A Different Approach to Plant Operating Efficiency

Roger Woehl
Contributing Writer

The Dilemma

The process of turning raw materials into finished products is a massive team effort that requires the unification of all the people, processes, and equipment to achieve a common goal. Unfortunately, the systems traditionally used to facilitate efficiency often work in opposition to this goal, especially enterprise-class software.

Effective teams need a shared understanding of their goal and the progress across functions, including production, quality, and compliance. Only with a shared understanding can they take the right actions and make the needed course corrections. This level of coordination cannot happen with siloed information and data that is hours, days, or weeks old.

Maximizing labor efficiency means optimizing for teamwork.  

These concepts are not new, however, only recently has software technology evolved to effectively solve the problems with a new architectural approach. Like moving from steam power to electricity or landlines to mobile phones, new technology makes new solutions possible.

SafetyChain’s Plant Management Platform is built with an innovative open data architecture to solve a fundamental problem that has hindered Plant Managers from operating their facilities at peak efficiency.

Flexibility vs. Specialization

Plant managers face a difficult dilemma when selecting plant-wide systems that balance flexibility vs specialization. A flexible system can support many groups and processes but can lack the functional depth to maximize efficiency (i.e. paper, spreadsheets, binders, and boxes upon boxes of worthless paper). Specialized systems are efficient for selective functions and groups but create information silos and a disjointed team experience.

When moving beyond paper, solving the problem has two traditional approaches: Big ERP and Best-of-Bread point solutions.

The Big ERP approach starts with an accounting software core and expands the number of modules to support an ever-increasing number of specialized functions, from inventory to quality, to manufacturing, to scheduling, and onto HR. The goal is to provide a module for every need a company may have. Unfortunately, the further the modules get from their essential value as resource accounting, the more complex and unwieldy they become to deploy and manage, particularly down to the plant floor.

In the best-of-breed approach, plants attempt to find separate point solutions for each department and then create unification through integration. While each department may be happy, This does not foster shared information and unification across departments. In time, entrenched camps develop around “their system” and few users are effective in multiple systems. Sound familiar? We see this challenge all the time. Integrations try to bridge the gaps but create IT challenges and do little to unify the user experience and culture.

The gaps in both the above approaches limit their effectiveness in creating scalable systems shared across teams that make everyone function together as a whole.  

Plant Management Platform

The Plant Management Platform (PMP), first developed by SafetyChain, takes a new approach to solving the flexibility vs specialization dilemma. It uses an open data architecture to combine the flexibility of paper with the power of digitization for an approach that works across production, quality, and compliance departments to deliver shared information and status to unite all parties around a common mission.

The PMP open architecture differs from traditional systems such as ERP, MES, and QMS which have a predefined and closed data schema for each managed business object. Only the objects that already exist can be managed and only in the ways the system defines. The result is a system that is rigid and specialized. They are effective for the narrow domains they are designed to support, but they struggle to function outside the design box.  

The Plant Management Platform approach uses a generalized structure for collecting information into a common “digital record.” A digital record can be designed to collect data for any process. This generalized record is then supported by a set of features specialized for manufacturing that aid in collecting, verifying, reviewing, and sharing the record and data with all who need it.

The digital record structure allows information to flow through a common stream of activity with information from all participating groups, including compliance, quality, production, and others such as EHS and Maintenance. Information can be viewed as a whole, or more commonly, through filters that segment activity by Product, Line, Location, Shift, Operator, Department, Lot, Batch, Form, Program, or any other identifier relevant to the business. The filters are combined with powerful reporting, charting and analytics tools that monitor data, identify trends, and alert when action is needed.

Digital record information comes from operators using a mobile application, or from data automation including sensors, PLCs, or IOT sources. All information is aggregated and analyzed in the common stream regardless of the source. Production scheduling and workflow tools coordinate the flow of activity across teams.

Drag-and-drop tools allow departments to quickly build and deploy the forms they need to operate. It takes little time to construct and deploy a new form to collect new information.   Forms can contain conditional logic to optimize the input based on the data or the inspection.  Inputs are checked against specifications to automatically alert when data or records are out of compliance. Why is this important? Departments need the flexibility to build forms for whatever processes they need, including many that were never imagined by the original architects of PMP technology.

As each department deploys its needed forms, the resulting records are combined into dashboards that are a shared view of relevant production activity. Dashboards show critical activity including throughputs, downtime, rejects, HACCP checks, holds, verifications, SPC charts, completed tasks, upcoming tasks, and much more. The dashboards are the cross-departmental views that align targets, goals, and teams. Everyone has a shared view of the progress, with issues and exceptions flagged for notification and corrective action.

The PMP drives continuous improvement by setting and tracking goals. And provides tools to pinpoint the areas of production that are bottlenecks and reasons why systems are down or slow. An integrated incident management system supports formalized CAPA processes or less-structured methods to track improvements and follow-ups.

The open architecture of the plant management platform strikes a balance between a generalized approach for collecting data and specialized functions for leveraging data for production outcomes. It is focused on the critical space where teams need the information to execute as a coordinated team.

Plant Management Software provides a common system of engagement for uniting teams where it matters most.

Where Plant Management Fits

The PMP supports companies from small to large in unique ways. Small to mid-sized companies use the platform as an effective first step to going digital and using real-time data to unify teams and drive better outcomes. Larger organizations leverage the benefits of shared information, unified teams, and standardized deployments across multiple plants, often replacing aging homegrown systems. Both benefit from effective integrations to back-end ERP and MES systems.

For both large and small organizations, the benefits are clearly reflected in the ROI saving from gains in labor efficiency, minimized downtime, improved yields, and reduced waste.

Here is a quick checklist for signs that your manufacturing organization might need a Plant Management Platform approach:

  • Are paper processes still filling system gaps?

  • Do all departments have a shared dashboard of progress?

  • Do managers have to be on the plant floor to know what is happening?

  • Is there one source for the status of quality, compliance, and production?

  • Is your IT team supporting multiple-point solutions?

  • Is there visibility on activity between plants?

If you have checked one or more boxes then you will likely benefit from a PMP approach and are curious about how to proceed.

The First Step

New solutions require new ways of thinking, and the same is true for adopting a Plant Management Platform approach for improving outcomes.  

The PMP perspective is simple: The fastest and most effective way to improve plant outcomes is to unite teams around a common goal and shared source of information on progress.

This big-picture view is most evident to the plant manager who is responsible for the total plant outcome. It optimizes for whole team efficiency over the narrow departmental needs and some trade-offs are inevitable. Alignment on a common end objective helps individual departments see the big picture and arrive at a consensus.

SafetyChain is committed to helping companies achieve better outcomes through effective and unified teams. We have designed our unique software to achieve this goal. Our expert coaches and support staff have helped managers in countless plants implement the PMP tools to improve the effectiveness of their production through shared information, unified processes, and teamwork. The first step is to see how this works and learn how it can impact your operations.