Performance management of processing plants — KPIs, people and processes

June 16, 2022
How a better understanding of asset utilization, plant optimization and visualization through a plant process management initiative can bring value and proven benefits to all hierarchical levels of the entire organization.

Performance management and reporting in chemical processing plants is essential to upper management in order to align employees, resources and systems to meet strategic objectives. However, the purpose of reporting overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) metrics is sometimes not viewed as particularly useful by plant operations teams. Especially because the superficial data often does not provide any additional insight for the plant team and therefore cannot be used to improve the performance of the assets.

This column outlines some of the disconnects relating to performance management initiatives between the C-Suite and operations teams and shift supervisors working on the plant floor. It will discuss how a better understanding of asset utilization, plant optimization and visualization through a Plant Process Management (PPM) initiative can bring value and proven benefits to all hierarchical levels of the entire organization.

Setting targets 

Getting the right results starts with setting the right targets and letting everybody in the plant know about them. But this, of course, is not as easy as it sounds. Let’s take, for example, a multi-purpose specialty chemical plant. If chemical production targets are set for each shift and incentives are based only on the performance of individual shifts, very inefficient variations in output can result. This is because each shift inherits the first four hours from the previous shift, so the view of each shift team must also be focused on the big picture.

Strategically, it makes better sense to align targets among individual teams with the plant’s overall output targets so that all shifts benefit and are properly incentivized to do what they can to support the next shift as well as their own. Everyone becomes a team player.

Valuable roles

Even though shift supervisors oversee process or operating technicians, machine operators and even the console technicians, generally all of these employees are involved in running their chemical processing plant 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year. While management and salaried staff usually work business hours during the week, process technicians are the ones who may have to come in at 3 a.m. to oversee processes — including asset utilization — to run the plant as safely and efficiently as possible. These processes are accounted for in performance reports. 

The underlying value of asset utilization

Asset utilization is defined as the true measure of how well the company utilizes its installed capacity. It accounts for all losses, not just those directly associated with manufacturing processes. Asset utilization is identified through OEE — a key performance indicator (KPI) calculated by detecting the percentage of planned production time that is actually productive.

OEE’s origins evolved from the framework of total production maintenance (TPM) that supports discrete manufacturing. Since this KPI is not that easily applied to chemical processing plants, most chemical companies create their own interpretation of TPM to calculate and report OEE as a KPI. Implementing company-wide standards helps serve as a basis for consistency and enables a reliable comparison of numbers across different plants and reporting periods. 

Chemical plants are multifaceted

Reporting mechanisms become more complex when considering all performance metrics on the shop floor, especially due to myriad different plant and process types. The chemical processing industry, when compared to discrete industries, can be a lot more difficult to navigate from a performance reporting standpoint.

While there might be thousands of similar bottling lines in plants across the globe, a chemical plant is very individually constructed. For example, high volume production has high latencies and mass-balancing is particularly difficult. In addition, batch production where the plant's key KPI (referring to OEE) depends on batch cycle times and difficult product mixes is typically found in multi-purpose plants. 

These environments make it even more necessary to deploy digital solutions that can manage the many complexities and help standardize a process to unify reporting across the enterprise.  

It is important to apply OEE to these environments. This involves looking at machine uptime (availability), the speed of the process (performance) and the output quality (yield) to ensure operational assets and equipment run at optimum speeds with satisfactory quality output.

Connecting the dots

Upper management wants to have precise and reliable data at hand. This becomes especially relevant today with increased demands and competitive pressures. The need is great to identify where production could be increased and current market opportunities further leveraged.

Providing accurate data across hierarchical levels becomes especially difficult if the data acquisition is done with Excel spreadsheets and curating data is one of the last steps before it is transferred to management. More effective is the utilization of a performance platform where curating data is part of the day-by-day process on the plant floor.

To avoid disconnects, the people managing the data collection must truly understand the purpose of the data. Likewise, the people reading the data need to understand where it came from and what controls were in place to assure accuracy, such as obtaining final approval by the process engineer during the daily review.

The industrial internet of things (IIoT) and operational technology (OT) also help to connect the dots by delivering more connectivity. These technologies can help facilitate automated data collection such as checking the plausibility on the shop floor before a responsible shift team is relieved. This supports the frontline worker with accounting and helps to curate the data on each shift. Furthermore, it can deliver the highlights of large losses and forces the control room operator to explain the losses and provide more context. To reduce the human effort, minor losses are automatically accounted by a state-of-the-art performance platform.  

