Six strategies to optimize process manufacturing operations and build resilience

June 2, 2021
Process manufacturers are exploring ways to protect against future disruptions. That means taking proactive steps towards digital transformation, one where data and modern technology are used to optimize operations and empower the manufacturing workforce.

If there is one thing on the minds of most process manufacturers, it is resilience. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, they have been under enormous pressure to maintain efficiency, productivity and product quality — while dealing with supply disruptions, demand volatility, workforce shortages and strict social distancing measures.

In many organizations, operators took on unfamiliar roles and additional responsibilities to fill sudden gaps on the plant floor. In many companies, supervisory staff, like managers and quality personnel, shifted from a physical to remote presence, working from back offices or even off site entirely. And with these changes came big problems.

Plant leaders found they had limited visibility into what was happening on the plant floor — and therefore lacked the insight needed to make critical decisions about production. They also lacked the tools to effectively support reduced (and likely overwhelmed) onsite teams, as well as those needed to keep remote workers connected and productive. These roadblocks were largely due to paper-based or legacy systems, which a surprising number of plants still rely on today.

Now, process manufacturers are exploring ways to protect against future disruptions. That means taking proactive steps towards digital transformation, one where data and modern technology are used to optimize operations and empower the manufacturing workforce.  

So, if your organization is starting on the road to resilience, the following six strategies can help you get off on the right foot:   

1. Make production data available in real time

Resilience comes down to being responsive. It means making agile decisions when unexpected disruptions or market changes occur, as well as seizing opportunities to optimize operations. And to do that you need data.

When made available in real time, data captured from every corner of the plant floor can provide a clear view of how processes are running and where issues lie. Through analysis, those same data can reveal timely insights into every aspect of production, uncovering ways to increase efficiency and productivity, optimally manage suppliers and materials, reduce costs and waste, continuously improve processes and product quality, and much more.  

What is the best way to ensure data is available in real time? Paper-based techniques for data collection and quality checks leave you several steps behind, since that information is often obsolete by the time it can be reviewed. And with most legacy systems, accessibility is still an issue. Data winds up siloed in multiple systems, or stored in incompatible data formats. Instead, modern quality management software can integrate with gauges, digital measurement devices, databases, OPC servers and other equipment to automatically collect and aggregate data from a multitude of sources into a single repository. Data becomes available in real time, providing a “big picture” view of the entire manufacturing process.

2. Move to the cloud for anytime, anywhere access

The next consideration is how to make aggregated data accessible from anywhere, at all times. While on-premises quality software can be great in many aspects, such systems leave data siloed within the four walls of the plant. That leaves remote personnel out of the loop, which many organizations realized the hard way during the pandemic.

Cloud-based solutions are the key to solving this problem. Data from all products, lines and even multiple sites, are stored and standardized in a centralized, secure data repository in the cloud. These solutions can be accessed and operated remotely from any device, ensuring that both onsite and remote personnel can collaborate to monitor processes and improve performance. If a problem arises, quality teams and plant managers can act immediately, even when they are offsite, to ensure product quality is upheld.    

3. Shift to exception-based reporting with real-time alarms

In traditional process manufacturing environments, a huge amount of time and effort is spent on monitoring production lines to catch process deviations or quality issues. But when plant-floor teams are consumed by continually staring at control charts, updating spreadsheets and watching the clock so they do not miss their next quality check, it leaves little room for anything else.

This is where exception-based reporting comes in to alleviate that burden. Next-generation, statistical process control (SPC)-based quality software can continuously monitor data streams in real time to detect specification or statistical violations. When an issue arises, the software immediately alerts relevant personnel so they can intervene. Personnel are not overwhelmed with extraneous information — they just receive notification of the exact issue, respond quickly, resolve it and move on.

Another great way to free up operator focus is with reminders for data collections and quality checks. Quality software can alert each staff member of their upcoming tasks, with plenty of notice, so that they don’t have to keep watching the clock. Overall, plant personnel get peace of mind that they'll never miss a quality issue or forget a data collection. Instead of constant monitoring and worrying, they save time and stay focused on the most vital parts of their job. 

