Stay Competitive with Continuous Improvement Initiatives

Automation and control manufacturers are under constant competitive pressure. They must continuously improve and maintain their operations and processes while working to reduce costs and boost productivity. Continuous improvement initiatives can help manufacturers optimize processes and increase operational safety and efficiency, giving them an ongoing competitive advantage.

So, to implement continuous improvement initiatives into existing processes and future projects, what challenges must be overcome? What are the initial steps to be taken and what kinds of services should be leveraged?

Corporate buy-in

We have seen several manufacturers with continuous improvement programs spanning a broad spectrum, from just checking a box to real long-term commitment. Continuous improvement programs are not always perceived as a good return on investment (ROI) and are the first to go when budgets get tight. When this happens, these programs fall into the check-the-box category without the required commitment or support from upper-level management it takes to succeed.

Continuous improvement programs need management’s buy-in and must become part of the overall corporate culture. With everyone working toward the same goals, manufacturers will realize an increase in productivity and see process improvements. This team commitment will result in positive project outcomes and continued success.

The entire corporation must also understand and buy into the fact that a continuous improvement program is iterative; it is not a one time and done endeavor. Ongoing commitment to the program is especially important when there is a change in leadership. The team should work to highlight and document the effort that went into developing continuous improvement initiatives and emphasize any positive bottom-line results; otherwise, leadership may eliminate the programs and forward progress will stop. Documentation is key to staying in a continuous improvement mode.

Competitive advantage

Some primary drivers of continuous improvement programs are to reduce the overall cost of production, make the process more agile to accommodate changing markets, and ultimately boost the bottom line. Whether we are trying to increase capacity through better utilization of assets or decrease waste and downtime, we need data, preferably through automated collection.

Today’s concepts of smart manufacturing, big data and advanced analytics are all based on combining facility / production data across the enterprise with business and logistics data to produce a real-time holistic view of the operation that is both timely and actionable. To start, standardize everything, determine what data must be collected, how to collect it and document the progress. There must also be predefined checkpoints in the project during which team members share results, both good and bad, to the stakeholders.

While moving toward this model, many manufacturers have found their legacy process control systems are incapable of providing the required level of data integration. Therefore, they must undertake control system modernization projects that allow them to build in the data delivery systems needed to move to a data-driven production and execution model.

The success of these control system migrations, and the continuous improvement projects (analytics) they support, is solely dependent on forethought and planning in advance of the implementation. The old carpenters’ adage of measure twice, cut once is a very good analogy for this process.

Domain knowledge

For a true competitive edge, manufacturers should think as much about in-house personnel and processes as they do about technology and system upgrades. Having people with deep domain knowledge, who are both familiar with new technology and well-versed in the existing systems at their facility, is key. These skill sets are essential not only to sustaining existing infrastructure and processes but also to the facility’s future growth.

For many manufacturers, however, staff resources are limited. Key personnel already work at full capacity, responding to the daily higher-priority problems. They just don’t have the time to think about improving processes while also keeping equipment continually updated, secure and optimized. Add to that workload the challenge of managing a potential large-scale upgrade or migration project. Without proper upfront planning, project scope can also change midstream causing rework. This places additional pressure on already overloaded staff and could lead to missed schedules and overextended budgets.

Specialized expertise

When resources and lack of bandwidth are an issue, a platform-independent automation solutions provider can bring highly specialized operational consulting expertise to the team. They can help assess, analyze and make recommendations on small- to large-scale projects to minimize risk and downtime, reduce costs, and increase business performance by laying the groundwork for continuous improvement initiatives. They can also help make informed, unbiased decisions on which platforms to use based on their experiences using many types of products, systems and platforms (see sidebars “Tracking Inefficiencies for Manufacturing Excellence,” “Process Optimization” and “Out with the Old, In with the New”).

