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Shift #2: Increasing Capacity of Production Lines To Meet Demand


This is installment #2 in Spiroflow’s 4-part blog series: “Making Manufacturing Shifts: Adapting During COVID-19 & Beyond” In the first installment of our series we talked about how manufacturers that have seen a decrease in product orders are pivoting to produce in-demand products like face masks and hand sanitizer. In this blog, we will address the second shift we are seeing: modifying existing production lines to increase capacity for manufacturers who have seen an increase in demand.

Shift #2: Modifying Production Lines To Increase Production 

Today, we will address those industries – food & beverage, snack foods, pharmaceuticals and chemicals, among others – that are seeing products fly off shelves and orders increasing. 

Why is it happening? What are the unique challenges within the context of global lockdown? 

Let’s take a deeper look at two industries challenged with maintaining supply during coronavirus. 

The global pulp and paper industry – read toilet paper – has ramped up operations to keep up with panic buying and resulting supply chain shortages. At the P&G plant in Albany, Georgia, which produces Charmin toilet paper, some employees went from working 5 to 7 days a week to help keep pace. U.K.-based toilet paper manufacturer Essity said in March it boosted output to meet higher demand for products. Toilet paper manufacturers, for the most part, have been able to source more material and keep up – to the point that they’ve been willing (ie. so that they don’t create an oversupply when the panic buying stops). 

Our second example – food processors – is a bit more dynamic when it comes to buyer behavior. Processed foods, which have a longer shelf-life, are becoming more popular with buyers looking to minimize their number of trips to the store to prevent exposure to COVID-19. With regard to social habits, social distancing is here to stay (or at least to some degree) for the foreseeable future. It’s likely that the upward trend in manufacturing orders for long-lasting, frozen, snack and processed foods is as well.  

Snack foods, in particular, are seeing an increase in demand due to the majority of children staying at home for the remainder of the school year and people working from home who are now also more likely to eat and snack at home during the day. 

And while some buyers are opting for more processed foods, other buyers are shifting their behavior towards organic, fresh ingredients. In the UK, organic food delivery service Abel & Cole has seen a 25% increase in sales, largely driven by their delivery service option, but boosted by an increase in demand for healthy, safe foods. In the U.S. Whole Foods supermarket has had to limit the number of online orders it can accept due to the surge in demand. Why the sudden change? The COVID-19 conversation is putting health at the forefront of consumer demand and organic foods are thought to be healthier and safer. However, many of the materials that European and North America organic food companies use to manufacture these products largely come from Asia, Latin America and Africa – meaning there is a lag in the time it takes to increase production. Adding to the challenges are the limited number of organic farmers – and the time it takes for a new farmer to go through the certification process is prohibitive when the need is immediate. 

As these examples highlight, coronavirus has created a sudden and unplanned increase in demand in certain geographies. Add to this challenge problems staffing sites, maintaining on-site social distancing protocols, adhering to government regulations and a heightened focus on process cleanliness and hygiene – and it’s easy to see how manufacturers have a lot more to think about than just adding new equipment to their production lines when it comes to increasing capacity.  

Hygienic solutions are of utmost importance during COVID-19. How do you keep your conveyor and dry bulk material handling equipment clean while it is running almost constantly? 

Opt for hygienic process equipment design that both prevents contamination and that allows for easy, fast regular cleanings. 

Quick clean functionality of conveying equipment enables cleaning of your equipment without significantly interrupting your production line. Look for design simplicity, quick release connections and fewer parts to clean. 

Additionally, you should look for hygienic equipment that prevents contamination, such as totally enclosed tubular conveyors for the movement of ingredients for food or medicines. To prevent unwanted downtime, another feature you should consider is a design that contains a seal to separate the drive system from the material in event of material leakage.

Staffing challenges during COVID-19 are making it difficult for sites to maintain increased production. So what options do you have? 

