Here’s a good conversation starter: Stop what you are doing and look around you for anything and everything that is a thin film or sheet made of paper, plastic or metal. In my office space I have a calendar (paper), a computer display (film), a crumpled wrapper of a roast beef sandwich (metal foil), sticky notes (paper), office memos (paper), a trash can liner (plastic)…you get the idea. Products like these, manufactured from the noted raw materials (metal, plastic, wood) are all around us, within the touch of our finger tips. They are so commonplace that we don’t give much thought as to how they were made, and what some of the challenges might have been to convert the raw materials into something useful for us.
Every type of manufacturing process has its own set of limitations or parameters that you need to work within, especially when planning a shutdown, maintenance, or equipment installations. Glass manufacturing is no exception. There are a few rules when working around glass. You need to work safely, if you don’t you will get burnt or cut. You need to respect the glassmaking process.
In today’s rapidly changing manufacturing landscape, many companies that produce consumer or industrial products have evolved to a staffing construct that is lean and cost effective. These companies have found that they can’t afford to carry a technical staff to support all aspects of both their manufacturing platform and their plant infrastructure. So, out of necessity and competitive pressure, they prioritize where to make their staffing investments, and then look to outside help for assistance that can be funded on a pay-as-you-go basis when specific problems or challenges arise. Generally, companies that have focused their technical staff on nurturing their Intellectual Property (either product formulation or process methods) then allow contract engineering firms to partner in the technical space outside of their proprietary domain.
My earliest experience with a pressure vessel was as a child. We lived in a mountainous area at about 5000 feet. The boiling point of water at 5000 feet was about 200 degrees and my mother cooked almost every day with a pressure cooker so the food would get cooked in a reasonable time. The pressure cooker was a fascinating invention to me. You could add weights to the little bobber on the top to make the pressure inside five, ten or fifteen pounds. Little bursts of steam kept coming out as it regulated the pressure. And besides just cooking your meal you could can fruits and vegetables in the pressure cooker by raising the temperature high enough. Since that time I have learned that there are other uses for pressure vessels. The one I use most often is the propane tank in on my gas grill.
One of the challenges that technology driven startup businesses face is how to package their invention into a product platform that will be well received in the market, is operator-friendly, robust, and reliable (just to name a few of the desirable attributes that drive sales). Many times, these small companies are focused on staffing to develop their proprietary know how and associated process equipment. Unfortunately, they do not necessarily have the engineering resources to actually design and build a production worthy system that will embody their new technology and have the needed features and performance for use out in the general manufacturing environment.
Previously in this space, we have blogged about the “Science Behind Process Manufacturing,” in which we talked about the necessary fundamental skills and process understanding that are the foundation for helping our customers troubleshoot their production problems. Today, I would like to share a specific scenario where this idea clearly plays out. Our premise is that in order to be effective at recommending corrections or improvements to our customers’ manufacturing platforms, we must first understand the science of what drives their process, based on sound engineering practices (in the disciplines of mechanical, electrical, chemical, software/controls, and structural). The business challenge that I think is a great case study of the need for these fundamental capabilities has to do with aftermarket support of complex production/process systems.
When your solution provider presents you with a proposed equipment project to solve a current manufacturing need, is he or she really offering you the most cost effective approach? How can you be sure that your partner has left no metaphorical solution stone unturned, and that you are in fact being offered a well thought out and thorough answer to your requirements? We have discovered that a complete investigation should involve a check to see if a retrofitting (read this as used with upgrades) equipment approach would be a fit that might offer near comparable performance at a fraction of the cost.