Below are some examples of project areas where manufacturers can benefit from continuous improvement consulting:

  • Facility visualization to support continuous improvement
    • Leverage control systems and end devices to expose both granular data and automated metrics collection to real-time analysis
    • Bring disparate sources of data together into one cohesive package, to provide access to data correlations not traditionally available
    • Allow large data sets to be transformed into timely, actionable information
    • Enable cause and effect and root cause analysis by “drilling down” from high- to low-level metrics
    • Increase efficiency and productivity by keeping the focus on what is important
  • Large-scale control system migration projects
    • Front-end loading (FEL) planning, investigation and discovery (e.g., DCSNext®)
    • Startup and commissioning process for operational efficiency during and after migration projects (e.g., SureStart®)
    • 24 / 7 / 365 application support, remote management services and production optimization solutions (e.g., PlantFloor24®)
  • Safety audit and risk assessment services
    • Risk assessment through site tours, interviews and document review
    • Safety control audits to identify areas for improvement
    • Benchmark findings to internal safety standards, industry best practices and regulatory requirements
    • Compliance with OSHA, MSHA, EPA, ANSI, ASTM and other standards
  • Cyber security risk assessment and audit services
    • SCADA / control system security, facility network architecture reviews and internet and corporate IT penetration testing
    • Architectural design changes: demilitarized zone (DMZ) and firewalls
    • Security patches to new and existing systems
    • System backup and recovery
  • Alarm rationalization
    • Alarm system evaluations to identify root causes
    • Alarm management principles and operational safety
    • Mobile-ready access for on-the-go monitoring and execution
    • Real-time reporting
    • Situational awareness
    • Historical records for ensuring compliance and tracking trends
  • HMI design and high-performance graphics (ASM) implementation
    • Piping and instrumentation diagram (P&ID) review to lay out a new graphics structure and plan
    • Eliminate unnecessary graphics and simplify others to improve operational safety and productivity
  • Wiring and marshalling
    • Communication technology improvements
    • Network traffic and controller loading evaluations
  • ISA-88 batch standard optimization
  • ISA-95 standard – define the interface between control functions and other enterprise functions based on the Purdue Reference Model

Final steps to success

To stay on the path toward continuous improvement and keep processes modern and efficient, follow these steps so that continuous improvement programs can succeed:

  • Set clearly defined objectives (no need to boil the ocean)
  • Determine what data is required and where it resides
  • Define how the data will be analyzed
  • Develop a realistic and comprehensive plan (and budget) to accomplish the objectives
  • Define “success” in clear and reasonable terms – this point is often overlooked, or worse, defined with an unrealistic target (i.e., we will get to world-class overall equipment efficiency [OEE] of 85% in 3 months)
  • Get all stakeholders involved in the project and help them understand how this will make their job better
  • Make sure those involved have the necessary foundational training
  • Utilize third-party operational consulting services for the necessary domain expertise

With the above elements in place, manufacturers can gain a competitive advantage if everyone works together toward a common continuous improvement goal. Corporate culture buy-in is key, along with the personnel skill sets needed to make improvements to systems and processes. For continuous growth, reap the benefits from a platform-independent automation solutions provider to enhance system upgrades or expansion projects with continuous improvement initiatives. The next step toward success is yours.


Case Studies

Tracking Inefficiencies for Manufacturing Excellence

A major poultry producer with multiple plants had no standard set of metrics to track efficiencies. MAVERICK consultants were called to help develop and implement an overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) program. The strategic objective of this program was to define a framework for implementing an OEE system that would provide standard methods for the acquisition, analysis and reporting of the production metrics, which comprise the factors required to calculate OEE across the company’s manufacturing enterprise.

For the first phase of the project, MAVERICK team members worked with plant operations, management, IT, maintenance and engineering to produce deliverables, including the program charter, scope statement and the program definition requirements document. The objective in this phase was to arrive at standard models for the OEE program components: calculation, factor definitions, downtime reasons and data analysis. The standard models had to be universally applicable to all facilities and production lines.

For the second specification phase, a representative from each of the company’s facilities worked with a MAVERICK consultant on key deliverables, including functional requirements specification, software vendor selection and the deployment plan for both the pilot implementation and the overall system roll-out. The functional specification included a technology gap analysis (both IT and operational) across the enterprise, the results of which would need to be addressed to meet the standardization and functional requirements. The team included the gap analysis remediation in the deployment plan. The functional specification also included a change management plan using the ADKAR model, to be carried out in parallel with the system roll-out, along with a program budget and a project schedule.

