When I. Patricia Henry took over as manager of Miller Brewing Co.'s sprawling plant in Eden, N.C., five years ago, she had a huge job ahead of her. The plant's 700-foot beer-packaging lines often churned out too much brew because operators didn't always get order changes from production schedulers in time. Sometimes, the plant had to throw away thousands of gallons of beer. The culprit? Instructions, written on paper, that were lost or written incorrectly. And if a line stopped, its massive size kept operators from seeing what was wrong, slowing fixes.
Henry's answer: Bring on the Web. She and a tiny team of two engineers figured all those process problems could be solved with a Web-based network that would give line operators and managers up-to-the-second information on all the plant's operations. Four months of tinkering and less than $100,000 later, the Eden plant's in-house Net is revolutionizing how Miller monitors its packaging lines.
Now, computers are attached to each of the lines to tap data about machinery operations. Info is dashed to a server in the plant's computer room, which transforms the information into easy-to-understand diagrams. They're posted immediately on the intranet, where they can be read quickly on computer monitors by line operators. The site also posts messages between operators and supervisors and tells operators where there's a line problem.
All that is putting fizz into the plant's bottom line. In areas where the system is installed, Eden's rate of defects, such as broken bottles, has plummeted from 5% to one-tenth of 1%, Miller's lowest--saving 50,000 bottles from the dump. When the system is installed on all 10 plant lines, Henry predicts that output will rise at least 2%, which could translate into millions of dollars a year. Says Sonoma (Calif.) consultant Joseph L. Owades, a former operations executive at several breweries: "Miller's changes are cutting edge."
They had better be: After buying Pabst and Stroh last year, Miller's operations are more complex than its rivals, say analysts. So Miller will have to spread the Web gospel throughout the company to keep profits from going flat.