Plant Floor Efficiency: There's an App for…That?

Key performance indicators and overall equipment effectiveness are coming to the plant floor, the front office and now your smart phone.

By Bob Sperber, Plant Operations Editor

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Which KPIs you choose to put on your home-screen or "dashboard" depends on your job, goals and priorities. To get users started, many automation and business software applications incorporate standard score-card data sets of KPIs. Companies can also refer to the "balanced scorecard" tool that became well-entrenched in the practice of performance management for more than a decade.

OEE, too, is a single number, typically presented as a percentage from 0 to 100, designed to provide an at-a-glance measure of how well a machine, a line, a plant or a multi-plant operation is running with regard to capacity, during its scheduled uptime hours. OEE is based on three calculations multiplied together to form a single number representing a percentage:

  • Availability = Available Time / Scheduled Time.
  • Performance = Actual Rate / Standard Rate
  • Quality = Good Units / Units Started
It's important to look deeper than just the top-line OEE number, because if a total OEE is 94, the plant may have sacrificed quality to bump-up performance – or, vice-versa, slowed production or performance to ensure 100 percent quality. But OEE is a good starting point. When performance is low, for example, it may prompt the supervising manager to suss-out the bottleneck.

So, for example, on a line with conveyors, feeding weighers, packaging machines and palletizers, an operations supervisor may have to look at many machines and components to find the cause of the bottleneck. Maybe the answer is better training for one of the operator positions on the line, or maybe a maintenance technician needs to be called in to adjust the sealing jaws on a horizontal wrapper.

"OEE is a good benchmark that tells you where in general terms you need to be looking; KPIs give you the little nuggets of gold, information that might be out of bounds, or operating parameters, and having a negative impact on your performance number," says Paul Nowicki, information design engineer for equipment supplier Heat and Control (, Hayward, Calif.

KPIs can play a role in such cases, down to the machine level. Nowicki explains how KPIs helped solve a problem with uneven seasoning on a production line. By measuring the run time for each depositor, data showed one was jogging on and off intermittently relative to the others, which were feeding a steadier stream.

"We were able to very quickly identify the problem and rebalance the system to make it work properly," he says. The problem turned out to be in the machine's programmable controller coding, the kind of nitty-gritty that can go unnoticed, perhaps surfacing in a spreadsheet a week later and being missed.

Yet the same controller fault codes were turned into information and ultimately, better quality, uptime, productivity and profit. Nowicki explains that his goal is "to give people notification of these faults in real time. So you know, for example, in the last four hours how many times the fault occurred 'this way' as opposed to 'that way.' And you can know why a machine jammed, and inspect the wear point and do maintenance. Uptime becomes much better.

"By converting that data into usable data, you can quickly evaluate that asset, and that's what ITM [Information That Matters] is all about." Information That Matters is Heat and Control's name for a software system that packages KPI displays, OEE indicators and fault notifications for use on the desktop, portable computer and now, smart phone.

Going mobile
Just as faults and alarms notify operators of problems on the floor, key parameters also can be tracked and set to alert supervisors in Heat and Control's ITM mobile app, which to date runs on Apple's iPhone, Research In Motion's Blackberry and Google Android-based smart phones.

The mobile app, called Information That Matters, draws data from plant automation hardware and software to deliver reports in the form of KPI displays, OEE indicators and fault notifications. KPIs let the user assess current conditions and speed adjustments. OEE lets them compare one unit, line or operation to another at the plant, at other plants or against established benchmarks. Fault notification is self-explanatory, alerting operations and maintenance users to address a problem.

This technology isn't at all bleeding edge in U.S. industry. It has been implemented by several customers of Transpara Corp. (, Pleasanton, Calif., which was founded by some of the same people who helped found WBF, formerly the World Batch Forum. The roots of this consortium lie in the formation of the international batch processing standard known by U.S. automation professionals as ANSI/ISA-88 or the S88 Batch Control standard.

Nowicki, it happens, chairs the International Society of Automation ( committee updating this international standard. (He is also president and co-founder of World Food Trace, a nonprofit company seeking to develop an "instantaneously traceable" global food supply chain.)

The secure web app developed by Transpara, and using data from Power in Learning, Crestline, Calif. (, shows processors how the software might look if expanded from, say, Heat and Control's Information That Matters mobile-empowered automation backbone to encompass inventory levels, utilities, maintenance and reliability data. Nowicki says part of the strategy behind Heat and Control's ITM is "to provide a system view, not just a machine view, so our application is set up to be open and ready to share data from other machines."

Happy returns

As a whole, food processors rely more heavily on their machine vendors for process and automation expertise than their counterparts in other industries, and are relatively new to KPIs and OEE. "But once they start down that path, the practice helps them know which operations are healthy and which are not," says  Rudy Westervelt, president of Power in Learning.

He has helped processors use these tools to confront problems that come "right off the bottom line," such as material loss and shrink control. Westervelt, who formerly ran a Kroger dairy plant, is familiar with losses in pipelines, receiving and holding tanks, pasteurizers and fillers. He explains that a typical, mid-sized plant producing 80,000-100,000 gallons a day can save $250,000 a year if it cuts currently acceptable losses of 2 percent down to 1.5 percent.

The good news in terms of capital spending is that food companies can institute KPIs, OEE and other continuous improvement or Kaizen methods using features built into "many of the leading automation software applications out there today, combined with the controllers and meters that may already be installed on process equipment."

Before dollar-savings can affect the bottom line, it's critical to realize "it's not about changing the tools we use, it's about changing mindsets," reminds Johnsonville's Ehrenberg. Once common goals and values are in place and plants are on the same page with corporate leaders, they can start to have real fun with the numbers. Because what can be measured can, in turn, be benchmarked, tracked and improved.

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