Equipment doesn’t last forever. Over time, through normal wear and tear, problems emerge. Machines also can underperform due to operational practice, process parameters and lack of proper attention.
As operators and maintenance personnel change over time, poor practice can creep in. Too often, efforts to save money can result in losing track of quality and the assorted incremental operational cost: unnecessary downtime, productivity loss, higher maintenance cost, lower margins and, in the worst cases, possible liability if the process is not controlled.
Despite these potentially dramatic implications, lack of time and resources translates to: “There’s just no capacity to invest in prevention.” Poorly performing equipment has to run longer to meet desired output, leaving no time for maintenance.
Understand What Has Changed
Poor equipment performance can seem like a daunting obstacle. Stepping back from the day-to-day operation can help managers gain perspective. Probing what has changed over time by asking the right questions can help crystallize the need to take proactive steps to protect the business.
Would you answer “Yes” to any of the following types of questions?
• Is production downtime a result of reactionary and unplanned maintenance?
• Has productivity eroded and become unable to meet output demands?
• Is product taking longer to produce or to consistently achieve the desired quality level?
• Are you aware of advances in technology that could enable your process to be faster, more cost effective or better?
• Are any legislative changes on the horizon that should be taken into account (for example, emission or waste disposal regulations)?
If the answer to any of these questions is “Yes,” scrutinize the processes taking place. As an example, let’s look at four steps to keep wheelblast cleaning processes cost effective while delivering the best possible quality to customers. The principles of these steps can be applied to almost any type of equipment.
Step 1. Understand Your Process
To improve productivity and control operational costs, you first have to fully understand how operations are performing. A process control program can help you do just that, giving you a full picture of cost, productivity, waste and throughput.
Most operational issues can be easy to correct with proper training. With a process control program, training occurs from the management level down through maintenance and operations. This eliminates costly mistakes or “Band-Aid” fixes and gets to the root of the problem.
For example, a common problem occurs when the flow of abrasive is manually adjusted to below process optimums with the intent to reduce cost. In fact, this increases cost due to longer cycle times.
Creating baseline information by analyzing the process end-to-end and putting figures and cost against every parameter will ensure the right adjustments are made to operational procedures and equipment.
A process control program highlights the current operational inefficiencies of a machine, or its “trouble areas.” By reviewing its current operational cost, means of controlling that cost emerge. Managers can implement a better standard of practice and better process control procedures to reduce operational cost while improving productivity.
Improvements might be achieved through equipment upgrades or adjustments. Equipment modernization decisions should be based on a demonstrated return to justify the investment.
Step 2. Understand Your Operational Cost
Abrasive is one of the top five consumable costs in metalcasting. To minimize this cost, it’s important to know that abrasive consumption is based on:
1. The volume of abrasive being thrown or propelled at the work object.
2. The velocity of the abrasive relative to the distance from the blast wheel to the work object.
3. The size and hardness of the abrasive.
4. The hardness and temperature of the work object.
5. The impact angle on the workpiece.
As part of a process control program, all these parameters are reviewed to ensure the right velocity, wheel flow and size of abrasives are being used to provide the best outcome in greatest kinetic cleaning energy possible relative to the existing equipment and component being blasted.
Alternatively, providing the right wheel and abrasive size for the machine can provide a further, sharp reduction in abrasive consumption, with a considerable improvement in operational costs.
These analytics provide the degree of insight necessary to make an informed decision about the future of your equipment.
Step 3. Understand the Whole Picture
To make the right decision for your equipment and processes, make sure you stand back and look at the whole process, challenge any quick diagnosis and, if necessary, bring in a fresh pair of eyes—someone who understands the process but isn’t blinded by day-to-day operational involvement.
Here are some questions to ask as you choose between quick-fix options versus a long-term plan:
What is the current collective operational cost of the process? This includes consumables and parts, labor for operators, maintenance, planned and unplanned downtime, and cost of quality including the potential cost of lost business.
Are we meeting our quality and required production throughput requirements?
How are secondary operations impacted?
What are the major operational problems with the current equipment, resulting in higher costs per part or an inability to meet output targets?
Has the product changed (with regard to dimensions, complexity, type or surface specification) such that it cannot be handled by the current setup?
Once you’ve identified the issues, determine which can be solved using process control improvements and which might require new or upgraded equipment or other modifications. It’s usually a smart combination of actions that produces the greatest productivity improvements and cost reductions.
Step 4. Plan for the Future
Bear in mind that a lot can be achieved through equipment modernization. Simply adding an abrasive adder and separator to a blast cleaning machine can mean the difference between you controlling the process and the process controlling you.
Analyzing and upgrading the existing configuration can optimize existing machine performance. Beyond getting an old machine to perform better, equipment can be modernized to meet new customer and regulatory requirements as a viable cost-effective alternative to a new machine. Over time, as new technology is introduced for the specific purpose of productivity improvements or ease of maintenance, it becomes increasingly important to evaluate investment in equipment upgrades.
The bottom line is a simple equation: Value = Benefit – Cost. If the current operational costs are unknown, then the benefit of process improvements are hard to justify. Reluctance to change is understandable without clear evidence on how one poor practice impacts cost elsewhere. Mapping the landscape allows you to make an informed choice.
Benefits for process controls and equipment upgrades will mean one of two things if done properly.
1. Current throughput at a lower cost with improved
2. Additional throughput with improved quality in the same operational timeframe, resulting in more sales.
Every foundry is in business to deliver great value to customers, and improving margins by correcting or improving operational practices and equipment is a natural part of that.