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Opinion: The cost of waiting – How technology can help reduce unplanned downtime
Siân Yates

Siân Yates

11 July 2024

Opinion: The cost of waiting – How technology can help reduce unplanned downtime


Alan Yu, senior application engineer at Markforged, explores the costly implications of unplanned downtime in food and beverage manufacturing. Yu investigates how advancements in technologies such as additive manufacturing are reshaping resilience strategies. From addressing ageing infrastructure to optimising production through on-demand part fabrication, he explores the role of modern technologies in mitigating disruptions and enhancing operational efficiency.


In today's fast-paced manufacturing arena, every minute counts and efficiency is key. Unplanned downtime poses a significant challenge, causing unexpected disruptions to production lines that can result in delays and subsequent financial losses.  

 

For food and beverage manufacturers, the impact of unplanned downtime is felt across their businesses and supply chains. Small faults and anomalies on the factory floor can cause misaligned processes or operational slowdowns, leading to missed or incomplete order fulfilments, frustrated customers and suppliers, and – potentially – bad press. 

 

Let’s talk numbers  


According to a study by global industrial asset performance management consultants Bently Nevada, 82% of companies have experienced unplanned downtime in the past three years.


Closer to home, the 'Industry in Motion' 2023 Maintenance Engineering Report from RS Components and the Institute of Mechanical Engineers reveals that companies spend an average of 19.6 hours per week on unscheduled maintenance.


The report also notes an average hourly cost of plant downtime at £5,121, attributing ageing assets and mechanical failures as primary contributors to these expenses.


 

Reducing downtime through modernisation – step by step 


With legacy technology (and its tendency for potential failure) identified as a major factor leading to unplanned downtime, the food and beverage industry’s thoughts turn to modernisation and working towards ‘smart manufacturing’. 

 

While these can be daunting prospects, understanding the cost of maintaining the status quo is a good place to start. Building a picture of how often lines go down, and how much even a short blip in operations can cost the business, can help to build a case for investment in change. 

 

To do this, it helps to take things one step at a time. Start by investigating small issues that are slowing things down. For example, we’ve seen situations at customer sites where bottles regularly bump into end-of-arm-tooling on robotic lines causing wear and tear and slowing down lines.


Day-to-day, this isn’t a huge issue, but left uncorrected this seemingly small malfunction eventually causes the tooling to break, bringing the line to a halt. This can cost the business greatly in terms of downtime in man hours, not to mention in spare parts. 

 

This scenario introduces another key set of questions:

  

  • Do you know what you’re spending on replacing tooling and parts?  

  • How many spares do you keep in stock to avoid too much downtime?  

  • What do you do if you need a new legacy part for an outdated machine? 


Having the answers to these questions helps to paint a picture of the overall cost to the business of keeping things as they are. It can then be a helpful first step in building a solid business case for investing in tech that can improve the status quo without causing mass disruption to the factory floor.  




Additive and on-demand manufacturing 


In recent years, we have seen more companies integrate technologies like additive manufacturing (AM) into their factory floor operations to work alongside traditional processes and machines. These enable more immediate and cost-effective manufacturing at the point of need – helping to meet the ‘cost of waiting’ challenges head-on without having to rebuild or reconfigure entire production lines.  

 

AM can help manufacturers avoid unplanned downtime and keep things moving for their customers. By using 3D printers to create replacement and spare parts, companies can plan for problems, fix things quickly and improve their production processes directly on their factory floors. 


This ability to replace faulty or failing machine parts on-demand not only increases the resiliency of their production lines but is ushering in digital inventories and the end of reactive downtime.  

 

Digital inventories and customisation 


Printing the parts they need, when and where they need them helps replace physical storage for replacement parts and tooling, creating digital inventories. 


In addition to lowering the high economic and environmental cost of long-distance shipping, digital inventories help to reduce waste and storage costs as well as diminish the ‘cost of waiting’ by speeding up repair cycles and response times. 

 

AM also allows for customisation to suit specific production line requirements, for example: creating bespoke tooling, fixtures and jigs on-demand and onsite, saving time and costs. It can also incorporate more complex geometries than traditional manufacturing methods, allowing for stronger, lighter weight structures.


These benefits are particularly useful on food and beverage packaging lines when it comes to keeping up with rapidly multiplying SKUs and frequently refreshed packaging, helping companies to squeeze more performance and agility out of each line. 

 

AM is fast becoming a more integral part of production lines and will continue to do so – helping to save costs, avoid downtime and increase resiliency and efficiency on factory floors across the food and beverage industry.   

 

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