From The Editor | September 5, 2014

5 Tips For Efficient Plant Operations

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By Kevin Westerling,
@KevinOnWater

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These days, efficiency is everything. So why not learn from a company that has been around for over a century and has continually fine-tuned its operations to cut waste and add value?

I recently had the good fortune to tour the manufacturing plant of Neptune Technology Group, a supplier of water meters and meter-reading systems, and there were certain best practices that I’m sure other facilities, whether public or private, can learn from.

Without divulging trade secrets, here are five tips for running efficient plant operations:

  1. Don’t overpay for electricity

Neptune, located in Tallassee, AL, manufactures thousands of meters per shift, and parts of the foundry process are naturally high-temperature and energy-intensive. By creating work shifts from 3 A.M. to 11 A.M., four days a week, Neptune leverages a discount given by Alabama Power for pulling electricity off the grid during off-peak hours.

  1. Treat employees like family

Employee turnover is inefficient for the hours spent by the human resources department on recruiting and hiring, as well as the training involved for each new worker. Neptune hasn’t had a layoff since 1982, even with the intense focus on efficiency and protecting the bottom line. First and foremost are their people, and Neptune’s commitment to employee welfare is rewarded with loyalty to the company.

  1. Safety first

Employee care extends to protecting them from bodily harm, which saves money by keeping workers on the job, reducing workers’ compensation claims, and assuring that production lines stay up and running. Safety is at the very foundation of the company’s philosophy, evidenced by signage and protocol witnessed throughout the facility.

  1. In-house testing

When it comes to advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and radio frequency (RF) communications, there are certain Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approvals required. At Neptune, they test and perfect their equipment before applying for FCC approval, which becomes nearly a forgone conclusion. Neptune also has a “meter farm” on premises to simulate real-world conditions. Working out the kinks before you go to market preempts costly mistakes that must be undone.

The “meter farm,” a literal testing ground, is shown above; below, a sound-proof room for RF testing.

  1. Waste not, want not

Waste can come in the form of physical waste — material that could potentially be recycled — or energy waste. A worker trudging items from one part of the plant to another is inefficient. “Our customers aren’t paying us to push a wheelbarrow,” said Chris Knapp , who oversees customer service and field support. Therefore, Neptune not only reuses a portion of its spent plastic and metal (only “virgin” material is used to create high-strength components), but their operations are strategically located and coordinated to eliminate wasted movement and labor. Simple, perhaps, but often overlooked. If your plant isn’t currently set up in such a manner, it may seem a chore to do so; in the long run, however, it results in a tremendous (human) energy savings.

There were many more impressive aspects of the facility tour, but if I told you … well, Neptune would kill me. Moreover, these aspects that can be shared — the five tips above — are what’s truly important, due to their universal appeal. Apply what you can and reap the rewards.