If you’re feeling the pain of the labor shortage at your facility, you’re not alone.

Most plastics processors today experience high turnover amongst their front-line operators and maintenance staff. The skilled labor shortage caused problems prior to COVID-19, but the pandemic has only exacerbated the issue further.

This single roadblock can ripple out across your facility: Frequent turnover means constant training with minimal resources, a loss of accumulated knowledge from veteran operators and a risk to overall production efficiency.

How can plastics manufacturers reduce these risks and maintain a productive facility? By leaning into the expertise of their equipment supplier.

In this article, we’ll talk through efficiencies you can achieve in training, operation and maintenance and ways in which smart equipment system design can help you finetune your overall productivity.

Plus, we’ll share questions to ask your equipment supplier to evaluate their ability to “step up to the plate” — putting you one step closer to easing the burdens created by today’s hiring gridlock.

1. Streamline onboarding and training

In an ideal world, your facility would staff full-time training personnel; someone to give their full time and attention to new hires, someone to know the auxiliary equipment inside and out, someone with the bandwidth to continually sharpen product knowledge.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the reality.

Not only are you facing a revolving door of new hires to train, but those tasked with onboarding have other full-time duties in the facility.

The risks of minimally executed training don’t stop when the onboarding period is over.  If thorough startup service and training is not provided, you risk running the equipment in a non-optimal condition. This can bottleneck production and cause excessive stress and wear on the system.

You can’t automate it, you can’t make time for it internally — so what’s the training fix?

How your equipment supplier can help:

Talk to your equipment supplier about one-time or ongoing equipment training they can implement in your facility. For starters, having them organize it will take those logistics off your plate.

Further, a specialist is in the best position to train your new hires in the most efficient manner possible. They know how to get the most out of equipment performance and lifespan based on experience in thousands of applications — and they’ll share accumulated industry knowledge that would normally take operators years to gain.

Additionally, look for equipment suppliers that can guarantee uniform interface controls. This makes learning for new users that much easier when it’s the same across systems and uses an intuitive interface.

Resin material storage and blending

2. Set up equipment for efficient operation from the start

An operator on the floor, no matter how experienced or how thoroughly trained, can’t make up for a non-optimally designed system.

These inefficiencies can come from two areas: The first is incorrectly sized or configured equipment.

Within a processing line, you have a combination of vacuum pumps, receivers, dust collectors, dryers, blenders, granulators and more. If they’re piecemealed together, that line is only as strong as its weakest link.

For example, an undersized blender can restrict the performance of the entire system and lead to a throughput deficiency. Or an oversized vacuum pump won’t be cost- or energy-efficient — something no operator could overcome.

How your equipment supplier can help:

In contrast, an integrated system designed by the experts (i.e. your equipment supplier) ensures that every item in the system is properly sized, has the correct connections and works efficiently together.

In addition to aiding your throughput goals, this sets your operators up for success no matter their training background. Seeing a system running at peak efficiency also gives the operators and maintenance team an important baseline upon which to gauge future performance.

The second operational inefficiency? Controls and alarms that are more hindrance than helpful.

As mentioned earlier, a control system without a uniform interface makes training that much more difficult for new hires to learn. And if KPI data is difficult to track down or system alarms aren’t easily delegated to the correct personnel, this can eat into operator time and bandwidth and hurt overall efficiency.

How your equipment supplier can help:

Ask your supplier about Industry 4.0 equipment monitoring and controls. With displays showing real-time KPIs and machine readouts, operators spend less time parsing through data and more time reviewing current operating conditions and spotting performance trends.

Additionally, properly delegated alarms allow operators to address important warnings and avoid wasting time chasing minor alarms. Quickly understanding which machine is alarming and why eliminates time-consuming troubleshooting and prevents unnecessarily dispatching a service technician.

Workers in injection molding facility

3. Solve maintenance issues quickly and efficiently

Floor operators don’t have a monopoly on the labor shortage; maintenance teams are spread thin as well.

Your maintenance manager may have to support building HVAC mechanicals, chilled water systems, primary processing machinery, forklifts, conveyors and plastics auxiliary equipment on top of all that. They don’t have the time to be an expert in the latest auxiliary equipment or processing techniques.

With intense time constraints and tens of thousands of dollars on the line, you don’t have the time to wait for maintenance teams to accumulate years of equipment repair experience to get equipment back up and running.

How your equipment supplier can help:

Seek out a supplier that is committed to customer support. You won’t need to wait for that legacy expertise to accumulate — you have it on-hand from your equipment supplier.

For example, if filters are plugged up due to excess dust generation, you’ll need to identify the root cause.

A specialist technician will know to look either at blades on a granulator (if dull, they’re possibly pulverizing scrap instead of cutting it, which creates dust), incoming recycled material (which can bring in particulate) and conveying speed (which can beat up or even melt pellets and create angel hairs). The fix may be new granulator blades, a more thorough cleaning of recycled material or a slower conveyance speed; regardless, a service technician can help you get there faster.

This robust knowledge of equipment, systems and common troubleshooting problems seen across thousands of applications means your issues get solved more efficiently.

Plus, they are best suited to keep an eye out for preventative maintenance issues that might otherwise go unseen.

Ask your supplier questions like:

  • How many hours per year are technicians trained? What are their training targets and how do you measure them?
  • Are technicians certified in all plastics processing disciplines (drying, blending, conveying, heat transfer, size reduction, downstream extrusion, and upstream extrusion)?
  • What are your remote troubleshooting capabilities? (If you can immediately get in touch with a repair technician, this removes the burden for on-site staff to achieve expert status in auxiliary equipment.)
  • What routine machine health assessments do you conduct?

All in all, you want a partner whose experience is broad and deep — and is actively leveraged in your interest to optimize equipment and keep it running 24/7.

Hiring roadblocks slowing down your operation?

We’ve gone over training, operational and maintenance starting points for improving efficiency in your operation, even in the face of skilled labor shortages.

The next step? Talk to an equipment expert about untapped efficiencies in your facility.

At Conair, we’ve been helping companies improve their operations since 1956 and today have over 300 people in North America you can count on every single day. Start a conversation today.