by Charlie A. Webb CPP, CMC
Staff Writer

For nearly 20 years I’ve had the opportunity to speak to literally hundreds of plant managers and packaging engineers regarding their challenges facing throughput, while at the same time staying true to lean manufacturing principals. Many of these medical device companies have opted for the procurement of monolithic packaging machines that have price tags with more zeros than most of our mortgages. The initial costs of these huge packaging machines were often justified through a cost of ownership matrix that promised incredible throughput and minimal downtime. Unfortunately the tales told from the trenches speak of less then miracle machines that spend much of their time in a fatal material jam.

With some of these packaging machines the reliability was so poor, users became close personal friends of factory service agent’s as they became nearly permanent fixtures at their facility. The biggest issue facing this central point of packaging concept is that it creates a single point of failure where all production can come to a screeching halt when the mighty dragon stops breathing.

With a single packaging machine line there is no contingency plan, the only hope of thwarting downtime is centered on preventative maintenance. Unfortunately, when you are looking at equipment that has a parts list that reads like the New York City phone book, thwarting downtime is nearly impossible.

One of the latest manufacturing mindsets I’ve have recently noticed borne from ownership of these mega-machines is what I call the “need to pack syndrome”. When your company invests in machinery, often well into the six figures, management expects to see these machines in motion. When capital equipment of this caliber sits idol, everyone is in a panic. There’s nothing louder than an expensive piece of equipment, silent. The response by production is to run these giant machines, to build up product and to stockpile the warehouse, creating a mountain of finished and packaged product, whereas the sterilization expiration clock is ticking. It is important to remember, motion does not equate to progress. These Jules Verne like machines are captivating even hypnotic to watch the hiss of the pneumatics and spinning rollers lull you into a warm state of mind. These big packaging machines remind me of a 1960’s era Italian sports car, when they are running they are indeed a wonderful machine, sadly much of their time is spent inoperable awaiting a rare part. We are now witnessing it appears a movement to dynamically control the packaging line. The antidote to this big is better fallacy is to purchase five to ten machines at a fraction of the cost of the fully automated system. If a machine does go down or out of calibration throughput does not halt as it might with a single machine line.

Enter the new work cell revolution.
Many of our customers have made the painful decision to divest themselves of these monuments that sits too often idle. They have moved to single operator work cells where management can ebb and flow the per diem employees to finely tune their throughput. This is a concept I have supported for years, as it makes such great sense on so many levels. As a former operation manager and certified management consultant, there are plenty of business and
Management concepts we can hang our hats on when we make the decision to celluarize the process of sterile device packaging.

It’s important to remember that each one of these cellular workstations can produce an impressive amount of throughput. Customers that are packaging medical devices are often surprised to see 10,000 or better parts packaged on a single unit per day and the cost of ownership and the low preventative maintenance schedules are impossible to ignore. So perhaps it’s time to retire you monument machine that’s consuming 1,000 square feet of your production floor and start evaluating how the cellular workstation models can benefit your company. Taking all of your packaging eggs out of a single basket could be a major step forward in the lean and reliable manufacturing doctrine.