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Five Ways to Minimize Manufacturing Downtime

Thu, 01/03/2013 - 12:48pm
Tom Bonine, President, National Metal Fabricators

Downtime is dangerous to any manufacturing group. After all, the old saying that compares time to money is true. If people or machines are idle, then products are not being made, which certainly affects the business’s bottom line — minimizing manufacturing downtime makes money for a company. Understanding how to communicate with and evaluate employees, providing regular equipment maintenance, increasing incentives to produce and establishing production goals are effective ways to minimize manufacturing downtime.

1. Update or Service the Machinery

Minimizing manufacturing downtime means preventing machinery malfunctions. Outdated machines slow down the manufacturing process. Similarly, any machinery that continuously jams or breaks down has a huge negative impact on outcomes. Regular maintenance is important, as is installing new equipment. Managers should stay up-to-date on the latest technology and suggest updates to improve productivity. Look for opportunities to add capabilities, like with the new etching system from Applied Materials, which moves vertically stacked 3D transistors from concept to reality; or new chances to automate, like Amazon saw with its $775 million acquisition of Kiva Systems, a robotics company focused on making warehouses more efficient.

2. Explain Downtime to Employees

The best managers are clear and honest with employees so that they feel appreciated and understood. Research has shown clear communication between managers and employees is crucial in terms of boosting efficiency. If a supervisor explains the relationship between downtime and business profits, then employees feel part of the team, included in decisions, and important — all of which are key to increasing productivity. Employees may also have suggestions about how to limit downtime, increase morale, better service machines and produce more goods. Educating employees about each part of the manufacturing process may help them better understand their specific role and job.

3. Regular Evaluations

Regular employee evaluations are standard, but the key is in how they are administered. If a shop is unionized like National Metal, then the frequency of evaluations for current and new employees is often spelled out in the contract. But a union shop or not, evaluations need to be honest and straightforward. Despite management’s request that the employee keep his or her evaluation confidential, in the real world it doesn’t work that way: Employees talk to fellow employees about their evaluation sessions, so being straightforward with each individual is crucial.

Likewise, evaluations should focus on what management views as areas of excellence and areas needing improvement. Unless you are measuring the employee against a numerical production quota, many evaluations are based on a preponderance of subjectivity, and that’s fine. Keep any pettiness out of the process.

4. Monitor the Efficiency of Manufacturing Processes

Sometimes, departments are affected by other groups or rules. For example, a specific part of the production process may be delayed if another department is experiencing issues or if red tape and paperwork abound. Energy audits come in handy here. According to The Hartford Courant, about 3,500 businesses get energy audits through their utility companies every year as a way to identify opportunities to boost efficiency. Smart supervisors evaluate all parts of the manufacturing process to ensure that items are efficiently made, reviewed, and distributed.

5. Establish Specific Incentives and Goals

Penalizing employees for causing excessive downtime is the natural response of many companies when an employee or group of employees doesn’t perform. This happened at Chevron in its $52 billion Gorgon natural gas project in Australia, when the company threatened to dock wages if employees were caught sitting on the job. But this is not the correct emphasis for company efforts — better that appropriate incentives and realistic goals motivate employees. Praising departments when they reach certain goals and keeping employees updated on productivity numbers help minimize downtime.

When goals are met, gift cards, paid lunch and small get-togethers can motivate staff to do their best. Smart managers post status reports each day or even provide updates via real-time displays, or over the loudspeaker. Everyone feels valued if he or she is part of achieving specific daily and quarterly goals. Managers must follow through on incentives and promises to build trust and limit the amount of downtime.

Happy and motivated staff do a better job than employees who are clocking in hours only to earn a paycheck. Employees need to understand the role they play in the manufacturing process, and understand that their supervisor cares about them as well as the manufacturing goals. Proper communication means talking to staff about business goals, as well as providing regular evaluations. Smart managers make sure that all employees have incentives to excel and that their suggestions are considered.

By motivating and inspiring staff, downtime is minimized. In addition, businesses that periodically inspect and repair machinery and consider installing machinery upgrades create the right atmosphere for meeting goals and eliminating downtime. With the right employees, supplies and manufacturing tools, productivity certainly increases and downtime is limited.

Tom Bonine is the president of National Metal Fabricators. The Chicago-area firm, established in 1944, offers custom fabrication, angle rings, welding, and bar milling services.

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