When a process gas compressor in a petrochemical plant or oil refinery is due for maintenance, the specialist valves and seals required may well have been manufactured by Bradford-based Hoerbiger UK.

What’s more, says Mark Woodward, UK head of operations at the Swiss-owned company, Hoerbiger’s global service arm will also undertake the actual maintenance operation itself, if required.

“Consequently, on-time delivery and short lead times are vital,” he explains. “We never have a great deal of forward visibility into the order book. It’s a business very much characterised by short lead times, responsiveness, and small batches.”

Challenge

The problem? Time and again, Hoerbiger found itself dogged by capacity constraints and seemingly-poor labour and machine utilisation rates.

“We kept asking ourselves: ‘Why is the actual throughput of the factory so much lower than the theoretical capacity?’,” recalls Woodward. “The trouble was, we’d done all the obvious things, and we were no nearer to finding an answer.”

Quick-release tooling and set-time reduction exercises, for instance, had proved helpful, but evidently weren’t the solution. Likewise, ‘5-S’ workplace organisation techniques failed to unlock significant improvements. Whatever the inefficiencies were, says Woodward, they were tantalisingly difficult to pin down.

Various industrial engineering projects and work study analyses, too, had failed to deliver much insight into the problem, thanks to a combination of limited industrial engineering resources and low levels of order book repeatability.

In short, the gap between the standard hours earned and actual hours worked remained obstinately high.

“We had a lot of people being busy, for seven or eight hours a day, but it wasn’t clear what value was being added,” sums up Alex Meiklejohn, Hoerbiger UK’s managing director. “We realised that it was time to go back to first principles and find out what was really happening on the factory floor—which is where Mestec came in.”

Solution

Five Mestec ‘Manufacturing Smart Box’ terminals, installed in March 2012, provided the starting point. The plan: operators would use them on a job-by-job, machine-by-machine basis, in order to log what they were doing, enabling the Mestec reporting system to compare actual performances with the standard times built into the company’s SAP ERP system.

“The installation was very straightforward, and installing the software was so simple that I did it myself,” says manufacturing manager Anne Howker. “The system is very user-friendly, and the operators took to it straight away—even those who weren’t used to computers.”

As a starting point, she explains, operators were asked to log the start and finish of setting-up a job, the start and finish of the machining associated with that job, the unproductive time they encountered, and the nature of the problems that had triggered any unproductive time.

Later, explains Woodward, attention would turn to more in-depth analysis, exploring the full range of the Mestec solution’s capabilities. But to begin with, the focus was on identifying and eliminating capacity constraints, and understanding the gap between the standard hours assumed in the product routings, and actual hours worked when manufacturing those products.

Results

And almost immediately, relates Woodward, Hoerbiger began to make progress towards doing just that.

“It’s been a huge step forward,” he enthuses. “For the first time, we’ve got accurate data—and we’re able to move straight away to undertaking improvement activities, rather than spending time on gathering data and then debating what it was telling us.”

Better still, he adds, the data is available in real time. No longer, in short, is management distracted by hunting for a problem’s underlying causes long after the event itself.

“We’re able to go out there on the factory floor as an issue is actually occurring, and see what is going on, rather than conducting post-mortems afterwards,” he stresses. “From an improvement perspective, we’re looking at events as they happen, rather than through a rear-view mirror.”

“We now know exactly what our productivity gap is, and what the reasons are,” emphasises Meiklejohn. “It’s no longer anecdotal, or just supposition.”

Just as importantly, adds Woodward, the data is captured automatically as part of day-to-day factory routine, analysed automatically, and made available in a suite of easy-to-understand reports.

“The Mestec system is doing a lot of the work that people would otherwise have to do,” he sums up. “We can focus 100% on improvement, rather than on data collection and analysis.”