Process Optimization in Manufacturing: Techniques for Plant Operations Managers

July 31, 2018

Whether you’re manufacturing ball bearings, large batches of industrial-strength liquid adhesive, or complex, hazardous petrochemical products, the goal is the same: to do it as well as it can be done. An ideal manufacturing operation reliably produces the best quality product possible, without wasting materials. Easier said.

Achieving an ideal manufacturing operation means observing and considering your current process, developing and implementing improvement strategies, then returning to observation to start the improvement cycle anew. Process improvement, never finished, can nevertheless be measured by units of time. What can you do to improve production today? Perhaps plan a few weekly actions you can take to cut waste? Or is there a change you can implement this quarter to reduce lost product? By how many percentage points will you increase your yield year-over-year? To begin optimizing your manufacturing plant’s processes, start by identifying your goals and setting milestones.

Goals of Process Optimization in Manufacturing

To improve your process, set goals and establish timeframes. This is the easy part. There are only two goals:

  • Minimize cost
  • Maximize production

The income from the sales of your total product yield, less your plant’s operating costs, will determine your plant’s profitability. By increasing your sales, or reducing your costs, you can increase your profits.

Laying out a temporal framework for improvement is conceptually simple as well: You use the same units of time you’re already using. Sketch out a chart with time on the x axis. Add your two broad goals as rows on the y axis. It should look like this:

Now fill it in. What can you do to maximize production this week? How can you minimize costs this month? It may help you to start with more distant goals, then fill in the smaller intervals of time. For example, if you want to maximize production by moving from batch to continuous production in 5 years, what steps should you take each year to accomplish this?

Broad goals over long timeframes become short, actionable duties in smaller chunks. For instance, a five-year goal is accomplished in smaller actions divided between twenty quarters. The broad actions of your 20 quarters are further divided into specific actions over 60 total months. By defining goals and timeframes, you’ll have an actionable plan to improve the profitability of your facility.

The pursuit of either of these goals is a world unto itself, separate and vast, known only to those out exploring it—namely, you. As a Plant Operations Manager, you know your facility better than anyone. Which means the task of identifying ways to improve your plant’s operations falls to you, no one else. Remember, perfection isn’t static, and ways to improve your plant’s operations do exist. You just have to find them. Here’s where to look:

Methods of Process Optimization in Manufacturing

Methodical thinking produces tangible results and helps measurably improve performance. Regardless of your plant’s product, following a methodical process will help you understand and execute optimization strategies.

While each plant and industry has its own peculiarities, the following framework, adapted to your details, will house constructive thinking about your plant’s processes. This thought process has five phases:

  • Discovery
  • Consideration
  • Strategy development
  • Implementation
  • Observation

Discovering Means to Minimize Cost and Maximize Production

First, you must understand your plant and its processes. To be able to capably improve your processes, you must understand how they work. You should know:

  • Source materials. What they are, how much they cost, and where they come from 
  • Production phases. What chemical, mechanical, or other actions transform your source materials into your final product? How many steps does it take? How much material is wasted at each phase? What does each phase cost?
  • Material Assets. What equipment does each production phase require? What maintenance does it require? How are you aware of its current condition? How does downtime affect your production process? What would replacement cost?
  • Current and Traditional Best Practices. When others have run facilities like yours, which strategies were successful? Which were not? What is the current industry consensus on best practices?

Once you’re fully aware of your materials, your processes, your equipment, and your industry’s best practices, you’ll be able to move to the next phase, consideration. Full awareness, of course, is like perfection—impossible to obtain. The full extent of your understanding of your facility should therefore include the areas, conditions, and issues which you cannot directly observe or measure. These are your known unknowns.

Critical and Constructive Consideration of Manufacturing Processes

Critical consideration of manufacturing processes is the direct search for ways to improve your plant’s operation. Each phase and question discussed in the discovery phase informs your consideration. For instance, knowing where your source materials come from asks you to consider where else they might come from. Can a faster, less expensive source be obtained?

