Batch Plant Performance Improvement in Chemical and Life Science Manufacturing

In the process industry, three things can impact your productivity; machine downtime, variations in batch cycle times and losing a batch because it is out of specification. In either case and simply put, when your equipment is down or it’s not reliably producing product, you risk missing production targets – in every case – are losing money.  It’s very easy to delay revenue realization and fall behind the competition with inefficient production.

The root causes might be due to environmental factors, a faulty gauge, non-conforming raw materials, human factors, or a myriad of other causes.  If you happen to be on-watch when this occurs, you, and everyone around you, is going to have a bad day.  And there is real peril to the health of your company if the problems are chronic enough or if a dramatic event were to occur.

I worked with one company that batch-manufactured sterile materials for the healthcare industry.  They had a chronic problem during manufacturing which was traced back to one part of the process that involved a few steps and required that all the equipment was sterile.  To achieve this, the operator had to manually configure the equipment.  But if the configuration was not performed in the proper sequence (like a pre-flight checklist), the environment, and the batch being produced, could be compromised.

Operator error was not the only potential root-cause.  A defect in the equipment or instrument that monitored the equipment, could also compromise the production of the batch.  Since the production line lacked an alarm system warning of the perilous situation, the operator would not realize they were producing a bad batch until the final product was tested.

The solution involved better adherence to production protocols and the accurate and timely reporting of production parameters – as well as the introduction of a system that more closely monitored for compliance.

The lessons learned were that there is real opportunity to increase Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) by getting people to work together on the shop floor and collaborate to eliminate expensive batch outliers.  The root-cause of reasons for failure or unreliable output need to be identified, communicated, investigated, understood, and resolved.  And the people at the front, the plant operator teams, are best suited and positioned to identify and realize opportunities for improvement through their continuous improvement efforts.

Facing the challenge

In today’s process industry, production errors should not be for lack of data.  We should be able to collect reliable data from sensors that feed our Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems.  We don’t even have to be at the plant to monitor the health of the equipment and the progress of the processes being performed.  We monitor the readings and data from the various control systems at the point of presence.

And beyond the technology, there are the people.  Shift operators often work for many years in the same control room and know their plant by heart.  The plant – its equipment, supervisors, and operators – are working 24/7, keeping track of the process and are readily available to prevent or fix any issue in the process.

So why do these problems and failures still occur as often as they do?

  • Lack of training and knowledge about the processes and about performance expectations
  • Complex, non-standard, or outdated procedure documentation
  • Hard-copy (paper) and non-standardized process reporting
  • Lack of accessibility to performance data and missing visualization of performance KPIs
  • Disconnect between production and IT to fill the gaps that exist in production management and monitoring systems
  • Lack of digital records of the operator’s experience during production including a detail of reasons for production losses
  • Lack of managed communication processes and protocols. For example, the night shift supervisor cannot readily speak to process engineer in a timely manner because of schedules.

Certainly, better preparation and training of the operators to perform their respective tasks and ensuring production procedures are updated, simplified, and standardized are necessary starting points – and you will not be successful otherwise.

But companies would also benefit from maintaining more comprehensive performance logs and the tracking and reporting of the plant and equipment; their condition, operating effectiveness, production exceptions, reasons for failures, and alerts to risks.

However and even in this day of “digitization”, these logs and the critical information they contain are often prepared in a non-standard and haphazard way – sometimes not even in electronic form – with the information itself not being readily available to the people who might need it to make the real-time decisions they need to make.

What is needed is a data historian which is set up to satisfy the requirements of ISA 88 which will ensure that all information from the process control level is available, accurate and curated in a standardized manner. On top of that, shift operators need have to a managed process to identify the reasons for outlier events, circumstances, and results and document reason codes for the loss.  To the extent that they are able, they should be making decisions on the shop floor and effecting counter-measures to rectify special cause variations as they occur.  And they are a structured log to discuss the problems encountered in the morning meeting.

It would also be advantageous for the information to be aggregated from all the activity occurring from all plants and equipment and made available across the enterprise so that others who might be further afield can learn from the experiences.

What’s required?  Where to start?

As with the introduction of any “new way”, those who are going to be the most effected (in this case, the operators) need to be introduced and involved in the deliberations early-on in the process.  They must be shown and convinced that the introduction of any change in processes is not just for the benefit of the company but will have an indelible and positive impact on their daily lives.  Otherwise, you will not be successful.

