The east coast prepared for a potentially historic blizzard earlier this week, shutting down airports, major city subways, and even dimming the lights on Broadway. Residents assembled their emergency storm kits, stocked up on nonperishable foods and bottled water and prepared to be snowbound. Likewise, smart businesses thrust their business continuity plans into high gear, preparing for what could amount to several days of business interruption from the winter blast.While technology allows for some to continue to do their job without skipping a beat, for some industries and manufacturers especially, power outages and stranded workforces = no production = revenue lost.
Even without an impending storm, reducing production line downtime is essential to maintaining profitability in today’s fast-paced, global economy. So, just like Business Continuity Plans, reducing downtime requires the creation of a strategy which defines potential risks, takes into account their impact on operations and implements safeguards and procedures designed to diminish those risks.As automation solution specialists, it’s our goal to put together strong, functional systems that provide reliable, long-term performance. So, from initial design concept to functional system, we examine every aspect of the solution, from the equipment to the job process, because we understand that the real proof of our value comes from results that are seen long after the project has actually been implemented. As a result of our years in designing automation solutions, we have identified three essential steps to reduce production line downtime.
- Know what's happening
- Your equipment and processes need to match the job you are trying to do
- Educate and train your people.
Know What’s HappeningIf you had an obvious production line problem, you would drop everything you were doing to prevent that shutdown, just like New England did in preparation for the storm, wouldn’t you? Well, the reality is, without real time insight like Doppler Weather Radar, the obvious isn’t visible. Production lines are complex. Moving parts and lots of variables mean the possible combinations of miscues can be a huge number. Real time insight provides the information that could help you predict the unexpected. Because the number of possible combinations of errors is so large, you need to collect a bunch of data to develop indicators of potential problems. So, if you are going to collect data, collect lots of it. There is no such thing as collecting “too much data!”A very good way to consider all possible causes is to have the status of all individual parts of your production line “visible” at once. This visibility can be achieved using data collection methods.Without a disciplined, organized method for considering all possible causes of unexpected failures, you are most likely guessing at what’s to blame or maybe even repeating fixes you performed the last time a failure occurred.
Match Equipment and Processes to Your JobBill Gates was quoted saying,“The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”What is your equipment designed to do? Are you expecting it to do something it wasn’t designed for? Chances are, in order to meet customer demands, the products you are currently producing have changed over the years, but the equipment you use to produce them hasn’t. Are you expecting your equipment to do something it wasn’t designed for? Before you make appreciable progress in reducing downtime, you have to understand the design limitations of your equipment. It’s possible that what’s causing downtime could be the fact that you are asking your equipment to do something it wasn’t meant to do.Another question to ask yourself is, “Are your processes aligned with your equipment?” Equipment operators are typically expected to work within a specific frame of control and adjustments that they can directly impact. They make decisions based on what they’re familiar with and what they’re allowed to do. While intended to limit the damage an operator can do, sometimes these restrictions may actually harm the overall profitability of your company.
Educate and Train Your EmployeesEducate, educate, educate. Education is key…Let an operator make real time decisions based on accurate data and training. In addition to sharing the data with everyone that interacts with the equipment, provide them with training to evaluate that data. Once everyone is comfortable with being able to evaluate data, empower the people on the floor to make “on the fly” decisions that will improve the process. Take advantage of the experience that operators and maintenance people possess and trust them to add value to their equipment interaction.
Information, investigation and education are three essential steps to reducing production line downtime. Once you begin to collect and analyze the data, be ruthless when it comes to eliminating variances in operations (including variances in things like temperature, humidity, tooling, air and hydraulic pressures and flows). Then, leverage automation to perform those tasks that automation is effective at and rely on your operators to provide oversight of portions of the total process. Free them up to make decisions that improve productivity and add value. Finally, think about the role that raw materials and incoming parts play in the process. While there needs to be a great deal of effort spent on fine tuning equipment to achieve true repeatability, nonconforming parts will undermine even the best processes.