A modern ’lean’ design approach combined with the right technology can revolutionise profitability and the agility of manufacturing to quickly react to changes in market demands.
This article will explain how a production system using Intermediate Bulk Containers (IBCs) can offer total recipe flexibility, reducing lead times and controlling Inventory levels.
So What Is Your Weakest Link?
In-line process systems by their design are linear—the raw materials enter the process in the formulation area before the final product is delivered out of the far end of the process line. No matter whether it is a 500 kg or 10 tonne production run of a particular recipe, the same approach and the same equipment will have to be used.
The problem here is that the process line will only be as effective as its weakest link. There are typically vast arrays of processes that happen along the way, from dispensary and mixing, to sieving and packing, and in some cases, more complex processes such as granulation and drying are also involved. It is almost impossible to have all these processes completely synchronised, so as a result, there is a lot of waiting time between one process and another.
Mixing and packing stand idle whilst formulation of the recipe takes place. Then the mixer remains inactive again whilst packing is completed. This results in an inadequate OEE (overall equipment effectiveness) rate both for individual equipment as well as the process line as a whole.
With ever increasing consumer demands resulting in recipe proliferation, this means that ever more frequent recipe changes further destroy the effectiveness of this conventional way of processing. So much down-time is spent cleaning between recipe changes, particularly where crosscontamination is a real risk. In an attempt to keep all the processes moving, some companies resort to creating large quantities of work-in-progress/work-in-queue (WIP/WIQ), which is costly to store and runs the risk of going to waste.
Increasing Efficiency Three-fold
One way to work around this problem of inefficient production and long waiting times is to apply a parallel processing approach. This means to separate the process steps (decoupling) so that formulation, blending, packing and cleaning takes place simultaneously, and batches are handled through the ‘process line’ all at the same time. Does this sound alarming from a safety standpoint? It would not if the appropriate technology and a well thought-out concept are used.
Typically, IBCs are used to transport materials throughout production, which allow the processes to operate independently and be continuously fed with product, giving good OEE rates. The IBC itself becomes the blending vessel so there is no product contact with the blender, which means no down-time for cleaning between recipe changes.
In fact, IBCs are cleaned off-line and so do not disrupt the manufacturing time and process line flow. These can be fully closed at all times so there is no risk of cross-contamination or dust generation, which in combination with the fact that no product comes into contact with the blender, means that several different recipes can be processed at the same time without compromising safety—a key benefit.
By adopting the parallel processing concept, rush orders can easily be accommodated, allowing rapid response to customer demands. OEE rates can increase from a very low 15-20 percent to 75-80 percent, generating significant additional revenue per annum. IBC systems offer a lean solution ensuring right first time production reducing scrap and waste and further reducing the cost of the final finished product.
UBC Systems can be used for a variety of product applications, accommodating a vast portfolio of recipes, in small or large batches.
A Staged Approach To Process Improvements
If you are not in a position to make a full-scale switch to an IBC system in one go, it is certainly possible to take a ‘staged approach’. The modular nature of the design means equipment can be added into the system as the need arises. Typical changes that can be made are:
- Decouple mixing from packing. Doing this can double the capacity of either or both pieces of equipment in these areas. No longer does packing and blending have to wait for each other to complete their processing, but by decanting the mixed product from the fixed mixer into an IBC, it means that the packing lines can be continuously fed with product whilst the new batches are formulated and mixed. This rapid emptying of the mixer results in reduced turnaround times and increased throughput.
- Decouple raw material batching from mixing. Decoupling these operations typically increases available process time (and thereby efficiency) by some 50 percent or more. Formulating recipes into IBCs offline then using these to fill the fixed mixer speeds up the loading process significantly.
- Replace static mixers for premixing. High volume production lines benefit operationally from pre-mixing the micro and minor ingredients. Static mixers have exceptionally poor OEE in this application, often involving double bag handling for both filling and emptying such mixers. IBC blenders can be used to create a pre-mix offline, following which, the IBC can be used to dose directly into the fixed mixer, with cone valve technology to ensure the mix does not become segregated on discharge.
- Replace static mixers with IBC blending. By installing an IBC blending system, all idle time is eliminated. Recipe formulations are prepared offline into IBCs prior to being taken for blending. Because the IBC is the blending vessel, there is no need to clean-down between recipes so any recipe can be run at any point in the production schedule. In fact, multiple recipes can run at the same time without risk of cross-contamination. Packing lines can be continuously fed with product, with one IBC blender supplying up to four to five packing lines, allowing for different packing formats to be accommodated in one batch run.
The Market Is Moving On, Are You?
Both large multinational manufacturers and smaller SMEs have embraced the IBC system design. To give an example, a spice blends contract manufacturer is able to hygienically handle their portfolio of over 1,000 flavouring mixes and achieve a consistent three-day ‘make to order’ regime without creating costly inventory by utilising an IBC system.
This system benefits the bakery industry too. One example is of a British bakery manufacturer that upon adding an IBC system alongside their fixed mixing system, is now able to produce high variety, low volume product lines. This additional line has cut cleaning time from 480 to 70 man hours, released £175,000 (US$258,000) of cash due to less inventory, reduced labour costs by 25 percent, cut manufacturing time in half as mixes with fat are done as ‘single-stage’ mixes, and enabled the company to expand their product range to meet changing consumer tastes.
According to the company’s operation and engineering manager, the company is now able to offer an enhanced product range, better flexibility of pack sizes, along with significantly enhanced quality assurance and customer service.
Even for infant nutrition manufacturers, IBC blenders can be used to add micro and/or minor ingredients as a pre-mix. Using a fixed mixer to produce pre-mix can prove unsustainable as it takes a long time to clean between batches. Using an IBC to dose pre-mix into the base ingredients and blend in the fixed mixer enables manufacturers to double productivity, achieve a reduction in stock, save hundreds of cleaning hours and improve response times.
If you have a vast portfolio of recipes or need to produce smaller batch runs that are tailor-made to your customer’s needs, it might be worth considering what an IBC system could offer you.