What is the lost value of one-hour of downtime or non-compliant batch of production?  Depending upon the industry and what is being produced, the costs can easily exceed $20,000 per hour.

Likewise with management; they need to be shown and convinced that the introduction of the new way will have an unmistakable benefit to cash-flow and earnings.  Best would be that the proposed solution also supports other corporate-wide initiatives and programs such as; Digitization, Operational Excellence, and Manufacturing 4.0.  Otherwise, you will not be successful.

But in addition to starting with the people, you will need a solution. Eschbach with their Shiftconnector system is that solution.

With Shiftconnector, you will establish a managed process for communication, documentation and performance improvement. The solution specializes in batch and continuous operations and is successfully used in process plants worldwide.

Our team at eschbach will partner with your team to understand the challenges that you face and to share with you the opportunities that exist to improve OEE and the additional and accelerated cash flow that would result from the improved awareness of the health of your equipment, its management, and operations.

Then we will work with you and your team to gain an understanding of success criterion and expected outcomes from implementing your solution.  And we will work together to gain an alignment as to the approach and to what is involved in order to achieve these expectations.  And lastly, before we proceed, we will gain the commitment from both the operators and management necessary so that success is a foregone conclusion.

With alignment and commitment being settled, we will start with a pilot project prove-out the approach, technologies, use, and results so that the benefits can be demonstrated whilst minimizing disruption to the operation of your organization.  Of particular importance will be the standardization of “reason codes” and their specific meanings so that the information being collected, disseminated, and acted upon has meaning and context across the enterprise.

Lastly, once the protocols and results have been proved, we will work with you to roll-out the solution to the remainder of your operations – ensuring the highest level of participation from all stakeholders and the resultant success of the implementation.

What real and tangible benefits should I expect?

First and foremost, the most real and tangible benefit you should expect from using Shiftconnector for performance improvement is an increase in both uptime and the reliability of the product being produced.  To calculate these benefits all you need to do is calculate the value of one-hour more of uptime or the value of one batch that isn’t wasted – then multiply this by the hours of additional uptime and decrease in wasted batches.

To achieve these results, the system will;

  • Give you information of the “real” problem or pending problem in real-time. For example; a sensor can tell you that a pump is running slow.  But the actual problem is not the pump, but the new raw material you are using, which has a different viscosity than expected.  If you relied solely on the sensor data, you would be chasing the wrong problem.
  • Empower the Operators and Shift Leaders to make their own decisions based on the actual circumstances they are facing. Imaging the night shift having data and information available to be alerted to a challenge and being able to engage that challenge without the need for escalation procedures or long meetings that happen too late.
  • Involving the people who are actually running the process to add context instead of having to rely only upon Business Intelligence graphs and alerts.
  • Helping process engineers at the plant by eliminating the need to spend time each month creating loss documentation which, when complete, will still have gaps in the information and whose resultant recommendations might be sub-optimal or even entirely inaccurate.
  • The ability to create more accurate yearly targets that are developed with less time and effort and allowing process engineers, shift leaders, and operators to save additional time when doing research on past production losses.
  • Improve the efficiency of morning meetings with improved and well documented reporting that highlights action-items of high priority and with the sharing of experiences in a more complete and timely manner.
  • Ability to support and make better improvement decisions or more agile decisions to change the plant’s run parameters – which can be made quicker since the correct and relevant data is available to the operator teams.
  • Improve asset utilization which becomes transparent at corporate level and can better support corporate investment decisions based on how well their assets are performing and being utilized.

The “Bottom-Line”

With Shiftconnector, you can increase overall equipment efficiency and safety.  The additional capacity to produce good product will accelerate the revenue realized by your company and reduce the cost of outliers and sub-optimal production.  Contact Eschbach today to discuss the opportunities that exists within your plant that we can help you achieve.

by Veit Hora

Veit Hora is Chief Operations Officer at the software company eschbach. He has been dedicating his work to improving shop floor collaboration and he is an advocate for consumer-grade user experience in industrial applications. Based on many years of experience with applying innovation methods, he is closely interacting with users from the chemical manufacturing sector to drive eschbach’s product roadmap and to develop software for safe and productive manufacturing operations. He is also subject matter expert for performance reporting and OEE at eschbach. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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