Effectively turn operational challenges into functional improvements
As appears in Food Dive Magazine, September 27, 2016.
It happens all the time. During the process of real organic growth, too often you don’t stop to plan for the future. And rightfully so.
The focus at the moment must be on bringing product to market as quickly and with as much quality assurance as possible. Unfortunately, though, you’re left with inherent quality compromises, product safety risks, and inefficiencies now built naturally into your operations.
Your process is not as clean as you know it should be—you have created product exposure risks in material flow paths, have open processes in inappropriate spaces or you have inadvertently built in personnel travel paths that cost time and/or affect the throughput of your product. Clearly, it would have been best to plan strategically for growth, but oftentimes you can’t imagine the changes your business will be required to make to respond to the market demands.
When you find yourself in this position, don’t despair. There’s still an opportunity to impact two significant pillars of your business while you work on a long-term plan: your product (quality, consistency and safety) and your process (efficiency and throughput).
Core Business Need #1: Improve product quality, consistency and safety in your existing space.
The typical default answer to improved product quality or consistency is process equipment adjustments or replacements. Sometimes this is obvious, but other elements that should be considered are not. For example, enhancing the quality of product is often driven by the impact of the surrounding manufacturing environment or even the flow of raw materials and utility dependability. Some questions to ask: How does the temperature, humidity and airflow in the processing environment affect the quality and consistency of the product itself? Is the consistency of the raw material and ingredient delivery streams dependable? Can a higher level of cleanliness be achieved, and if so, would it impact the product?
Ensuring safety of product will become a more regulated task as the Food Safety Modernization Act takes hold. Many processors will be challenged by an existing environment that is not conducive to the new requirements. Most of these challenges will be around hygienic concerns, including making revisions to the process equipment and process space to ensure cleanability; developing a comprehensive food safety plan which could include the addition of instrumentation to validate and verify preventive controls; updating the allergen controls; and updating record keeping. Processors may also need to improve the access control to production areas, which could require modifications to the existing facility and likely operational procedures.
Maintaining consistency of product is another area that falls short when growth is unplanned. Operators are often too close to the process to know what’s going wrong. That’s when a third party review is imperative. A process authority— processing and sometimes packaging engineers with real industry knowledge and experience— will walk the facility, analyze the operations and ultimately reveal any gaps in the process or packaging systems that could be affecting the consistent output of quality product. Working with the operators, while understanding the process goals, allows a third-party consultant to identify holes in the operation and help develop a plan for resolution.
Core Business Need #2: Increase the throughput of the entire process.
Increasing throughput is often at the top of any processor’s priority list. Adding another line or changing out equipment supports growth, but what if space is limited? What about capturing the opportunities for real cost savings that exist by being more efficient with your existing process? While the overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) is important, this idea goes beyond OEE to consider the overall layout of the facility and process line, including logistics, materials and equipment for seizing cost effective opportunities to realize improvements.
Consider the logistics of how materials have over time slowed through the facility—from raw materials to finished goods and then packaging, incoming and outgoing flow. Do they ever cross each other? There are often wasted steps that have become part of the workflow.
Think about the materials used. For example, how often does the label machine fail because the adhesive is not conducive to the environmental conditions (too hot, cold, or wet)? Maybe material thicknesses need to be reevaluated because there are more cost effective options that provide the same strength.
Minor equipment changes can sometimes be the low-hanging fruit. Has the process equipment moved beyond its useful life? Does it need tweaking or a thorough cleaning that may necessitate shutting the equipment down for an hour or two? Throughput can often be improved with minor modifications to components or replacing sections that can actually reduce the footprint.
Transforming core business needs into real solutions
There are often inherent problems in every legacy process that are difficult to uncover because we continue doing things “the way they’ve always been done.” Or, we have learned to live with a process that has evolved and gets the job done, even if there’s a better way. As an industry, we must challenge ourselves to shift our thinking in a way that will ultimately optimize operations by revisiting some of the basic internal processes and building designs with an eye on the future. When you find your business in a place that is less than ideal from an operations perspective, recognize that there are still opportunities to meet new standards, realize savings and consistently bring a high quality product to market.