Monthly Archives: July 2015

An essential element in promoting efficient operations at a manufacturing plant is continuous improvement, requiring an ongoing effort to improve products and processes. Effective operations consultants can help you implement a culture of continuous improvement, using process maps and key performance indicators, to help you achieve your desired results. Using lean methodologies, like continuous improvement, you can learn to evaluate existing operating procedures and continually improve upon them to keep your facility running at maximal capability.

“Problems are not best solved on a case-by-case basis.”

How technology fits into the continuous improvement plan
To get the most out of technology solutions and equipment, you should make sure your processes and systems operate in unison. To accomplish this, you often have to make changes to company culture. Before you invest in technology, think about what need you are trying to address. If you put technology in place, you should be prepared to interpret and act on the data that stems from that system. Many organizations believe that technology alone will improve their production processes, ignoring the fact in a manufacturing setting, technology must be linked to actionable items. Technology is an enabler, not an end-all be-all solution. Without processes to receive the technology, it can stagnate.

When facing operational challenges, remember that problems are not best solved on a case-by-case basis. Instead, look for root causes and try to define the weak points. You cannot solve a problem if you don’t know exactly where or what it is. For example, if you were to invest in new automated equipment in the hopes of increasing production, you would be ignoring many of the important considerations that should go into the equation. Do you have employee downtime? Do you manage staging areas efficiently? Do your changeover schedules support the increased production quota?

Tribal knowledge can be troublesome
Sometimes, tribal knowledge can work against you during a continuous improvement initiative. The Process Excellence Network pointed out there is no shortage of good ideas for what could be improved at any organization. If you decide to introduce new measures aimed at improving production, you may face resistance from some of the senior level operators and technicians. They have been in their job for many years and believe they know the best way to get things done. This is why operations consultants are effective during in continuous improvement projects, because they can coach your staff and help them consider the broader issues. If you want to introduce new measures that raise efficiency, you have to work on informing, educating, and training your staff. Get them to understand and believe that there is a better way of doing things.

Continuous Improvement
Continuous improvement involves process mapping and coaching.

You may have workers at your organization that are not used to continuous improvement, which requires a lot of process mapping and communication. However, they are also highly skilled in their specific work areas. You can make tribal knowledge work for you by documenting their expertise while you work with them to amend certain processes. These senior workers can then help you train new hires on the improved approach. Tribal knowledge is only troublesome if you allow it to be.

What you can do to counteract the skills gap
Today in U.S. manufacturing, the skills gap is an issue that is frequently discussed. With the baby boomer generation aging out, there is a lot experience and knowledge will go with them. The manufacturing community has, at times, expressed dismay about capturing that knowledge, but experts have been quick to point out that continuous improvement will help. There isn’t one specific solution for fixing the skills gap issue, but a combination of strategies can be used together to address current and future issues.

The way a manufacturing plant should run is based on routines. Continuous improvement is all about taking those routines, making them better, and documenting the changes. Ongoing training on how routine activities ought to be conducted is essential. Manufacturing consultants are experts in studying and helping companies develop effective routines. If you are worried about the impending brain drain at your organization, consider employing the continuous improvement methodology at your plant so you keep your valuable knowledge and expand upon it. If you can get your teams to do repeatable work, the skills gap should not worry you. Instead, focus on promoting consistency, in each process, and in each plant.

Ultimately, when working on continuous improvements, skilled operations consultants can teach you how to make sure expectations are being met. Remember, the success of your teams translates as success for you. Focus on developing your people, improving your processes, and fitting new technology into clearly established functions. Do these things over and over and you could see continuous improvement.

In today’s manufacturing industry, the “skills gap” is one of most pressing and talked about issues. Last year, many major media outlets covered the issue extensively, demonstrating its importance. Manufacturing requires a high level of technical proficiency and encompasses a wide range of competencies. At a time when the industry is witnessing the retirement of the largest percentage of its workforce, the lack of skill and technical knowledge of new workers is troubling.

The “skills gap” is a major problem in manufacturing today
The oldest baby boomers turned 65 in 2011, and each successive year, approximately 10,000 more seasoned workers will retire, according to the Pew Research Center. Fortunately, manufacturers can enact a few strategies to offset the impending brain drain that is taking place. IndustryWeek reported on a Pennsylvania chemical producer that faced the problem of having 150 skilled labor jobs open and unfilled. Ranging from welders to mechanical engineering technicians, the company struggled to hire qualified staff. The unfilled positions represented 38 percent of the 400 skilled-worker positions open at any point in time. The CEO of the company explained why it was so difficult to fill positions.

