People are assets, too

Consider the human side of a plantwide optimization strategy.

By Gary Pearsons, Rockwell Automation

Many manufacturers consider plantwide optimization solely as an automation equipment strategy — investing in the latest technology to improve throughput, uptime and profitability. Unfortunately, many companies neglect to invest in the other key assets and support services necessary to achieve the peak manufacturing performance intended through plantwide optimization.

By integrating training, asset management and remote support into an operations plan, companies can achieve better product quality and reduced scrap, less spending on spare parts and replacement hardware, improved fault prevention and increased productivity, and faster time to market through more flexible operations.

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While training helps optimize employees’ abilities to maximize performance of hardware investments, an asset management strategy can improve throughput and minimize downtime by providing an accurate assessment of spare parts and repair practices. In addition, leveraging remote contracted support can reduce the time employees spend addressing production issues and help them identify opportunities for technology improvements that can lead to additional plantwide optimization opportunities.

Training: Optimizing your human assets

Highly trained, knowledgeable employees are the foundation of a fully optimized production environment. Only your human assets can drive the most out of your infrastructure. By assessing the skill levels of your employees and working with an experienced training provider to customize workforce education, you can see significant improvements in throughput, on-time deliveries and employee retention rates.

The best place to start building your training program is by completing an assessment. These are typically administered by an outside vendor and lead to an unbiased, comprehensive analysis of your employees’ skills in operating and troubleshooting automation equipment and software. The assessment helps identify the best training program to improve each employee’s performance. It also takes into consideration your company’s business goals to help guide the highest return on your training investment.

Most assessment-based training programs are satisfied through self-paced or instructor-led training, or a combination of both. Self-paced training is typically delivered via the Internet or software installed on company computers. This training method often works best for those needing more flexible scheduling options for intermediate-level training. To reinforce skills learned during previous training courses, custom programmed workstations installed at your facility, supported with job skill flash cards, provide quick access to information on common questions or troubleshooting issues.

Instructor-led training options are an ideal option for training multiple employees at once and can be taught at your facility to minimize travel and scheduling hassles. To get the most of your training investment, many companies opt for tailored training, which is customized to address the specific knowledge gaps in those areas most critical to production.

Asset management: Capitalizing on your physical assets to boost the bottom line

Most plant managers are required to operate and maintain capital investments with stagnant, or in some cases, shrinking operational budgets. As a result, manufacturers need to identify ways to mitigate costs associated with their operations. While manufacturers often overlook repair and warranty management, storeroom organization and inventory control as answers to budget and uptime predictability, a holistic asset management strategy can help significantly reduce unplanned downtime and boost profitability by helping to better manage spare parts and repair issues.

By integrating training, asset management, and remote support into an operations plan, companies can achieve better product quality and reduced scrap, less spending on spare parts and replacement hardware, improved fault prevention and increased productivity, and faster time to market through more flexible operations.

The first step in asset management strategy is to examine the current situation and establish a baseline for improvement. At this stage, identify critical areas of concern, outline needs for improvement and define objectives in relation to the companywide goals set by the leadership team. Next, examine the existing storeroom layout and parts-management tools, and audit physical parts inventory to determine appropriate stock levels for each component. Then, systematically move through production lines and identify the parts most critical to operations. Once critical spare parts have been identified, prioritize which parts must be kept on hand, and where distributors or vendors can be relied on to supply parts on an as-needed basis. In addition, keep track of the lifecycle of each individual product. When a part fails, find out whether it is under warranty. If so, repairing the defective part may be far more cost-effective than buying new.

Remote support: Maximizing technology investments

Remote support options can serve as an essential resource for identifying and implementing engineering improvements that can help boost production. Many remote support offerings allow access to process and product specialists who can help internal staff drive maximum performance. These support engineers can help identify and implement programming changes to improve throughput and ease system connectivity. At the same time, remote support can simplify troubleshooting by identifying potential problems before they occur.

It’s important to scale remote support options to specific needs. Options can vary greatly depending on the demands of the facility. Some plants can benefit extensively from technical account management. Essentially an extension of in-house staff, account managers can help develop and execute on production goals and provide scheduled consulting time whenever needed. For those with integrated automation systems requiring in-depth knowledge without embedded personnel, systemwide support can be helpful. If you only require assistance for specific products or machines, access to engineers via online chat and phone may be the most effective option.

Gary Pearsons is vice president, services and support, at Rockwell Automation (www.rockwellautomation.com). Email him at glpearsons@ra.rockwell.com.

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