How to launch a new manufacturing line

Consulting engineers can be great allies in expanding or changing your process, but only you can impress on them the unique needs of your company and your plant.

By Lloyd Snyder, P.E.

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Phase 1: Line design

Manufacturing line design is the integration of various machines to ensure smooth product flow and transition from machine to machine with optimum line speed.

Modern manufacturing lines handle various kinds of packaging and process needs for a variety of products. As package designs and sizes keep changing, the flexibility of lines has become very important and a challenging factor in the process of line integration.

Consulting engineers can lead line design by developing machine specifications that meet various owner requirements. For instance, if an owner wants to establish a program of product container light weighting, the engineer can develop the critical quality parameters to maintain package integrity for the consumer.

Factors to consider in line design include:

  • Machinery interconnection methods and specification, including various types of conveyor systems.
  • Material handling of packaging materials to minimize line manning.
  • Packaging flexibility -- which means it can take a wider range of product sizes or material than is needed at the present time.
  • Balance machinery integration with function type, such as connecting intermittent processes (batch skids) and continuous motion machinery (fillers).
  • Buffer and storage requirements between machinery.
  • Communication architecture and machine interlocks required for all the machines to act in concert and create a continuous manufacturing line.
  • Evaluate building infrastructure and utilities to assure machine requirements are met.

In recent years, increasing demands, economics and environmental concerns have placed enormous pressure on production facilities to increase operating speeds, reduce waste, reduce rework and cut manpower requirements. Engineers can quantify line performance, optimize line layout and identify the optimal amount of accumulation that should be provided for maximum efficiency and machine throughput.

Phase 2: Equipment procurement

Equipment procurement is critical to the overall schedule of a project and often drives the final efficiency results of the new line. Today, equipment procurement often emphasizes fast track deliveries and low pricing to the exclusion of specification requirements and pre-testing.

Senior executives under pressure to cut costs are increasingly prone to view complex machinery and manufacturing lines as "commodity purchases" available from the lowest bidder. Consultants can help manufacturers work with suppliers to drive machine costs down while also delivering superior production requirements. Suppliers delivering the required equipment on-time and on-budget is very critical to a project's success.

Engineers work with suppliers on every facet of the procurement process, from equipment specification to equipment testing. For instance, packaging and mechanical engineers develop filler specifications that define machine speed, container quality parameters, preferred machine components, safety and energy requirements and raw material buffers.

The most important specification element is the machine's efficiency requirements.

This defines the machine's performance, reliability, speed and efficiency calculation method. The efficiency specification will define the acceptable time for machine failure repairs and the allowable machine failure frequency.

Once an owner has selected a supplier and issued the equipment specification, the supplier's engineers and the consulting engineers will conduct design reviews at various stages of equipment development process. Equipment submittals from the machine suppliers are reviewed for their conformance to machine specifications.

Finally, the food process and its engineers will arrange factory acceptance tests (FATs) with each major equipment vendor prior to equipment shipping. This test is defined in a FAT specification document defining test expectations and the required protocols.

The purpose of the tests is to simulate actual production conditions as closely as possible and test the machine's mechanical, electrical and control systems. These tests will test the machine under static conditions, dynamic operation and induced failure.

Any repairs or modifications that are needed for efficient operation are executed much better at the supplier's site rather than the owner's site. Without such testing, there are no reliable assurances from the equipment supplier that the machine will be ready for installation and commissioning

Phase 3: Line construction

Manufacturing line construction also is a critical phase in a successful line startup. Great design and great equipment cannot overcome poor installation.

Often expertise and training in construction techniques are underappreciated. During this phase, price too often drives the decisions. The three key processes that determine construction success are contractor selection, construction manager selection and field engineering support.

Contractor selection is the process by which installation contractors are chosen by the owner. These installation "specialists" include trades such as millwrights, riggers, electricians and pipe fitters. For instance, rigging, leveling and assembling equipment should not be performed by any common industrial contractor. High-tech, high-speed packaging equipment requires careful balancing, torque settings and alignment that come only from experience.

In today's regulatory environment, pipe fitters must understand the sanitary requirements placed on owners and install systems that can be sanitized in a fast, efficient and safe manner. An owner cannot afford the cost or time to train contractors on industry standards. Experienced engineering firms can provide guidance in contractor selection.

Construction manager selection is another overlooked art. The challenge is to find experienced road warriors who manage modern construction projects under strict performance requirements, tight costs and accelerated schedules.

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