VFE vacuum furnaces

Process Change Procedures Manufacturers Are Making to Increase Efficiency [And How to Adopt Them Across Your Own Operations]

16 May 2022 / News

Discover the process change procedures that manufacturers are making to increase efficiency across their operations.

When most of us think about change, we quickly put up walls. Change implies something new. It implies something different. In the context of manufacturing, it can be taken as a move away from the established way of doing things, the tried-and-tested processes on which production has always run. The familiar to the unfamiliar. The safe to the risky.

But manufacturing is no stranger to change. The principles of continuous improvement, so deeply ingrained in manufacturing efficiency, are built around it. Risk can be managed. And those operators willing to overcome our natural aversion to change and embrace a different — better — way of doing things will find the manufacturing environment ripe for optimisation. 

Change doesn’t have to be sweeping. The smallest improvements will compound over time with every production cycle to drive incremental efficiencies. Let’s look at what they are and, crucially, how you can adopt them across your own operations to improve your business.

In this free guide, learn how to simplify your heat treatment servicing plans, solve your maintenance challenges, and unlock new efficiencies across your operations.

3 process change procedures to improve efficiency

1. Reducing reliance on manual processes

Manual processes — those reliant on human intervention, if not the physical presence of operators and other technical staff on-site — are typically inefficient. Increasingly sophisticated systems capable of speeding up and, in some cases, automating production are only widening this gap. As technology continues to advance and these solutions become more widely accessible across the industry, it will make more and more sense to change these processes in favour of the systems and other upgrades capable of doing them better.

As well as improving efficiency, this will help manufacturers to scale their sites in the face of the engineering skills shortage. And the operator who would otherwise have been tasked with carrying out manual tasks will have more time to dedicate to higher-value activities of the kind that will always require human thinking and ingenuity, adding value to their roles. 

Did you know… The VFE Energy-saving System operates by this very principle. When starting up or shutting down a vacuum furnace manually, all the vacuum pumping systems need to be activated or deactivated in exactly the right sequence. The VFE Energy-saving System automates these processes, removing the business continuity risks associated with an incorrectly sequenced startup and freeing operators for other, more valuable activities.

2. Augmenting manual processes with technology

Sometimes, a process can’t be automated. Other times, it’s simply better carried out by human hands. In either case, this doesn’t mean the process can’t be refined or efficiencies gained. In those instances where technology can’t completely automate existing processes, it can still be deployed to augment or more generally support human activities, either by speeding them up, making them easier, or providing essential tracking and traceability that would otherwise require an operator to spend time trawling through large volumes of data. 

Our management and control systems are excellent examples of systems that operators can install to improve the efficiency of their advanced manufacturing processes. Available for both autoclaves (AMCS) and vacuum furnaces (FMCS), these systems automate cycles, grant visibility over autoclave/furnace performance and, because they’re fully networkable, unlock the ability for operator teams to control multiple machines from a single location.

The data dilemma Sites with accurate production data from which they can draw actionable insights can transform the efficiency of their operations. But the labour required to access and analyse that data can create inefficiencies of its own. Our management and control systems also carry out centralised quality assurance (QA) processing (including automated cycle costing/buy-off reports), individual part QA reports (even on multiple-part loads) and quick response (QR) barcoding facilities, significantly speeding up multiple data processes.

Taking previously contracted services in-house

In our recent article on reducing carbon emissions, we highlighted the benefits of streamlining supplier networks in order to reduce third-party carbon emissions, which also count towards a manufacturer’s total. More generally, large networks of suppliers and other external contractors reduce efficiency across the manufacturing process, such as when:

  • managers have to select, review, and form agreements with new suppliers
  • managers juggle numerous contract expiry dates and renewals (or terminations)
  • incurring call-out fees and travel costs associated with scheduled maintenance visits
  • breakdowns require multiple contractors to be called out for a single job
  • multiple visits are required by one contractor to service, calibrate, recalibrate or repair equipment

There are numerous other examples of how inefficiencies can creep into production through the supplier network if the number of partners/contractors ‘on the books’ isn’t carefully managed. On paper, bringing these services in-house instead of sub-contracting might appear to solve this challenge, but it can also leave critical skills gaps that create new inefficiencies (or new problems outside of efficiency altogether, such as compliance).

How to successfully implement process changes

Often, the topic of process improvement neglects the practical side of how to change a process. Whichever process change procedures you choose to advance, there are several steps you should follow to minimise resistance and successfully deliver the improvement.

  • Know the current process. Before you propose changing something, first review how it currently operates/is run. This will give you a firm foundation from which to understand why the process needs to change (see below).
  • Understand why the process needs to change. What about it isn’t working as effectively as it should (or at all)? It’s unlikely the whole process is broken. Can small parts of it be fixed or improved to deliver big efficiencies?
  • Clearly identify the changes to be made. Whether you are proposing a ‘rip and replace’ of an entire process or making small adjusts, document your recommended actions in a clear, easy-to-follow business case. This will help with step four.
  • Secure buy-in from key stakeholders. Often, the people closest to the process are the ones who can see best where it should be optimised. But they don’t always have the seniority or the budget to make those changes themselves. If the decision falls to someone else, you will need to secure buy-in from these individuals before you can proceed. 
  • Train for the change. You have approval to change the process. Whether it’s a behavioural change, an administrative one, or a new piece of technology, it’s important to train all those impacted (likely your team) on how the new process goes. This is especially important for ensuring the new process rollout is successful. 
  • Implement the change. With the support of your team, you are ready to implement the process change. If it’s a new system, ensure it’s integrated with your existing technology. Whatever the process change, support your team during the transition.
  • Measure, analyse and review. Continuous improvement gets its name for a reason. Even a successful process change can usually be further optimised, if not now then in the future. Monitor the new process and review it at regular intervals going forward.

How can you change your production process to improve operations?

In the past two years alone, VFE has developed and launched a wide range of new solutions to help manufacturers reduce costs, improve efficiency, and future-proof their operations. We’ve also partnered with some of the world’s leading heat treatment and advanced manufacturing brands to help our customers innovate production with cutting-edge equipment. Our recent article on ‘5 Manufacturing Innovations to Unlock Operational Potential’ explores five of these and how they could help you to drive process change.

As we’ve just explored, process change can also be keenly felt in the way manufacturers engage with and use external support. At VFE, we’ve always sought to make it as quick and easy as possible for our customers to access our engineers when they need them. Through our ongoing commitment to training and development, we’re able to service, calibrate, recalibrate and repair most of our clients’ equipment in a single visit. Due to the breadth of our expertise, which has only grown since our acquisition by global vacuum specialists Busch Vacuum Solutions in 2021, we can maintain a wide range of heat treatment, vacuum, and advanced manufacturing equipment spanning multiple makes and manufacturers.

All this is to say that by choosing VFE for your planned, preventative maintenance needs, you’ll be able to significantly simplify your supplier base and associated processes.

Modern manufacturing is built off the back of repeatable, dependable processes. But it owes its future to taking action. To change. Whether this is new technology, changes to administrative processes, or something as literal as adapting how a part is assembled for better results, opportunities for optimisation exist across the production line. 

Where could you implement process changes to unlock efficiencies? 

In this free guide, learn how to simplify your heat treatment servicing plans, solve your maintenance challenges, and unlock new efficiencies across your operations.