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Improving Thermoforming Packaging with OEE

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By Emilie A Lachance - January 15, 2020

According to a recent survey by Plastics News, the leading market for thermoforming equipment is food packaging. The use of thermoforming in food packaging is growing, as food manufacturers continue to move away from glass, metal, paper and blow molded and injection molded plastic packaging.

There are a variety of reasons for this evolution. One reason is the desire for packaged food brands to be using less materials, both for reducing the consumption of raw materials as part of their brand and for the cost savings of using less plastics resin. Another reason is the move to easier recyclability, and because thermoforming uses thermoplastic materials, thermoforming can use a relatively high percentage of recycled materials and thermoformed packaging is relatively easily recycled, even back into FDA approved food grade packaging.

This trend toward the increasing use of thermoforming for food product packaging and the ever present pressure on food product margins, means that food manufacturers must produce the most value with their increasing investments in thermoforming equipment. Simultaneously, food packaging is becoming more complex. While food packaging continues to ‘be on a diet’ with ever thinner and lighter packages, food brands are seeking competitive advantage with package geometry. According to the Plastics News article, multiple studies show that consumers will move to brands that offer more convenience in the form of resealable packaging, easy-to-use and easy-to-handle packaging, ready-to-eat meals packaging and single serve / multipack packaging as well as tamper proof or tamper evident packaging.

This means that food packaging engineers, operations managers and operators are faced with manufacturing ever more complex packaging configurations in order to satisfy market needs. 

It’s no wonder that food manufacturers are turning to manufacturing optimization models such as OEE to help them to resolve how to get the most value out of a very complex mix of technology and products.

OEE = Availability * Performance * Quality

These the three OEE factors that are calculated to produce an OEE value for any machine, line or factory:

  • Availability is Run Time / Planned Production Time
  • Performance is Actual Cycle Time / Ideal Cycle Time
  • Quality is Good Products / Total Products Produced

OEE is a critical indicator of the economic value being produced by a machine or set of machines and is a way to benchmark your organization against best-in-class manufacturing companies. If you’re a food manufacturer, thermoforming is probably the most complex operation in your facility and there are a large number of variables that go into maintaining optimum performance and maximum availability. At the same time, a thermoforming line represents a significant capital investment, particularly if you’re one of the many food brands that are differentiating yourself on packaging attributes that can lead to production complexity.

Therefore, if you’re implementing an OEE improvement program, the thermoforming packaging line is a great place to start, and there are considerable cost savings to be had in this area.

For instance, in an article in Thermoforming Quarterly, Lean Manufacturing Makes Formed Plastics More Competitive, a study was undertaken to improve the efficiency of two thermoforming machines used in food packaging, a 5’ X 5’ shuttle machine and a thermoforming (pressure) 4’ X 8’ machine. Through analytics the Lean Manufacturing team determined that there was significantly less availability during scheduled runtimes than would have been expected for these two machines, leading to a low OEE. It was found that the machinery product changeover / setup times were far longer than anticipated, but since these machines tend to produce a wide range of product packages, changeover / setup times can be quite inconsistent across a range of products. Without accurate analytics, it can be very difficult to determine which products are experiencing the most unscheduled unavailability and what the cause of a lack of availability might be. 

Once the analytics had been gathered and it was concluded that process changeovers / setups were producing the most reduction in OEE, the team video recorded the operator performing the process changeover / setup. The Lean Team analyzed the video and broke down the changeover / setup process down into 221 definite steps and got to work.

By categorizing the steps into categories, they were able to begin to see where the difficulties in machine changeover / setup were. One changeover / setup problem was with the material clamp frame system, which required the operator to lie on his back to connect air lines to the clamp frame required. By replacing the frame with a quick adjustment clamp frame system (an option from the manufacturer), they were able to take time out of the changeover / setup process, in this case reducing a step that took an hour to now taking about 5 minutes.

The team reduced the time it took to gather tools for setup, added additional clamps and quick connects, modified the heater and water lines and reorganized the mold storage area as well as a long list of other changes.

“Once all these issues were addressed – something that was accomplished over several months and in multiple phases – we set goals for reducing the time spent at each stage of the setup. We did this through continuous improvement activities along with Lean 5-S principles. The results were profound. Ultimately, we were able to streamline our mold changeover from 251 minutes to 28 minutes. The 28 minutes includes breaking down the mold in the machine, setting up the new mold, and gaining first-piece approval for a part made from the new mold. This translates to an 89% improvement, which has had a direct impact on our throughput and production availability.”

This type of increase in machine availability, a critical factor in OEE, leads to substantial ROI. You can read more about this case study here.


Example of Optimizing Thermoforming OEE

Example of Optimizing Thermoforming OEE, Courtesy Thermoforming Quarterly

Continuous Improvement (CI) methods and metrics including OEE provide food organizations with a competitive advantage, as successful CI strategies result in lower costs and waste while improving productivity and quality. In today’s globalized world, implementing effective continuous improvement programs becomes even more important, because if you aren’t at the top of your game, you can be sure that your competitors are. 

As we noted in the article referenced above, thermoforming is a highly complex process. To improve process OEE in complex processes like thermoforming, we recommend that you follow a logical sequence of steps in order to get the substantial gains exhibited in the case study above. 

Implementing a Smart Factory Analytics solution like Worximity can help you to get the analytics data that you need to understand what is driving lower OEE than desired. It can help you to measure in real time the impact of the process changes that you make to discern if you’ve made real improvements in OEE factors.

Here are steps you might follow to improve your thermoforming machinery or thermoforming line OEE:

  • Decide what to measure: Once you have clear objectives and a definition of success, it will be easier to figure out what processes and machinery you want to track and collect data on. Since OEE contributes directly to machinery ROI and thermoforming is a common bottleneck area, deciding to measure thermoforming machinery OEE can be a great place to start. Within the thermoforming process there are a large number of factors that can impact availability, performance and downtime however. You’ll need to decide which factors might be driving low OEE and develop a strategy to measure those factors. Since thermoforming is a complex process, you may want to work with an expert in the field such as a Worximity to see what other companies similar to yours have done for Smart Factory Analytics implementations.
  • Decide on the right technology: Once you have a plan mapped out, it is time to choose the best devices and software that fit your needs, workstyle and budget. Since many food manufacturers operate a wide range of thermoforming machinery, you may need a system that has wide applicability to connect and collect data from a broad range of devices and equipment. Additionally, in order to get to real insights, you’ll need a system that collects data 24/7 and retains data over time for trend analysis.
  • Prototype and implement: Before beginning with the implementation, gather a team to think over the plan and test the technology with a prototype install. IIoT integration is a project, and it should be treated like any other. By picking a few data points to collect you can often make gains before you wire every sensor and motor to your analytics system.
  • Get comfortable with storing and analyzing data: Remind yourself and your team of  the importance and value of the technology being implemented and that while you can get quick ROI, gathering data for trend analysis, and testing process changes and evaluating the impact is a long game.

Food packaging thermoforming processes are complex, require significant investments in capital equipment and are often a primary bottleneck to getting food products to consumers. Using a Smart Factory Analytics system to measure OEE can be the difference between a profitable food packaging line and an unprofitable one. 

Reach out to a Worximity expert and learn about our deep experience in improving food packaging thermoforming process OEE!

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The Worximity Smart Food Factory solution is a low-cost hardware system that can be up and running in a few hours combined with an easy and intuitive yet powerful analytics dashboard that provides fast ROI to start and a roadmap to full-on IIoT success.

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