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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You're on a typical meat-packaging line, supervising production and maintenance as your lines hum, whir and clank along. There are just too many processes, machines and moving parts – including people – to track as well as you'd like.

Where should you spend your time? One little sprocket, one short in a wire or one misdirected pallet, one bottleneck-inducing slowdown can start a chain reaction and bring your line, and productivity targets, to its knees.

What if the supervisor could get an automated message, direct to his smart-phone, preventing such productivity and profit-killers? How about a screen that shows you all the charts and graphs you need to know – in real time – whether your "rival" supervisor at another plant is gaining on you in an effort to win the next quarterly production-target sweepstakes?

Turns out, there's an app for that.

Really. Although to most food processors, it sounds like a pipe-dream, the stuff of trade show prototypes.

Johnsonville Sausage, Sheboygan Falls, Wis., like most companies has not gone to such tech-geek lengths but always keeps an eye on plant data and better ways to collect it. The company has made many automation upgrades in its plants over the years, but always through careful deliberation.

For the sausage-maker's plants, adopting new technology "is not a mandate or an order. We have a management structure that allows plant management teams to, in theory, 'opt out' of innovations that may be in place at other facilities. In reality, it requires our team to put our salesman hats on to sell the benefits to our plant maintenance teams," says Tom Ehrenberg, engineering systems analyst.

This is in keeping with a restructuring by CEO Ralph Stayer, who in the 1980s put the company at the vanguard of employee empowerment and coaching-style change management – and led to international expansion. Stayer has been something of a business hero for his co-authoring role in the 1993 bestseller "Flight of the Buffalo: Soaring to Excellence, Learning to Let Employees Lead."

Despite the awesome power of "not yet" that his plant-customers wield, Ehrenberg says the management system and resulting corporate culture have turned labor-intensive production lines into automated marvels that rank among innovations "no one else in the industry is doing."

Now his team is on a mission to upgrade the company's maintenance systems – beginning with mindsets across the organization. This year, Johnsonville plans to migrate the computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) at six plants to the maintenance module of the SAP business system in use at the corporate level. Past improvements include replacing maintenance requisition paperwork with online work orders. Ehrenberg says the new system will allow a deeper dive into benchmarking and continuous improvement tools "because data is power."

His current priorities include moving toward better predictive tools and more robust reliability data, as well as optimizing work orders to improve uptime and work-order completion rates. Further into the future, more systems may be tied together to enable fuller implementation of performance tools such as key performance indicators (KPIs) and scorecard-type displays of overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) to compare the performance of varying machines. "KPI and OEE are in our vocabulary, but we aren't pursuing them in a comprehensive way yet," he says. "We need to walk before we can run."

KPIs and OEE, simplified
Is it realistic to think it's possible to cost-effectively achieve visibility of data between machines on the plant floor and the main office? The short answer is that OEE and KPI put such visibility within grasp of any food or beverage organization. While OEE has roots as a means of benchmarking and comparing the performance of machines with different uses and characteristics, for example, it and related tools are now regularly used for balancing raw materials with production schedules; checking fleet-wide asset performance; finding new opportunities for greater return on assets and measuring the effectiveness of ongoing cost-control measures.

Information from machine controls up through business systems has become easier to integrate using standard software interfaces and networking standards. And many leading software applications now offer, as a starting point, KPI and OEE forms based on near-universal management frameworks.

In plain English, a KPI is just a number, and can represent any target or goal important to the user. One set of indicators might help a financial manager keep tabs on the value of inventory, finished goods or profit generation. Plant supervisors might want KPIs to tally the number of defects per hour or how fast a line is running, and likewise, the same numbers can be combined into running tallies of defects, production or other data points at the plant level, or data comparing plants to another. 

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