By combining the experience of professionals in operational consulting, enterprise integration, and industrial automation, MAVERICK consultants addressed the diverse aspects of this engagement to provide a repeatable process for achieving manufacturing excellence. This helps our customer produce the consistent, high-quality food products they take pride in providing to their customers.


Process Optimization

A company that assembles Hewlett-Packard servers, desktops and laptops called the MAVERICK Technologies team to develop a balanced scorecard dashboard system for their upper management. They wanted to capture real-time information in an easily digested format in each of the five categories that were important to their bottom line: safety, quality, cost, delivery and morale. The view into their operations served as the launching point for several continuous improvement initiatives (e.g., lean manufacturing processes, assembly line improvements and enhanced data collection).

A by-product of the initial project was that while performing the data analysis during the dashboard system implementation phase, the MAVERICK team discovered the company had been substantially over-reporting their first-pass yield over the prior 6 months due to a calculation error. This had been an accounting nightmare for them. When the team rolled out the new system to management, the company’s production team saw it and were particularly interested in the production stats for each product line and type. They quickly realized this new system could replace their manually updated white board, significantly improving their operations process. This helped them stay competitive and more easily meet their customers’ demands for electronics.


Out with the Old, In with the New

A municipal utility needed to replace the existing pneumatic and relay-controlled combustion, steam and burner management systems on two units. Each of these units used a natural gas-fired boiler to supply steam to a turbine generator. The capacity of each unit was between 50 MW and 100 MW, and the two units were commissioned decades ago.

Although the existing automation system was not a DCS, the challenges were similar. First, the reasons for the upgrade had to be determined, then the goals were identified, and finally a plan was made to perform the upgrade and meet those goals.

The city engaged MAVERICK for the upgrade project. The initial challenges were to develop conceptual designs with little to no data from the original configuration and with minimal information on any subsequent upgrades and / or changes to the facility. The first steps were to identify the customer’s goals and develop a baseline for the project.

One of the reasons for replacing the existing automation systems was to stabilize critical control variables (such as steam pressure, temperature and drum level) in order to produce power based on varying dynamic load changes. The utility also needed to ensure it could maintain load during peak operating periods.

Plant operators needed an efficient operational management system that would enable them to quickly address system upsets, and the facility needed to generate regulatory reports from historical trend data. To achieve these goals, it was important for the system design to have seamless control and feature centrally located operator consoles. As with most upgrades, it was also critical to minimize downtime during system cutover, and to provide the operations staff with an automation system they could maintain with existing internal resources.

The evaluation study showed the best way to satisfy operator demands was with a centralized HMI console that would include several PC-based operator interface terminals. This was a big step for the plant. The console replaced antiquated operator interface panel boards, so extensive training was required prior to commissioning and startup.

Study and planning also revealed that maintaining unit uptime was essential, as these units provide baseload power to the city. To address this issue, MAVERICK selected a redundant automation system. New coordinated combustion control and burner management systems were provided for each unit, and each of these systems was provided with triple-redundant controllers and dual-redundant power suppliers.

The new automation system is a GE Mark VI integrated control system with Cimplicity HMI—the best combination of hardware and software for their particular application. To meet the customer’s reporting and compliance goals, a data historian was purchased, installed and integrated with the new automation system.

The data historian allows plant personnel to quickly generate reports to ensure regulatory compliance and identify operational performance trends. Identification and analysis of these trends enables performance improvements and can also pinpoint problem issues before they escalate.

Jason Montroy

Jason Montroy

Jason is a customer relationship manager at MAVERICK Technologies, a leading system integrator providing industrial automation, operational support, and control systems engineering services in the manufacturing and process industries.

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Tim Gellner

Tim Gellner is a Senior Consultant in MAVERICK Technologies’ Operational Consulting group, with over 20 years of experience in discrete manufacturing, continuous process control, manufacturing intelligence, automation program assessment and migration planning.

Jason Montroy

Jason Montroy is a Senior Project Manager at MAVERICK Technologies, a leading automation solutions provider offering industrial automation, strategic manufacturing solutions, and enterprise integration services for the process industries.


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