“In some cases [a position] takes as long as a year to fill because of a mismatch of skills — either in the skills area we need or in the geographic area where we need that skill,” said the CEO , according to the news source.

Lean methodologies will alleviate the skills gap problem
According to Reliable Plant, the lean manufacturing philosophy does great things for improving training practices and can help preserve expertise in a facility. When lean methodologies are used in training programs, the benefit is that a facility is able to make progress in multiple areas at once and keep best practices at the forefront. Instead of training employees and working toward continuous improvement in a silo-ed fashion, training should be ongoing and encompass continuous improvement principles to promote greater delivery and material development.

Accordingly, here are 5 ways companies can work on developing highly skilled employees and closing the skills gap:

  1. Implement Continuous Improvement
    One of the best ways manufacturing companies can establish lean operations is to always improve upon existing processes. As an organization commits to developing best practices on an ongoing basis, that effort should involve constant training of employees. Plant improvements must always be reflected in process documents and then incorporated into employee work routines. Companies should motivate staff to collect data, analyze information, and raise job performance to the next level based on the findings. The most important thing to remember is to always improve. If a manufacturing company is able to do this, they will find less of a skills gap among their ranks because project managers will continually educate their teams on the latest amendment to their routines.

“The best thing an organization can do is facilitate the sharing of information.”

  1. Encourage staff communication
    Companies that encourage their staff members to communicate about work issues, across departments and geographies, will be able to retain a greater amount of valuable tribal knowledge, should seasoned workers suddenly leave. The best thing an organization can do to avoid a skills gap is to facilitate the sharing of information, so when experts leave, their information will have already been passed down to the next generation. Also, for training purposes, giving workers a voice results in more active training sessions and higher levels of engagement. That enthusiasm will carry through to the plant floor, where the workers can turn knowledge into results. The more actively a company involves employees in training, the more effective the results are.
  2. Focus on customer satisfaction
    Interestingly, an effective strategy for raising technical expertise at a facility is making its training program very customer-centric. The lean manufacturing philosophy stresses the importance of creating value for the customer. Organizations can train their employees to think about the end result, regardless of their position. Someone on the assembly line with an understanding of what the customer ultimately wants to see is in a better position to make the right decisions. Likewise, managers can help their teams see what their individual skills gap is, and what they need to develop to excel in their job and create good products. It is important to remember that training employees to think of the customer is a way of putting his or her money to good use. Plant managers are also more likely to pass on their expertise when they understand how that act will benefit the customer in the long run.

Skills Gap

Ongoing training programs are essential in the manufacturing industry.

  1. Address the reality on the ground
    Often, plant managers will give directives to facility staff without getting involved in the day-to-day details those directives might entail. This is not an effective way to manage a plant and it is essential that managers take the time to get to know workers, listen to their feedback, and incorporate their opinions into company plans. When implementing a training program, management will benefit from this approach because they will have a chance to watch staff members perform their job tasks, which facilitates the development of better training materials. This approach is also helpful down the road, as managers will need to check to see if employees are putting their training to good use – preventing a skills gap.
  2. Develop and maintain proper documentation
    The importance of updating standard operating procedures in a facility cannot be emphasized enough. Lean managers not only use process documents to guide their operations and decision-making, but they also use visual aids for brainstorming and conceptualizing projects. One of the best ways to understand a concept is to use diagrams and process maps. Manufacturers should use work flow maps, diagram their production processes, and always refer to SOPs. When a facility operates in this way, training is greatly enhanced as the company culture is already based on doing things by the book and the skills gap is more easily avoided. The effort required to change the way something is done is much less if it can be addressed simply by amending process documents. If a facility does not use documentation with vigilance, introducing a new process can involve hours of explanation and unnecessary work.

Ultimately, learning and development in the manufacturing industry is crucial. Given the aforementioned skills gap, as well as the proven benefit of making training a regular part of everyday operations, lean methodologies should be a part of every organization’s approach for managing their operations.

