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Preparing for Post-COVID Demand

By Randy Heisler, Vice President, Life Cycle Engineering

Post-COVID demand for goods in the United States is expected to create a significant challenge for manufacturers. In certain industries production demand could be boosted even more if a large federal infrastructure bill is passed.

To meet these demands and remain competitive, companies are looking to increase production capacity while paying close attention to costs. As a part of their overall strategy, companies are spending significant capital on expansion projects. At the same time, they are considering the capacity and reliability of their existing assets.

This two-pronged approach is a strategy that must be well thought out to maximize the expectations for both current and new assets. Companies are asking these questions of their current operations first, before deciding where to spend capital.

  1. Is asset availability where it needs to be?
  2. Do operators have the tools to be in control and capable?
  3. Is the maintenance workforce efficient and effective?
  4. Does the maintenance department have the parts they need, when they need them?
  5. Are leaders promoting the right behaviors?

Having worked with many companies that answered no to these questions, I want to share the actions they took to close the gaps and find hidden capacity that enabled them to meet increased demand, without investing what was originally budgeted for new assets.

Boosting Asset Availability

Reducing asset downtime begins with establishing a key process indicator like Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE). This measures losses caused by rate, availability and quality, and reveals the bad actor equipment to address first. Reliability Engineers eliminate the bad actor issues using root cause analysis and then performing failure mode and effects analyses to determine the appropriate long-term controls by. By optimizing preventive maintenance plans they eliminate non-value-added work and ensure that those PMs address the failure modes of the assets. These efforts help determine the appropriate asset management strategies that prevent recurring failures and provide the optimum return on their efforts. As an added bonus, these strategies also improve safety performance.

Asset uptime can also be increased by developing and enforcing repeatable standard work procedures, which removes operator variability. This helps to prevent operator-induced failures that can result from a lack of standardization.

A third strategy for boosting uptime is to implement autonomous maintenance, allowing some maintenance functions to be performed by production operators instead of all maintenance tasks being performed by highly skilled maintenance technicians. This allows technicians to focus on critical equipment and tasks that require a higher level of expertise.

Enabling Operators

Many of the companies I’ve worked with implemented lean manufacturing tools and performance measures, supported by best-practice maintenance and reliability processes that enable optimum product flow and reduce rework. Standardizing their operator tasks reduced variability, which increases output and creates more consistent product quality.

Another effective strategy is to promote operations-owned reliability, sometimes referred to as operator-driven reliability. This creates an environment where the operator owns the reliability of the equipment, much like their car, so they are responsible for operating and maintaining it properly. Operators work closely with the maintenance department to schedule periodic maintenance. The maintenance department is responsible for doing quality work on the equipment per the maintenance schedule, and advises the equipment owner of any issues while also accomplishing the work in the estimated timeframe. These partnerships promote sharing common goals like reliable assets and creating a quality product.

Because what gets measured gets improved, companies put visual controls in place to provide real-time measures of performance. They also implement 5S to eliminate wasted motion in both the maintenance and operating areas. This improves efficiency and promotes pride in the workplace.

Improving Maintenance Effectiveness

On the maintenance front, companies focused on finding hidden capacity increased the amount of planned maintenance activity. This increased the efficiency and effectiveness of the maintenance workforce, and ensured that their existing assets received the attention needed to increase uptime.

Maintenance improvement efforts include standardizing work management processes which define what work should be done and the roles and responsibilities of both maintenance and operations. Educating the organization on the role of Planners helps everyone understand the importance of planning in the work management process. It’s also important to train Planners and not allow them to be pulled into reactive work or chase parts. This allows them to stay focused on planning upcoming maintenance activities, and keeps supervisors and technicians focused on precision execution and history capture.

These maintenance improvement efforts reduced overtime costs and the need for outside contractors. They also increased the time available to maintain the assets, not just repair them when they break. This is particularly important because many companies are facing high turnover due to retirements in the Maintenance area. It’s important to capture the knowledge of the senior employees before they walk out the door. Effective ways to address the aging workforce issue include training, developing standard operating procedures (SOPs), and creating detailed maintenance tasks for new employees to use.

Ensuring the Availability of the Right Parts at the Right Place and the Right Time

Having maintenance technicians waiting on parts when equipment is down can dramatically reduce the availability of operating assets. Determining what critical spares are needed based on the criticality of the equipment, and determining what quantities should be on hand, prevents unwanted downtime waiting on parts and high-cost rush orders.

The effectiveness of best practices for parts and materials are well documented. Studies show that planned and kitted jobs are three to five times more efficient than unplanned jobs. Companies focused on optimizing the availability of their existing assets have applied these best practices: kitting the parts and materials needed for planned maintenance work; purchasing parts and materials for planned work in advance and delivering when work is scheduled to be done; and stocking parts with vendors. These approaches reduce the number of parts stored on-site and lower inventory costs.

Promoting the Right Behaviors

Changing how assets are operated and maintained to increase capacity and meet market demand requires a robust change management approach to be effective. The number one contributor to change management success is active and visible sponsorship. Leadership behaviors can make or break the efforts to discover the hidden factory.

Companies that have succeeded in transforming existing operations ensured that their managers understood and could apply reliability best practices and change management methodologies. They educated and trained the workforce, often using Prosci’s ADKAR® model. Coupled with good communication, this created the Awareness of what they were trying to accomplish, the Desire for something different, the Knowledge to know what to do, and the Ability to make it happen. These attributes were followed by management Reinforcement to achieve the desired behaviors.

Finding and Using Hidden Capacity First Shapes Expansion and Capital Spending

Companies are leaving no stone unturned in their efforts to increase capacity and meet the current and upcoming demand. In many cases they will need both internal improvements and capital expansion. Maximizing the capacity and reliability of existing assets first should shape the scope of requirements for capital investment. Applying maintenance and reliability best practices will have the added benefit of maximizing the OEE of new assets as well.   

As vice president at Life Cycle Engineering (LCE), Randy Heisler is responsible for the execution of LCE’s strategic consulting efforts at client sites, including Fortune 500 companies around the globe. You can reach Randy at rheisler@LCE.com.