It’s common knowledge that C-level executives closely follow key performance indicators (KPIs), but it’s important to note that organizations can’t meet most KPI targets without clear communication across their operating environment.
In a chemical plant, for instance, work instructions must move seamlessly through many layers of management and operational personnel to operate 24/7. The plant manager has numerous staff members to oversee, including production engineers, shift supervisors, and others. Communication is crucial in chemical plants because 40% of plant incidents occur during the shift handover or start-up or shutdown. These transitionary scenarios account for less than 5% of an operation’s staff time (about 15 minutes for shift handovers) yet they are vitally important. Many incidents in chemical processing plants are reportedly caused by poor communications that occur during shift handovers.
Picture a chemical plant scenario where process technicians come in at 3 a.m. every day to take over from the previous shift. They must rely on critical shift handover details that could impact their work processes and those of the following shifts. These details are particularly important as they contribute to running the facility as safely and efficiently as possible.
Within 15 minutes, workers have a lot of information to communicate and understand (note the difference) during this very limited timeframe. There are events that are still in progress and pending safety tasks. And it isn’t uncommon to have new instructions posted by the plant manager that are not yet unknown to the incoming shift supervisor. With all that activity going on, chemical processing plants need more efficient ways to communicate all of this vital information within a limited timeframe.
The following case study takes a look at how one polymer manufacturer achieved this by digitizing its operations.
Outcome #1: No More Data Silos
Digitalization was critical to attain a single source of truth across the polymer manufacturer’s operations, meaning it gained harmonized data that is accurate, complete and easily audited in real-time.
This company’s digital transformation started as a 15-month pilot project in the fourth quarter of 2020 at a European plant, before expanding to two U.S plants in 2022 and future plans to for two more European facilities. The implementation was done in stages, starting with digitization on the plant floor and ending with the harmonization of systems, people and data with the ERP database. It involved connecting the SCADA system, data historian and shift communication management with their ERP and other corporate-level business systems.
The pilot revealed that many plant assets operated in silos of automation, and the shift-to-shift communications were more difficult to manage due to having several disparate systems, equipment and assets.
Also, having multiple shifts and responsibilities within the plant added another layer of complexity. For example, technicians needed to identify and scale the newest polymer processes as well as oversee the engineering and troubleshooting of plant processes. This meant working with chemists to optimize product recipes and assisting the production facilities with resolutions to any process or product problems. Shift personnel also were responsible for evaluating raw materials to optimize the quality of existing products.
By digitizing aspects of its operations, the plant optimized processing operations, improved responsiveness to supply and demand changes, and substantially reduced potential errors related to manual processes. Shift teams could more efficiently scale up processes and products from the lab to production. The company also realized that automation improved shift-handover efficiency and routine follow up of high-priority tasks.
Another key outcome of the initiative was the ability to develop and adapt processes geared toward different cultures and specific shifts, important considerations for a company with globally dispersed plants.
After surveying the landscape and keeping a focus on achieving operational excellence, plant management determined that improving shift-team effectiveness could enhance the company’s performance. This was critical for one of the company’s core directives, which involved supporting production personnel in the trials of new products and processes. To conduct these trials effectively, it meant that the shift teams would need to interact with other work groups including product development, technical, marketing and production staff.
Outcome #2: More Efficient Production Trials
During the production trials of new products, the company conducted data analysis during each shift using a handover communications platform, which centralizes shift handover, team communication, production management and regulatory compliance. The platform captures all the plant production data and allows for pre-defined, configurable data analysis and lists. Additionally, when the plant conducts inspection rounds, the system provides checklists for a structured execution and recording of inspection rounds. These checklists can be verified using the system’s e-signature for authenticating the shift supervisor’s reports in case of an internal or external audit. The system’s rights administration process further validates and ensures that the person conducting the inspection is in an approved role during the production trial.
By automating shift handover communications, the plant increased operational efficiencies during production trials by 20%. This gives the team more time to proactively monitor for process optimization opportunities. It also increases the overall participation in continuous improvement, innovation and cost-reduction programs.
Outcome #3: Avoiding the Domino Effect
Chemical process operators working within the operations team and reporting to a production lead have many responsibilities, including compliance with safe working practices. The wide range of tasks presents challenges for meeting a 15-minute handover, especially when any substantial issues arise that could impact product quality.
Previously, the time-compressed shift handover process also made the working environment very stressful. The team couldn’t complete the shift handover without fearing they would miss vital information. The workers knew they needed to follow all relevant process-related documentation, such as risk analysis, process instructions and standard work documents, but a problem with one step could create issues with other related activities that required additional time to reassess. Prior to automating workflows, this would have been particularly problematic if the discovery happened toward the end of a shift.
Within that 15-minute handover period, all necessary batch sheets and handovers would have to be accurately completed to keep production continuous.
Also, in all instances, operators must adhere to 5S standards as well as cooperate and collaborate with other team members to continually drive such proactive operator initiatives as participation in failure investigations and identifying and reporting reliability issues within the plant.
With an automated system the plant can now ensure they have completed basic preventative maintenance checks and are promptly communicating and reporting safety incidents, near-misses, unsafe conditions and sources of problematic activities.
Outcome #4: Faster, Streamlined Communications
As already illustrated, many processes and various scenarios often continue across shifts that can’t be addressed only by one person or completed by a single shift. It’s evident that process complexities support the need for clear and concise handover communications during shift changeovers. Problem-solving measures need to be shared. There are different disciplines working hand in hand during the shift and beyond. The reliance on spreadsheets can only go so far and are not worth the risk of safety, equipment failure or loss in productivity.
Organizations can’t address these challenges via email or Word documents, Excel spreadsheets or sticky notes. These outdated methods to manage workflow communications are time consuming and oftentimes inaccurate. Automation makes shift communication easy and quick within the allotted 15-minutes and removes the burden of manual record keeping for compliance and audits.
Streamlining communications also helps chemical processing companies consolidate and properly document important activities, such as shift handovers, event logging, maintenance orders and safety inspections in a centrally stored location, which is enables a fully traceable audit trail.