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.
At Optimation, our business model is centered around turnkey solutions, generally packaged in the form of capital projects. We describe ourselves as a firm that can take a customer’s business need or manufacturing problem, understand and document the client’s User Requirements, and then respond with a Concept Design that has evaluated and selected the best technology fit. Once our customer has approved the Concept, Preliminary Engineering ensues, followed by Detailed Design, Purchase/Fabrication, Assembly, Shop Test, Install, Debug and Commission. We have a well-defined approach, with built-in check points, that we feel is very user-friendly when viewed from our client’s perspective.
However, the dynamic that can occur when a company that lacks certain key technical resources experiences a manufacturing interruption or problem, is one that is off-script from a total project solution like I have described. In these situations, our prospective client is not in need of or searching for an equipment upgrade, but has an issue with his current process that requires diagnostic troubleshooting and effective corrective action. To offer this client value added support does not follow our usual Capital Project Process, but follows a different script. Rather, a customer with a manufacturing problem that is interfering with his production operation is looking for a sound path to understand what has gone wrong, and how to fix it … and quickly, too!
When we are asked to help a client troubleshoot a production problem, our methods switch from “Phases and Gates,” used on capital projects to “Root Cause Analysis,” which is appropriate for studying existing systems that are experiencing unexplained and out of control behavior/performance. The backbone of a sound root cause analysis is the Scientific Method, where a problem statement is carefully documented, a hypothesis is formulated that addresses a way to test for a potential root cause, an experiment (or series of experiments) is proposed and then performed, data is gathered and summarized that either supports or proves the hypothesis, or that eliminates some outlying influence.
As we become engaged to deal with root causes, it is necessary to consider all potential influencers, that can be organized by discipline. That is, we ask the question, could the abnormal process behavior be caused by an electrical interaction? How about chemical? Could the change be driven by a thermal effect? What about mechanical or fluid? Do we have process data that we can analyze, which might show if any of these forces changed unexpectedly, that might be a signal for where we might look?
We can see that having a working knowledge of the broad range of possible science that could have an influence on a process change would be essential to helping our customers quickly focus on areas of suspect variability. This knowledge, based on past experience, would be brought to bear on the specific issue, resulting in insightful root cause theories which could then be tested and analyzed to demonstrate a controlled response and hopefully a process change/improvement.
Hence, the provocative title of “does your consultant have dirt under his fingernails?” In sudden, high pressure situations where an unexpected and unexplained shift has occurred, that needs to be quickly understood and rectified (as usually a manufacturer’s product output or quality is suffering), there is no substitute for working with folks who have hands-on experience with similar production equipment. Now is not the time to be training a new engineer, it is the time to bring in the seasoned veterans and gain the benefit of all they have experienced, all they have tried, and what the know either works or doesn’t work.
At Optimation, we are fortunate in that our engineering staff has logged many years of process knowledge in all disciplines, that we freely make available to our clients. We are not embarrassed that our engineers and designers have donned boots and blue jeans, and participated in on site activities that include debug, start up, process fine tuning, and retrofits. We have had our technical folks using diagnostic equipment, taking measurements, logging observations, and doing SPC calculations on data to look for trends. This is how we have gotten the process “dirt” under our fingernails, and this grit is a badge of assurance to our clients that we can help when they most need us.