Likewise, the known unknowns you identified during discovery may provide rich opportunities for process improvement. Consider a large petrochemical refinery which records current equipment conditions on paper checklists. These checklists are entered into a siloed computer system weekly, but rarely consulted.

When they can’t see if their equipment needs unscheduled preventive maintenance, Plant Operations Managers can recognize that blind spot as a way to minimize costs. If they could know what they don’t know—the current condition of their large assets—they could assign appropriate maintenance resources. This timely maintenance would then reduce costs by preventing unscheduled downtime, expensive repairs, and potential safety issues.

The consideration stage is about idea generation. Even if you have one or two really good ideas, keep looking for more. You’ll be able to winnow them down again in the next phase, strategy development. In order to pick the best possible strategy, you’ll need to look at all your options.

Developing Manufacturing Process Optimization Strategies

The strategy development phase is essentially a comparative cost-benefit analysis of the improvement areas you identified during discovery and consideration. To compare your different options, quantify the costs and benefits of each. Costs can include time and labor as well as capital, and should include any incidental costs, such as scheduled downtime.

To decide which strategies to implement in the next phase, weigh your options against your resources. What strategy, or combination of strategies, will be most beneficial? How many strategies are you able to pursue?

You will likely have options that produce benefits of different orders. Some will have small costs, and minor benefits, while others will have large costs, and major benefits. A healthy improvement strategy accounts for both major and minor improvements.

Implementing Strategies for Process Optimization

Once you’ve decided which strategies will yield the maximum benefits, it’s time to put them into effect. During your cost benefit analysis, you should have determined appropropriate timeframes for each project. These can be used to create work schedules to execute on your strategies.

The prioritization of projects should balance between which resources are available, and which projects will provide the greatest benefit. The effective deployment of resources will likely demand close coordination between departments.

To oversee your improvement projects, a management plan based on tangible, achievable results should be enacted. Milestones should be based on the timeframes determined earlier. Some flexibility in timeframes may be required to help balance shifting resource loads between multiple projects.

The framework created by your management plan, focused on measurable results, provides a schematic for the next phase, observation.

Observing Optimization Results and Discovering New Strategies

Observing the actual results of your optimization plan is the last, and first step of the improvement process. By comparing the actual results of your plan with the expected results, you may be able to identify new areas of improvement. Even if your plan works exactly as hoped, the new efficiency your change creates may free up new areas for optimization.

An essential part of discovering new optimization strategies is understanding current industry best practices. Best practices are constantly advancing as new materials, methods, and markets appear and disappear. As you observe the results of your old development strategies, consider whether new developments have created improvement possibilities which didn’t exist the last time you started the improvement process.

For an example, let’s return to paper checklists. The Plant Operations Manager, having just finished a round of equipment upgrades to increase production, reads about a mobile asset checklist application for smartphones and tablets. This is news to them, and a chance to eliminate a known unknown.

They perform a cost benefit analysis on the software, and determine the added visibility it gives them into current equipment conditions will measurably reduce unplanned downtime. The monetized benefit outweighs the cost, in time, labor, and capital. Compared to other possible improvement options available at the time, it generates a greater return.

After consulting with all involved parties, the Plant Operations Manager invests, implements the new software, then observes the results. The equipment data the new software collects and stores can then now be analyzed with other production data collected automatically from the plant control system and archived in the plant Historian This analysis uncovers a temperature-to-yield correlation, which can be leveraged to increase output. The process repeats.

No two facilities, even owned by the same company, producing the same product, are exactly alike. The best ways to improve the process of your plant depends entirely on your plant. By methodically gathering information, developing and implementing a strategy, and observing the results, you’ll be able to determine, numerically, the next steps to take. By following new industry best practices and technological innovations, you will be kept aware of any new potential means to optimize the manufacturing processes of your plant.

At GoPlant, we work to help Plant Operations Managers reduce their costs and maximize their production. Our mobile, asset-centric checklist software allows Plant Operations Managers to keep a close eye on the current conditions of their equipment. This visibility helps you intercede before minor maintenance issues turn into expensive downtime. To see GoPlant in action, request a demo. To ask a question, contact us today.