification) allows computers to control inventory movement.

Computer control the mix and temperature of materials, analyze waste water color and temperature so it can be reused to reduce water and energy use, and computers control carpet cutting to minimize material waste and movement. Shaw has automatic packing and conveyance systems, and are starting to use robots for repetitive manual processes.

Computers on lift trucks and on tractor-trailer trucks, along with bar codes and RFIDs on dock doors and yard gates, make sure materials go where they are supposed to go and don’t get misplaced.

Shaw Industries’ one hundred twenty five facilities around the country have wired and wireless communications, and high-capacity telecommunications connect them to the company’s headquarters. Computers handle scheduling within and between plants, track associates activities, and supervisors use mobile computers to monitor activities and schedules.

Shaw Industries does a lot with web sites and online systems for customers, too. It has electronic interfaces with its business partners. Some of its retailers are too small to have technical resources, so the company is developing services to handle technology for them.

Technology challenges for manufacturers

All of this computer technology relies on electronic communications and technology professionals, which Roddy identified as critical challenges for manufacturing. It is also generating huge amounts of data that can be very useful in the business, but the data must be transported, stored, and analyzed. This is increasing the importance of communications and the need for technical skills.

Shaw Industries has faced increasing outage problems in recent years that are taking longer to resolve. The company’s wide-area network is large and complex, with a lot of pieces provided by multiple sub-vendors. A lot of the pieces have to come together to keep the network up and running. Identifying which piece is the problem in an outage can be very difficult.

The company is starting to look at broadband for back-up connections. It also has more and more remote workers. Remote workers allow Shaw Industries to be more flexible in serving customers and for attracting employees. The remote workers need broadband.

Automation increases the need for skilled technicians as it reduces the number of low-skilled jobs. It’s getting harder to find skilled labor, and it’s getting very hard to find employees with advanced technical skills.

While small and medium businesses might not face as many problems with electronic communications as Shaw Industries, they face larger challenges finding and retaining skilled employees. Large companies can get the people, and aren’t really hurt by losing an employee or two, Roddy noted, but small and medium businesses (SMBs) often can’t pay competitive salaries. Losing one key technology professional can really hurt an SMB. These companies often have to outsource to technology service companies.