In manufacturing, virtualization helps companies by simplifying the management of IT and operational assets. Dealing with complex plant systems, tons of data, and tightly defined processes, manufacturers benefit from easier access to plant floor operations and control systems. Engineers can get the most out of technology systems by leveraging the convenience of virtualization. Sen. Amy Klobuchar told CNBC that manufacturing today is defined by advanced technological capability.

“The reality is that today’s manufacturing workers are as likely to operate robots as they are wrenches, and use math more than muscle – this isn’t your grandpa’s factory floor,” wrote Klobuchar.

Virtualization can improve IT efficiency, save time and reduce costs
Manufacturing Business Technology explained that the benefits of virtualization include hardware consolidation, less energy consumption, improved application load time, disaster recovery, and easier streamlining of processes. Because virtualization calls for hardware independence, it is much easier to manage software across a facility and implement changes. With individual terminals receiving information from one management operating system, the points of access are significantly reduced. Virtualization also enables companies to use servers to run multiple applications without conflict.

Consolidating hardware benefits manufacturers because IT and maintenance staff will spend less time moving from one terminal to the other, and they can spend more of their time focused on facility-wide technology concerns. Manufacturing Business Technology pointed out that virtual machines can extend the software lifecycle over 10 years. Additionally, because virtual terminals require much less energy than full platforms, virtualization results in energy savings for a plant.

Centralization of operational resources is easier with virtualization
Using virtualization, operators are able to access their workstations through a multitude of devices, noted Manufacturing Business Technology. Another main benefit to a virtualized environment is that critical hardware is kept out of harm’s way. Should something happen to a remote terminal, it can be easily replaced without having to rebuild software and load applications. It is important to mention that, using sophisticated virtualization configurations, operators can have the same functionality as if they were accessing the management operating system itself.

“Critical hardware is kept out of harm’s way.”

Another critical feature of virtualization is that it can make the streamlining of processes much easier. Since work applications and documents are centralized and rolled out to the individual terminals, this helps prevent data duplication, limit inconsistencies, and continually keeps operators and technicians on the same page with respect to new processes, or work protocols. Additionally, virtualization allows for better workflow management because an engineer can set up permissions that designate who can access which production process and when.

Disaster recovery is made easier through virtualization
Virtualization is also helpful as a disaster recovery plan, noted Most manufacturers know that system failures are a real possibility. Problems with controls, execution systems, or automated equipment can bring production to a halt altogether. System failures increase downtime, which can significantly impact revenue negatively. As such, it is important to have a plan in place that both protects the systems that run the hardware, and recovers them should they suddenly fail. Unlike with traditional systems, virtualization is easier to manage because of the centralized aspect, and it also eliminates the need for reinstallation and configuration – should the worst happen. Since virtual machines are already configured, the hours spent reconfiguring a traditional system can be put to better use elsewhere.

Virtualization can help companies better manage IT assets.

Virtualization offers a high return on investment
Tony Baker, Product Manager at Rockwell Automation told Manufacturing Business Technology, virtualization will eventually represent at least half of all automated systems in a manufacturing environment.

“In the world of corporate IT, 65 percent of new applications this year will be deployed in a virtual environment,” wrote Baker. “I would say that 10 to 15 percent of automation applications are now being deployed in a virtual environment. That’s up from almost zero a year ago. Virtualization is gaining traction and I expect that half of all automation applications will leverage virtualization in the next 5 years.”

The benefits of virtualization are too many to ignore. In terms of return on investment, virtualization will help companies raise efficiency, lower IT expenses, protect their production assets, and streamline processes across a facility. The cost benefit of these efficiencies far outweighs the initial investment in virtual terminals and the miscellaneous expenses it will require.

Kanban is one of several tools used by manufacturers to increase efficiency and limit downtime in a production process. Facilities use Kanban to make sure that production lines are supplied with the right materials at the right time. In Japanese, Kanban means visual card, and although at first it used physical cards, now Kanban is powered with technology. Visual cards are used to signal that processes are in need of materials or parts. The tool was originally invented in conjunction with “pull” systems of production that employ the “just-in-time” concept. Using the Kanban system, a manufacturer can reduce downtime through proper planning and execution.

“Kanban prevents inventory overflow and ensures precise delivery of quality materials to the line.”

