Increasing sustainable production with safety

Monday, 19 April, 2010

The global imperative for companies to operate in a socially responsible manner is driving the interest in sustainable production. Here, a key area that can influence success is safety. Marcia Walker, Program Manager, Rockwell Automation and Dan Hornbeck, Safety Market Development Manager, take a closer look.

Machine safety technologies promote sustainable production by emphasising global standards, innovative technologies, trained personnel and ongoing risk assessment as best practices to support and maintain future production. At the heart of making machine safety an integral part of all sustainable production programs is the belief that corporate investment in environmental and social responsibility strengthens business performance and helps improve the bottom line.

While goodwill is part of the motivation, there is also a real economic imperative to adopt sustainable production practices. Namely, it offers one of the best long-term solutions to overcoming the rising cost of energy and raw materials, as well as managing other operational costs such as workers compensation, lost worker productivity and product liability. In addition, adhering to the safety values inherent in sustainable production can ultimately help a manufacturer increase its employee retention and morale, as well as improve its brand reputation.

Safety - along with energy and the environment - are critical components in the sustainability equation.

Safety first: for brands and people

Brand reputations can suffer greatly when companies are slow to adopt the values of sustainable production. Today, consumers are increasingly demanding that manufacturers practice social responsibility in the way they make their products. This includes keeping workers safe and contributing to a healthy environment, as well as effectively managing product safety through tracking and tracing systems, robust supply chain transparency and effective recall systems.

Beyond brand reputation, companies have a vested interest in sustaining their organisations and the neighbourhoods in which they operate. That is, they are interested in helping to keep their workers and the community at large safer. One way to accomplish this is to leverage high-performance, flexible automation systems with integrated safety solutions in manufacturing facilities.

Unfortunately, many of today’s legacy manufacturing applications use dated methods and technologies. Some of these applications were developed with little thought, or a ‘blind eye’ towards safety, relying only on the operator and maintenance technician to be alert to any potential hazards. Others were deployed as an afterthought in response to an accident that may have occurred or to some newly released industry standard. Often a ‘black box’ approach to safety was used - here, the safety solution was completely separate from the automation system.

A factor contributing to this reactive and separate approach was the limitations of safety technology. It often required machines to come to a full stop and to be in a safe state before any repairs or maintenance could be completed or any time access was needed by the operator. Because the downtime associated with the safety event decreased productivity, it often became a common practice for operators and maintenance personnel to bypass the safety systems in the machine or production line to maintain productivity, risking their own wellbeing in the process. Still other systems were developed with an eye towards safety, but were implemented in a way that negatively impacted productivity - opting for a ‘trade-off’ mentality that resulted in a situation where neither safety nor production were being fully optimised.

Such risks are no longer acceptable - or necessary - thanks to new global machine safety standards, technological innovation and developments in risk management. Today’s safety automation systems, when deployed properly, sustain the best of all worlds - a safer environment for employees, reduced environmental impact, better processes and optimised productivity.

With the implementation of contemporary safety solutions, manufacturers can allow operators to more safely perform operational tasks while a machine is running and possibly in motion, which helps increase productivity. For example, new safe-speed control technology makes it possible for manufacturers to reduce and monitor the speed of their machines so operators can remove jams and perform other similar maintenance work without having to completely stop the machine. This therefore helps improve manufacturing productivity and saves excess energy necessary to power up a machine, which in turn reduces overall energy consumption.

Product safety: respond and invest

Another key requirement of sustainable production - one that is critical to protecting a company’s brand reputation - is the ability of companies to support the safety of their own product lines, including effectively handling product recalls. Recent news headlines citing recalls of prescription drugs, ground beef, vegetables, children’s toys, vehicles and other products demonstrate the importance of full supply-chain tracking and traceability.

Using advanced information software, companies can track and record data at every step of the manufacturing and distribution processes to pinpoint when and where resources were used, such as raw materials, people, equipment or utilities and the actions taken during each step of the production sequence. These systems help automate track-and-trace procedures of product genealogy through the full chain of custody and thereby help manufacturers to comply, document and respond to recalls faster and more efficiently.

Ideally, a robust tracking system can identify and lock down affected products before they reach the supply chain, thus helping to eliminate recalls and their associated costs and damage to a company’s reputation.

Sustainable production need not be an either/or proposition between social responsibility and profitability. Business leaders who ‘see the big picture’ understand that sustainable production practices help to collectively optimise resources, improve productivity and meet the company’s social responsibility to the community.

In fact, well-designed safety systems can actually deliver production improvements that help justify the cost of their implementation. They can also help lower the risk of indirect costs that can be harmful to a company’s financial performance, such as lost time, damage to reputation, poor employee morale and strained labour relations. Moreover, companies that embrace sustainability also tend to draw investors, who view clean environmental and safety records as signs of a well-managed company.

A wide perspective

Even with all of its inherent benefits, sustainable production faces its share of challenges for manufacturers. Here, both safety and environmental regulations can be difficult to follow and address on a regional basis. Furthermore, little guidance exists on how to implement initiatives or measure their individual success, making it hard for business leaders who are conscious about the bottom line to justify the investment.

Since safety ties into every aspect of the manufacturing process, an experienced safety automation partner can play a critical role in helping business leaders determine which safety solutions and practices deliver the best economic and business value. A safety automation partner can help manufacturers take on a holistic view of their manufacturing operation and analyse all of the possible opportunities to use automation safety solutions and services to maximise their potential benefits.

Investing in and adhering to the values of sustainable production is a smart - and responsible - business practice. Sustainable production practices help companies improve employee morale, brand reputation, global competitiveness and profitability while sustaining both the corporation and the environment.

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