First evaluate how much of your staff may be able to work remotely. While some on-site staff will always be a necessity for manufacturing operations, remote monitoring can enable management and other operational leaders who would not otherwise feel safe coming on site to continue to be productive from a physical distance. We will talk more about remote site monitoring solutions and how Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technology being rapidly adopted by manufacturers during COVID-19 is likely to stick in our 3rd installment of this series. 

Second, look for points in your process that could be automated by equipment so that your staff can be freed to focus on more high-value tasks such as process optimization. For example, if you have a manual bulk bag filling process in your production line, you could increase your filling rate and weighing accuracy by implementing an automated gain-in-weight solution, while decreasing the need for the total number of employees on site resulting in both output and productivity gains. Similarly for bulk bag unloading, a loss-in-weight bulk bag system would have the same benefits. Both of these solutions also reduce product spillage that can occur with manual operations. The end results can be dramatic increased total output, improved cleanliness and safety, reduced waste, labor costs and housekeeping time all combined delivering significant productivity gains and ultimately improving profitability. 

Production line layout is another area where you can maximize efficiencies and free up staff to focus elsewhere. If your process involves multiple transfer points in order to change the direction of the conveyor due to site layout – there may be an opportunity to eliminate these transfer points by installing a flexible conveyor that can navigate any obstacles on your site floor and transfer material to multiple in-feeds and from multiple discharge points. This reduces the need for operator intervention at the transfer points and reduces the risk of product spillage and contamination. 

The last opportunity I want to touch on today is in the automation of tasks related to the basic maintenance of equipment. For example, a drag conveyor that comes with an automated tensioning mechanism lessens the need for manual operator maintenance tasks. Look for equipment that is designed for low or minimal maintenance. 

What equipment modifications can manufacturers make to increase production output quickly?

Flexible, mobile conveying systems allow you to modify your production line fast. While installation times vary by operation, a simple modification, such as a conveyor upgrade to increase hourly throughput or addition of a bulk bag filler can take place in under a day, in some cases in as little as a few hours. Spiroflow manufactures multiple sizes of flexible screw conveyors to easily fit your existing process. 

Achieving an increase in production output may require an equipment-only upgrade, and thus there may only need to be a slight modification or no change at all to your control systems. Mobile equipment options can include integral control panels so that they can truly be unpacked for fast, “plug and play” capability. 

Spiroflow engineers can help you to evaluate your specific requirements and suggest the most efficient way to modify your process to meet new demand. 

It’s possible that manufacturing shifts during coronavirus may highlight opportunities to make more long-term modifications for process efficiency. So how do you create the most value from equipment purchased for increased production after COVID events are over?

Ensuring that you purchase flexible, mobile equipment can mean getting the most out of your investment. When making equipment purchases for short-term modifications, look for equipment that can be reused to improve your existing operations when things return to normal. 

Any changes to your production line can be assessed in one of our test labs to get your modification right the first time and ensure that your new process delivers benefits beyond coronavirus events. 

Making equipment modifications during COVID-19 comes with its own unique set of challenges. How can manufacturers ensure that operational changes meet new worker, product safety and compliance standards?

Look for “plug and play” options when considering new equipment thus reducing the need for outside vendors to enter your site. In this case, equipment can be ordered and shipped to your site ready for quick and simple installation and start up by your own crews. 

In the event that installation, layout assistance or an installation inspection is necessary on site, make sure to send your equipment vendor any COVID-19 specific safety protocols, requirements, restrictions or procedures before they arrive. 

Communication on safety protocols prior to the site visit is the key for ensuring worker safety while vendors work to install and commission new equipment on site. For our own Spiroflow staff, we make sure to reach out in advance to understand your site’s specific safety requirements. Once we arrive on site, we follow your guidelines strictly. 

Stay tuned for Part 3 in our “Making Manufacturing Shifts” Series, the rapid adoption of remote site management for adherence to social distancing protocols.