Lean manufacturers use Kanban
In a just-in-time environment, processes are based on pull production expectations. Facilities only working on what is expected become leaner since they do not house excessive levels of raw or finished materials. Demand-pull allows companies to only produce what is needed, determined by time and quantity considerations. “Push” methods of production, on the other hand, are based on expected sales and manage inventory differently.

Process Excellence Network explained that Kanban prevents inventory overflow and ensures precise delivery of quality materials to the line. Smart manufacturers use sophisticated production scheduling software to plan production, order stock, and manage exchanges with suppliers and customers. Today, Kanban employs modern resources like e-mails, sensors, and electronic monitoring equipment.

Three main benefits of Kanban are:

  1. Visual control of production lines and assurance that only what is ordered is made.
  2. Products are free of defects and defective parts are found before they cause problems.
  3. Continuous improvement is achieved through the constant reduction of stock in production.

Kanban can help prevent inventory overflow

Kanban helps eliminate overproduction and waste
The Environmental Protection referred to Kanban as the “nervous system” of lean production and explained that Kanban is integral to just-in-time production because it is the channel through which ordering takes place. Specifically, Kanban is found in the form of a card, labeled container, computer order, or other tools that signal when more parts are needed for the next phase of production – thus eliminating overproduction.

Overproduction is a key form of manufacturing waste, noted the EPA. Kanban systems help eliminate overproduction and limit waste by reducing the number of products that must be scrapped or discarded. Kanban also reduces the amount of raw materials used in production and improves management of energy, emissions, and waste, resulting in more efficient production

Suggestions for an Effective Kanban System
Process Excellence Network advised that manufacturers set up Kanban properly in the workplace, for maximum benefit. Firstly, customers should only withdraw items in a downstream process, and suppliers should only produce items in an upstream process, in exact amounts as specified by the Kanban. Secondly, items should not be made or moved without a Kanban and a tag must be included with every item. Thirdly, defective parts and incorrect amounts should never be sent to the next process. Lastly, a facility should always work to reduce the number of Kanbans to lower inventories and identify potential problems with parts and materials.

Ultimately, Kanban is an effective method for reducing downtime because it ensures the correct supply of quality materials to the production line at all times. Sometimes, manufacturers who believe tribal knowledge can outperform lean methodologies, fail to raise efficiency because they do not properly implement Kanban, or implement it but do not enforce strict adherence. However, the most effective production facility knows that becoming lean means understanding that planning and execution go hand in hand.

Chemical processing and other batch manufacturing operations are becoming increasingly complex. Manufacturers today need to have a fast response time when quality issues arise and when equipment requires maintenance. Combining real-time analysis with reliability-centered maintenance is a great way to raise efficiency in chemical processing. A constant stream of data coupled with a proactive maintenance plan can ensure that production quality remains high and that plant assets operate in prime condition.

Real-Time Analysis Improves Product Quality 
Chemical Processing
 explained that in batch manufacturing operations, identifying product quality deviations is not an easy thing to do. Additionally, if production continues, and quality issues are not spotted, the cost of wasted time, materials, and energy adds up quickly. This is why it is beneficial to use predictive control techniques so that product quality remains consistent.

According to Chemical Processing, product quality checks should be done with high frequency and accuracy. Automated feedback control can help manufacturers keep track of operations. However, measurements need to be taken without interrupting processes or increasing risk of contamination. Off-line, at-line, and on-line automated devices can allow measurements to be taken close to the process without slowing down the pace of production. Manufacturers can leverage these technology solutions to minimize or even eliminate time delays, if they are able to use the steady stream of accurate and reliable information.

“Product quality checks should be done with high frequency and accuracy.”

Analyzers will provide measurements in real-time or near-real time to manufacturers, but they must be able to respond quickly. For that to happen, KPIs from the analyzers should be worked into the management operating system so that plant managers know how to respond to spikes or dips in the numbers. Data is only useful if companies know how to use it. This is why manufacturing industry experts pride themselves on having a hands-on approach, because giving consulting advice from the boardroom is not always helpful.

real-time analysis
Use technology to provide real-time analysis to monitor quality

Data Helps Manufacturers Stay Competitive explained that big data is changing the chemical industry in a profound way. Companies can real-time analysis data from production centers to increase margins, improve product quality and shape business processes. Once manufacturers put the systems in place that collect the data, they should then identify the best ways to use the data to reduce costs, manage assets, generate revenue, and make smarter decisions going forward. Plant managers who can effectively interpret the data and respond accordingly will see noticeable improvements in their business. For example, data analysis can help manufacturers make variants of existing products and either lower production cost per unit or produce a higher quality substitute with higher profit margins.

