How Automation Reduces Human Error in GMP

Travis Cox
Contributing Writer

People are human, and mistakes are an inherent part of any process involving them. In manufacturing environments, operators juggle many tasks at once, including running machines and interfacing with systems.

Unfortunately, human error also has the potential to affect safety and quality outcomes in industries like Food & Beverage or Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG). Human error accounts for nearly one-fourth of all unplanned downtime. It can cost manufacturers millions, impede quality, and wreak havoc with compliance. Factors such as attention, memory, alertness, illness, and fatigue all play into human error and can trigger GMP violations.

Many companies implement more training as a solution. The issue is that human error isn’t caused by a lack of skill or understanding of one’s role; in fact, human error doesn’t necessarily mean there is fault at all. Instead, a human error is an action or lack of action that exceeds a system’s tolerance.  There’s no harm intended in these mistakes, and blaming the operators can lead to reduced trust.

While leaders in Food & Beverage and CPG manufacturing are generally aware of human error, they’re less aware of its causes – namely, system weaknesses. To properly address human error, manufacturers must stake a systemic view.

How Can You Improve Systems to Reduce Human Error in GMP?

To answer this question, you must look at the following systems in your company:

  • Management Systems: This includes documentation control, investigation management, risk management, and project management. These factors, together, set the foundation for the rest of the operation.

  • Procedures: These must be accurate, human-engineered, available, and enforceable.

  • Human Factors Engineering: Work areas should be designed with human factors and capabilities in mind. Excessive monitoring, mental calculations, housekeeping, and work layout, among other factors, become the main reasons for errors in this category.

  • Training: In addition to addressing the “why” of how things are done, training should also include the “whats” and the “hows” behind processes. Also, on-the-job training and qualification (OJT) is important, especially for critical tasks and activities.

  • Immediate Supervision: Use pre-job briefs, walkthroughs, presence, and instructions to workers as supervision tools. Supervisors should be on the floors, not in the office.

  • Communication: There should be communication between groups, shifts, and via radio to discuss rules and training. Employees must know what needs to be achieved daily and the proper way to do it.

  • Individual Performance: Evaluate the conditions that could potentially create cognitive overload, leading to attention and memory failures. Some of these conditions include available time for the job, fitness for duty or fatigue management, complexity, and task design.

Reducing Human Error with Automation

Once you’ve identified internal factors that could be contributing to human error, the next step is to give your teams the tools and information they need to fulfill their role better and reduce the risk of mistakes. Among the most effective ways to do this is rolling out a plant management software solution. Here’s how these systems can help you reduce human error in your plant.  

1. Digitize & Reduce Manual Work

Disparate systems in most manufacturing plants don’t talk to each other effectively. As a result, companies rely on people to move data between systems. This introduces opportunities for error and misinformation.

On the plant floor, your employees should have access to combined systems that work together seamlessly. Your plant management system should be able to communicate with databases and other software programs so that people launching the app will have more data available to them. Connecting systems and removing data silos will reduce manual work for operators and decrease the risk of human error in the process.

You can also streamline processes and reduce manual work by:

  •       Eliminating whiteboards and clipboards

  •       Capturing data automatically

  •       Integrating with ERP, QMS, MES, or other business applications

  •       Creating heads-up displays

  •       Leveraging RFID, badges, and barcode scanning

2. Capture More Data

Data is important. It helps operators become more efficient and allows for in-depth analysis from a managerial standpoint when issues do arise. Often, a major barrier behind lack of data visibility is that there’s no way to capture data from the plant floor. The solution could be as simple as putting an IoT sensor in place to automate data capture. For example, you might add sensors to detect downtime reasons to get to root causes faster, eliminate operators for entering reasons manually, and shift the focus to getting production running again.

Capturing data will also call for the implementation of a real-time system that allows you to see and control your processes from anywhere. Workers should be able to access it remotely from the office or home environment, as well as on the plant floor.  

3. Apply High-Performance Techniques

One important goal of automation is to create the best possible tool for the operator. This means that they shouldn’t simply have access to data but to information with context and meaning. For example, measuring temperatures of products isn’t meaningful unless operators know the accepted range they should fall under. Ideally, your system should offer charts and graphs that help operators see trends and understand target ranges.

4. Get Data to More People

Getting operational data into the hands of leadership teams can be expensive and tedious. Your plant management system should ensure all necessary parties can access it, however. Having proprietary systems in place on separate networks causes data silos and prevents decision-makers from being able to access the information they need to drive improvement. Modern browsers, connectivity to any device, and enhanced security are essential features to look for as well.

Download the Executive Guide to Plant Management Software

Overall, investing in automation can help reduce human error in GMP, and improve your facility in many other ways. For instance, workers displaced by automated data capture can be reassigned to higher-value activities. And, centralized reporting will enable fact-based, on-the-spot decision-making and analysis to enable a more agile, responsive approach to manufacturing.

About the Author

Travis Cox is the Director of Sales Engineering for Inductive Automation, where he has worked in training, support, and solutions development for over 16 years. He has deep experience in HMI (Human Machine Interface), SCADA, IOT, Reporting, and MES projects. An expert on how people use systems in manufacturing, Travis presented How Automation Reduces Human Error in GMP on the Beyond Compliance webinar, available to watch on-demand.