Productivity has a silent killer - A surprising way manufacturers accrue unplanned downtime

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DATE: 07.24.2023

Productivity has a silent killer - A surprising way manufacturers accrue unplanned downtime

Silent killers of productivity are everywhere in warehouses and manufacturing facilities just like yours. We know that simply moving items within your facility does not generate revenue. Which is why managers and engineers are constantly focused on finding and rooting out causes of inefficacy to boost throughput.

One area of inefficiency that's frequently overlooked is when is tools used in a materials handling system fail to support operations as intended, and as result unplanned downtime to accumulate.

That’s where you’ll find productivity’s silent killer. Inefficiencies in numerous materials handling setups often go unnoticed despite being right in front of us. Uncovering these less obvious causes of downtime requires patience and a systematic investigation.

So how do you remedy this? We talked to John Berger, a Minneapolis-based Process Engineer focused on continuous improvement and quality in manufacturing facilities, as well as change management. He holds a mechanical engineering degree, an MBA and is Sigma Six certified.

Berger discussed an auditing project for a Fortune 500 company, where he helped improve efficiencies in credit card production and fulfillment operation that processed an average of 5,000 orders a day. Its manual-based materials handling system was made up of operators who collected orders in bins, and routed them to designation workstations for assembly.

Based on that project, Berger explained the steps and recommended best practices for auditing a workflow.

Step one: Identify the sources of bottlenecks

In a fulfillment center, piles of waiting order forms are a common sight. To streamline operations, Berger's first task was to distinguish the piles that were hindering efficiency and detracting value. In other words, he was searching for bottlenecks — places where workstations accumulated tasks faster than they could be processed — so he could identify the underlying causes. In his audit, Berger identified two major sources of inefficiency:

Step 2: Gather data from time studies

Finding the breakdown in efficiency also be achieved by collecting data on time spent on specific tasks. This involves observing employees at work and using a stopwatch.

During the data analysis phase, Berger assessed whether each task contributed or detracted value. This enabled him to identify solutions that would eliminate non-value-added work.

Step 3: Interview the production team

Employees and production managers have valuable information to share, Berger says, which is why interviews are essential to this auditing process. They’ll help you better understand the obstacles and frustrations that hinder their ability to work efficiently.

Step 4: Evaluate the materials handling equipment

The tools people use every day to perform their jobs can drive inefficiencies in ways that are not so obvious. At the credit card fulfillment center, people relied on plastic bins every step of the process, from collecting orders to routing assembled projects for shipping. Berger evaluated how the bins functioned at the plant, and whether they helped or hindered an operator's ability to perform their jobs efficiently.

Analysis and solutions: What did the materials handling audit reveal?

After Berger completed the audit of the fulfillment center, his analysis uncovered how the conditions caused unintended bottlenecks and detracted from productivity.

1. Too many complexities in the workload

One cause of the backlogs originated from the simple fact that orders were not grouped into similar tasks at the onset. When operators are constantly switching gears, it introduces errors and inefficiencies that add unnecessary steps and handling before completion.

“A customer is not paying you to move things around your plant,” Berger notes. "So we wanted to minimize extra handling movement.."

He points out a sorting station is an example of a pile that adds value, Berger said, because this task would group the orders into similar tasks to ensure smoother processing down the line.

Insight: To gain even more value from sorting, Berger recommends using different colored bins to designate tasks. This gives operators and management alike to easily locate assignments with less searching.

2. Taking on too many orders at once 

There was a second surprising cause of bottlenecks at the credit card processing plant: There were too many bins in the workflow. Access to bins created the ideal conditions for employees to load up their workstations — probably believing they were being efficient, helpful and hard-working.

But Berger's audit uncovered this tendency to accept extra work had an unintended negative effect on productivity. Instead, an excess number of orders became hung up, stuck, at these work stations, when they could have been allocated to coworkers with capacity to keep the pace of order fulfillment in balance. 

To solve this, Berger used the Kanban method, a workflow management technique with origins in lean manufacturing. To explain in the simplest possible terms, the method limits the number of orders in progress to prevent bottlenecks and allow operators to focus on completing their tasks efficiently. 

"You're controlling the amount of work in process throughout your production line by finding the optimal number of bins that you allow to be out there," Berger explains. 

He applied the Kanban method, in part, to identify the minimum and maximum range of bins allowed in the system, which would control the flow of credit card orders.

This helped the the plant find a steady and balanced pace of order fulfillment — "where aren't too many bins, but everyone has enough." 

3. Ill-designed bins that were prone to breaking 

Finally, the bins used to sort and route orders were problematic, according to Berger’s evaluation. These are some of problems the bins introduced in the workday: 

  • Oversized capacity encouraged overloading, making loads too heavy for some employees to lift or carry
  • A lack of handles for safe and easy lifting
  • Flimsy plastic material that easily cracked and broke apart.
  • Lack of access to replacement bins 

The flimsy material and poor design of the work bins introduced a high number of interruptions. When operators are forced to stop and deal with one of the above problems, they're not focusing on high-value tasks.

Demonstrating the value of sourcing higher-quality, more durable replacements can be a challenge, Berger acknowledges. The best way to get traction is telling the story using robust data. Using data can show the the potential long term savings in investing in a material that can achieve higher usage turns.

Liberty Plastics supports your productivity improvement efforts

When it comes to reducing unplanned downtime and maximizing productivity, incorporating efficient material handling practices is crucial. 

Library Plastics offers durable solutions for material handling that will keep the production moving.

Bins constructed from Wave-Core are well-suited for materials handling because they're built to take a beating. The corrugated construction of the material provides structural strength that won’t crush or break, reinforced with the unmatched durability of HDPE plastic.

To fit the needs of your operation, we offer custom sizing, along with color and printing.

Learn more about how Wave-Core can enhance material handling efficiency and minimize downtime.

Contact Liberty Plastics to learn more about durable solutions with Wave-Core.