Unlocking valuable insights

Asset utilization becomes a team sport if it is based on a digital platform where sensor data and human context derived from the input of frontline employees per each shift delivers better, more precise insights.

Although a pure OEE number is a great KPI, it does not help to distinguish what to do to improve the plant’s output. A better approach is more meaningful visualization and a granularity of reporting to enable a data-driven approach and a better way to identify relevant problems and the root causes that the reports identify.

Accurate and transparent reporting of failures and analysis of reasons for the failure, along with the contributions of the combined knowledge of the workforce, are important in determining which of the most promising improvement initiatives are prioritized. 

Plant optimization

Improvement is achieved by precisely reporting the failures, prioritizing the most pressing ones, and allowing all to visualize them via a Pareto chart or graph that indicates the frequency of defects, as well as their cumulative impact. Acquiring the right data for continuous improvement initiatives is a challenge for both batch plants and full-continuous plants.  Ultimately, it is based on a good cooperation between all disciplines and shift teams — it is a team effort.

Plant optimization is achieved by various initiatives all of which originate through continuous improvement, some of which are technical while others are organizational in nature. Organizational systems such as Kaizen and Six Sigma contribute and have a single source of truth. Six Sigma aims for zero defects as often as possible, while Kaizen looks to improve the overall work environment, including having systems and strategies in place without focusing on percentile success rates. Continuous improvement initiatives overall need to be shared across all shifts to consistently gain feedback.

When running a production trial for an improvement initiative, engineers and plant management need to ensure that all operations teams are on the same page and the initiatives are implemented like one team continually 24/7. This requires fast and reliable training and clear bi-directional communications among shifts and management, which can be done by using videos, PDFs, consistent feedback and other communication methods.

Visualization for better data-driven decisions

Visual management helps the operations team to own the production data and ensure transparency with all KPIs. One shift gains actionable information from another shift as to what works and what does not. Such a collaborative approach engages people to improve their output and stay safe. Additionally, it gives frontline employees access to the right kind of data and promotes transparent and accurate data-driven decisions.

It is not only about finding the solution on one shift, but also about understanding the patterns across shifts to drive continuous improvement initiatives. To do so, reporting needs to be executed 24/7 by each shift team — often there are as many as four teams. It is key to have everyone on the same page to derive true potential. There must be an actual OEE score available in the control room as well as Pareto diagrams to dive into the data. People must be able to easily access and visualize the data at hand.

Improvements must be owned by the workers and supported by digital applications with data available and accessible from everywhere. This is especially true today when operations personnel, such as engineers, might be working remotely. Target and actual KPIs must be accessible on or- off-site. 

Plant process management (PPM)

Exact reporting does not need to be laborious. With today’s availability of OT data, there can be significant insights gained from data that are analyzed with the right digital solutions. This analysis pinpoints for the operator the losses that really matter. And for the less important losses, those are accounted for automatically using machine learning algorithms.

PPM offers an approach to bring together the whole operations team, the OT data and IT systems available. A recent evaluation by IoT senior analyst Ian Hughes with 451 Research stated: “PPM offers low risk and high impact investment opportunity.”

For example, plants that utilized PPM benefited from increased reliability of their plants, greater output through reducing downtime or performance losses caused by machinery. PPM can also align departments such as operations and maintenance and even those working in the lab — just by having seamless interactions and by focusing on common targets.

Deploying PPM can reduce reporting efforts and yield better and more consistent results. It can also help to improve product quality. Finally, corporate management can gain better insights into business cases for large and small capital investments — to help prioritize the most promising advantages that bring value and enhance ROI and competitiveness.  

Andreas Eschbach is the founder and CEO of the software company eschbach, which helps production teams stay safe and work smarter through better information sharing and collaboration. Holding a degree in computer science, he draws his practical experience from leading a variety of international software consulting and implementation projects for leading chemical manufacturing companies, focusing on production, continuous improvement, EHS and maintenance. His company is a provider of manufacturing solutions and headquartered in southern Germany and has an office in Boston, Massachusetts.


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