One practical way to use data from real-time analysis is to link it with reliability-centered maintenance. Demonstrating vigilance in monitoring quality and production levels, as well as keeping assets in optimal condition, can lower overheads and raise efficiency. As previously mentioned, the chemical manufacturing process is complex, but properly leveraging data makes things simpler, allowing companies to better manage production assets and throughput processes simultaneously.

It is important to mention, however, that smart technology alone will not provide the desired benefits. Data collection and analysis is only a means by which better decisions and actions are taken. Companies that understand this last point know that educating staff on how to interpret and proactively respond to KPIs is equally as important as investing in new technology. As the manufacturing field continues to be influenced by evolving technology, management skills must evolve as well.

Having a proper asset maintenance plan in place is essential for every manufacturing plant. However, sometimes a major impediment to getting maintenance done is that production is ongoing 90% of the time. It is always better to be proactive about asset maintenance instead of having it be a reactionary activity, but in all situations, finding the time to assess and improve asset condition is the most important consideration. This post aims to help you identify ways to work on equipment without incurring extra unnecessary downtime.

Operators and maintenance staff must work together
Plant Engineering suggested that one of the most important times to do asset maintenance work is during changeovers. If your plant needs to switch from one product to another, or change the dimensions of production, the specific time it takes to do a changeover may be different, but with proper scheduling and flexibility, you will be able to create a window of opportunity to get in there and do the work. One way to free up staff and allow for the needed flexibility is to create a partnership between the operators and maintenance groups, yet have each group focus solely on their job and avoid overlap. Sometimes, maintenance staff find themselves performing operations tasks, which can affect overall productivity. Making sure operations work goes to the operators will free up maintenance staff do their job when those windows of opportunity open up.

“Preventative maintenance is never meant to hinder operations.”

Maintenance staff and operators must also work together, because if they don’t, downtime windows become sporadic and asset maintenance is delayed, which in turn affects production negatively. If the two groups work in partnership, operators will utilize equipment based on established procedures, complete their work efficiently, and honor their production scheduled downtimes without delay. While it may seem obvious, maintenance and operators must get their work done correctly. A plant will only be able to ensure timely operations when every aspect of the job is accounted for, such as resources and supplies being available at the asset location when it is time to do the work.

Preventative maintenance is meant to add-value, not detract
According to Plant Engineering, preventative asset maintenance, which involves maintaining equipment before failure occurs, is never meant to hinder operations. It falls under the responsibility of the maintenance department to ensure that equipment is not shut down unnecessarily for preventative maintenance work. Approximately 40% of preventative tasks do not uncover asset failures, so planning them at the wrong time is really a no value-added activity. That is not to say that preventative work could not save an operations from unexpected delays and shutdowns, but smart planning goes a long way.

asset maintenance
Asset maintenance should be prioritized into the production schedule

A proven method for limiting downtime related to asset maintenance work is to conduct inspections that do not require assets to be powered down, otherwise known as predictive maintenance. Vibration and infrared analysis, as well as flow, pressure, temperature, and statistical analysis from the quality department can provide maintenance staff with a good idea about the condition of assets without having to stop everything. ReliablePlant explained that predictive maintenance must be done while the equipment is in normal operation, and that it helps find defects that would normally not be found through previously tried inspections methods. Manufacturers use new technologies to accurately examine the condition of assets and determine the presence of defects. Vibration analysis is the most common example of these condition-monitoring predictive technologies.

Preventive and preventative asset maintenance are all about avoiding hindering operations. That is why being proactive is so important. Reactionary maintenance slows down or delays production, and reduces windows of opportunity to fix and optimize assets. Alternatively, if an organization is proactive about its maintenance work, things run a lot more smoothly. Using labor effectively means that everyone gets to do their scheduled work.

Ultimately, the best opportunities for asset maintenance work are the result of planning, scheduling, and coordination. Instead of waiting for downtime windows to appear, supervisors have the responsibility of scheduling jobs carefully so that when downtime appears, it is expected and used the right way.