Improving productivity-per-head in manufacturing

Optimising available resources to maximise productivity in these challenging times is not only desirable – it’s absolutely essential, affirms Tim Paddison, managing director of tooling and machining specialist Hoffmann Group UK.

With more than 620,000 manufacturing jobs lost in just over a decade, crippling workforce shortages are having a greater impact on the sector by the day.

Given this scarcity, as well as potential staff shortages caused by the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, manufacturers need to consider how to get the most out of their existing workforce in order to ensure that output, and therefore profitability, are not affected.

There are a number of ways in which manufacturing businesses can go about optimising their workforce efficiency and cutting down unnecessary downtime; it’s just a case of manufacturers knowing how to apply them in a way that best suits their business.

Here we’ll uncover the secrets of how manufacturing businesses can maximise the efficiency of their current workforce and ensure that output remains high.

Lean manufacturing principles can maximise efficiency on the factory floor

Methodologies such as Kaizen and 5S are nothing new to the sector, having originally been conceived in the 20th century, however their value in increasing productivity and efficiency-per-head have arguably never been more crucial given the current sector headwinds.

Translated into English, Kaizen is a Japanese lean manufacturing methodology commonly referred to in the industry as the practice of ‘continuous improvement’. This philosophy, which aims to boost productivity and eliminate wasted resource, through every member of the organisation working collaboratively to improve business practices over time, has been used to great effect by industry giants such as Toyota.

Tim Paddison

Key to implementing Kaizen correctly – which has not been managed by all – is the 5S methodology; a structured workplace organisation system based on five key pillars of Sort, Set in Order, Shine, Standardise and Sustain.

Given that these steps all involve auditing a workspace, identifying what is truly necessary and stripping out any waste, and implementing more efficient procedures, optimal workplace design is crucial to each of these pillars.

When standardising new processes and establishing more effective ways of working, small, easily-actionable changes can make a huge difference. Tool management solutions are particularly crucial to this.

Even ostensibly minor implementations such as investing in drawer divider systems – such as rigid foam inlays or slotted dividing panels – ensure that every tool has its place at all times, and make it immediately apparent if something is missing. This, and larger-scale implementations such as smart workstations and modular arrangement systems, provide the efficient organisation required to enable truly efficient working practices and optimise workflow.

By ensuring that employees do not have to search around for the equipment they need each day, these systems both save time and optimise productivity across the factory floor.

Upskilling staff

Particularly as the manufacturing sector continues to adapt to post-Brexit realities, ensuring a strong talent pipeline into the sector is crucial for current and future productivity. However, this is also an area in which challenges have emerged, with the UK facing potentially the largest manufacturing skills shortage since the 20th century.

Developing a new generation of talent, with the skills required to succeed in today’s increasingly digitalised industries, will be crucial to mitigating any skills shortages. Developing new talent means both hiring new staff, and ensuring that existing workers are retrained to be able to fully adapt to the new processes and technologies which will form the factory of the future.

This is where digitalisation and automation – also known as Industry 4.0 - is also likely to create further opportunities for upskilling staff both on and off the factory floor. While the pervading fear is that machines will replace humans, it is far more likely that man and machine will work together to drive new levels of efficiency. Indeed, research from Gartner suggests that, rather than taking jobs from the industry, AI and automation are expected to have created approximately five million more jobs than they replace by this year.

It is also important for businesses to look to the future and maximise value from apprenticeships – an area in which many are arguably falling short. Some of this will have to do with the outdated perception that apprenticeships and vocational qualifications are a second-class alternative to traditional educational routes such as university; an issue for which measures such as incoming T-Levels in schools will hopefully begin to provide a solution.

However, a more significant contributing factor could be the Apprenticeship Levy, which has been called clumsy, complex and even a deterrent in some places, meaning that legislative change in this area is likely to have a positive effect on both the manufacturing talent pipeline and overall productivity. Indeed, more than half (57%) of manufacturers reported the Levy to be little more than an employment tax and an inefficient way of stimulating skills development as it stands.

Never neglect the need for PPE

Lost man-hours due to illness or injury is naturally majorly damaging to productivity, however this effect can be mitigated by effective use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). This is achieved through creating a culture of safety throughout the business, thereby greatly minimising the risk of workers suffering workplace injuries – for which PPE-related incidents are responsible for roughly 9,000 per year – sick days and measurable Lost Time Incidents (LTIs).

It may be tempting for businesses to believe that improving productivity often has to come at the expense of workplace safety but, the opposite is in fact true, with correct PPE usage creating fewer accidents, subsequent absenteeism and improved staff morale. Subsequently, product delays are reduced, which improves both outputs and overall company profitability.

While investing in the comprehensive PPE solutions required to fully minimise risk will inevitably come with financial considerations, this should arguably be looked upon as an investment rather than a cost.

Whether through reducing accident-related costs or improved profitability through getting more out of staff, the financial benefits of investing in health and safety can often be substantial. Indeed a spokesperson from Turner & Townsend suggested that every pound businesses spend on health & safety is repaid tenfold.

Effective tool use is key

ONS figures released in January 2020 revealed that hours worked had risen throughout the manufacturing sector by 0.9% year-on-year, however productivity had fallen by 1.9%, leading to an overall 0.4% drop in manufacturing output per hour. In simple terms, this means that while we’re working more, we’re actually producing less.

Tools and equipment use are likely to have had a major impact in this area. Simply enough, if the tools a manufacturer uses are not up to standard, whether this be due to a lack of investment in either procurement or maintenance, employees will not be able to work to anywhere near the level of efficiency they would otherwise.

Even a few seconds longer spent on each task per employee add up throughout the year to cost manufacturers days, and even weeks, in productivity.

Subsequently, businesses looking to improve the productivity of their workforce must be willing to invest in both new tools and ongoing equipment maintenance in order to ensure their workspace, and those who make use of it each day, are always fit to work.

The solutions are there – it’s about making use of them

The past few months have largely been characterised by fluctuating outputs and productivity and, given that the coronavirus outbreak is only likely to increase this volatility, exploring ways that manufacturers can increase productivity-per-head will be integral to ensuring standards do not slip in the coming weeks and months.

Luckily, the solutions to this are not inaccessible, or even particularly resource-intensive in many cases. Decision-makers should look to review their processes regularly and assess where these smaller, easily-actionable solutions, such as improving workflow and tool management, can be of most benefit. This due diligence, combined with swift action, will ensure that the impact of external factors such as coronavirus and political uncertainty is kept to a minimum, both now and in the future.

Hoffmann Group UK

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