November/December 2011

Improve efficiencies using industry experts

By Bill Lydon, InTech, Chief Editor

In this competitive world, improving efficiency in many industries is becoming essential for survival. Hiring expensive consultants or having automation vendors recommend ways to improve your plant should be the last place to start. The first place to start is with the people in the plant, which is an often overlooked resource for the best experts that can identify ways to make improvements. Internal people have the understanding, tribal knowledge, and feel for the systems and processes in production. This is why consultants first secure a contract and then interview plant people to understand what is going on and how the plant really works. They also get a wealth of ideas for improving operations.

The line between vendors and consultants is blurring as more vendors are offering consulting services. Automation vendors use the same methods as consultants, but the contractual arrangement may be called a site survey, energy analysis, or other name. Automation vendors, in many cases, are offering services at lower prices than consulting firms for a number of commercial reasons, so they need to be evaluated carefully. This is particularly true if the consulting analysis is likely to lead to additional or new automation.

Keep in mind every vendor's dream is to have an "unfair advantage" over their competitors. This does not make them bad, just driven by their own goals, which may not be in perfect alignment with your goals. There are times to use the knowledge of qualified consulting and vendor experts, but they never have as much "skin in the game" as internal people.

Using internal people to improve operations takes some planning, but it is worth the effort. The advantage a consultant has is they are removed from the day-to-day production problems, so they can think about how to make improvements; the disadvantage is they do not have the in-depth knowledge internal people possess. Process improvement means making things better, not just fighting fires or managing crises. If we take a problem-solving approach or simply try to fix what's broken, we may never discover or understand ways to improve efficiencies.

Engaging in productive process improvement, we seek to learn what causes things to happen in a process and to use this knowledge to improve efficiency. An essential step in getting started on process improvement is for the senior leadership to make it a priority. Help management understand the best experts are internal people that need to be given the time and resources to explore improvements.

An example of a process improvement model:

  • Select the process to be improved, and establish a well-defined process improvement objective. Examples: lower energy use by 12%; lower scrap by 8%; increase up-time by 4%.
  • Organize a team to improve the process (operators and maintenance).
  • Define the current process using a flow chart or other appropriate means.
  • Develop a plan for collecting data to gain an accurate understanding of the "current reality."
  • Use the data to identify the root causes that prevent the process from meeting the improvement goals.
  • Brainstorm to generate ideas for improvements and eventuate the potential investment and returns.
  • Implement ideas, and document results. If you are just starting an improvement program, implement some simple things to get results and gain confidence.

Leveraging your people to improve efficiency and operations strengthens manufacturing now and in the future to compete in world markets.

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