4. Implement workflows for effective responses

Another key aspect of a resilient, optimized manufacturing environment is enabling consistent, fast and effective responses to production problems and quality issues. But in most organizations, such responses come down to individual operator knowledge and judgment. As we saw during the pandemic, there is a risk that much of this critical “tribal knowledge” can be lost when employees are out sick or otherwise unavailable — severely impacting efficiency and productivity. 

Fortunately, all that valuable knowledge can be captured as predefined workflows (or prescriptive guides for responding to process and quality issues) in a modern quality management software solution. Then, these workflows can be used by any employee to better resolve or prevent similar events in the future. Everyone is on the same page, following the same best practices, to ensure quality and improve process performance. Your whole organization is strengthened, bringing a sense accountability and greater clarity, consistency and compliance to the manufacturing process.

5. Leverage data visualization tools

Today’s process manufacturers generate more data than ever before, thanks to sensors and IIoT devices that automatically collect data around the clock. It is easy to see how the sheer volume of data can be overwhelming, making it nearly impossible for manufacturers to surface actionable information from the deluge.

Luckily, next-generation quality software solutions constantly monitor all this data. These solutions also offer the latest tools for summarizing and visualizing data beyond individual streams, which provides greater insight into patterns, trends and opportunities across your entire operations. With the ability to simplify and quickly digest massive volumes of data, you can achieve the level of agility needed to optimally adapt to the unexpected and make the most of available resources.  

One innovative quality tool is “stream grading,” which simplifies your understanding of process performance and enables you to drill down for more information where needed. With stream grading, quality software automatically analyzes performance and assigns a letter-number combination to data streams coming from various products, lines and sites. Here’s how it works:

  • The letter grade (either A, B or C) represents the potential yield of a stream, while the number grade (either 1, 2 or 3) represents its expected yield performance based on defined specification limits.
  • “A” indicates a stream is capable of performing within specification limits, whereas “C” indicates the stream is guaranteed to have losses. A value of “1” shows a process is expected to meet its potential, “2” shows it will have some losses, and “3” means significant losses.

Based on the grade, you know which processes, lines or sites need help, where the greatest opportunities lie and what kind of problems to anticipate, so you can prioritize your resources accordingly. For example, an “A3” grade represents a stream that has a high performance potential but is experiencing deviation. Corrective actions on “A3” lines are typically the easiest (e.g., operator training, changing a setpoint, etc.) and provide the greatest and fastest returns on improvement efforts.

It’s almost impossible to get these kinds of quick insights without stream grading, making it a powerful tool for building resilience.  

6. Centralize quality management for greater flexibility

It is no secret that the better your employees are trained (and cross-trained), the more flexible your workforce will be to overcome times of disruption. The good news is you don’t have to train everyone to do everything — if you choose a system that enables centralized management for supervisors and consistency for all users.

A cloud-based quality solution makes is easy to implement quick changes across your organization. If you need to disseminate information or implement a best practice, you simply need to apply that change in the centralized software once — and everyone gets it. If you need to make quick changes about a new part or product, operators do not need to know how to reconfigure the software themselves. Just configure it centrally, and operators see it immediately on the plant floor.

To make cross-training simpler, your software should also have a consistent, visual interface. In other words, interfaces should all be configured to look the same, with contents differing depending on individual user responsibilities. So, if an operator needs to fill in on additional lines, for instance, they’ll already be comfortable and familiar with the software, although the information may be different. Your workforce is much more flexible, easily covering for unexpected absences and unforeseen shortages on the plant floor.   

There’s no better time than the present

Manufacturing resilience ultimately requires the ability to quickly gather, analyze and act on data. By empowering all levels of your workforce with the right technology to do exactly that, your organization will be well prepared for whatever comes next. And there’s no better time to get started than right now. 

As vice president of product management, Eric Weisbrod oversees the creation and sharing of Enact strategy, roadmaps, and functionality with the InfinityQS marketing, sales, and services teams, as well as with Channel Partners and service providers around the globe. Eric joined InfinityQS as an application engineer in November 2006. He earned a bachelor of science and master of science in mechanical engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where his graduate work focused on finite element analysis for the semiconductor industry. 

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