Eliminating bottlenecks in the food and beverage industry to avoid disruption

To remain competitive, food and beverage manufacturers need to continually improve their products and optimise their manufacturing processes, but bottlenecks can be the bane of their existence.

Bottlenecks are caused by processes in the system that limit its entire capacity, delaying subsequent processes and often causing a knock-on effect that impacts downstream productivity. There are a countless number of issues that can cause bottlenecks for a food and beverage manufacturer, so how can these be identified and overcome?

Types of bottlenecks
Understanding the type of bottleneck causing the disruption is the first hurdle and they usually come in three forms: production line bottlenecks, supply chain bottlenecks or employee bottlenecks. Each one of these bottleneck genres can severely reduce throughput, cause delays, annoy customers and impact employee morale.

When attempting to eliminate bottlenecks, it is important to differentiate between the short-term and long-term types. Short-term manufacturing bottlenecks are often temporary and avoiding them is futile. In a food and beverage plant, this could be a key technician getting sick or going on holiday, or a critical machine requiring urgent maintenance. They are unpredictable in nature, and their impact can vary from negligible to significant delays.

The focus should be on working towards eliminating long-term manufacturing bottlenecks. These are systemic bottlenecks that are causing persistent production delays, such as specialised equipment with consistently long queues.

Many small-to-medium enterprise (SME) manufacturers in Australia must deal with long-term bottlenecks regularly. Many will experience significant downtime due to breakdowns and other than regular planned maintenance schedules to keep machinery operational, factories must have contingency plans in case of a worst-case situation.

Overcoming supply chain bottlenecks
When the entire production line is reliant on a company’s resources, material bottlenecks can appear due to poor management of inventory that creates situations where factories are waiting on supplies, inadequate forecasts of production that create unexpected problems, incomplete financing, or changing the mix of products.

Any number of factors can contribute to a poor flow of materials through the supply chain, and while it may be impossible to eliminate unexpected disruptions, creating and sticking to a comprehensive supply chain disruption monitoring and response program can prevent extreme bottlenecks from arising.

Resource management
Manufacturers need to apply the same discipline to planning and orchestrating their employees’ work as they do to optimising their supply chain and production lines. This starts with realising that, just like the machines on the production line, employees are constrained resources and can only do one thing at a time and are capable of only so much output in a fixed period.

Regardless of where a new product idea originates, the “heavy lifting” to make it happen isn’t done on the manufacturing line; it’s done by the engineers, designers, technicians and other skilled professionals whose work supports and feeds into the production line. This is where the problem lies with many manufacturers as this development process can be complex, time consuming and fraught with challenges. Often, this is due to poor resource management and many companies still use spreadsheets to plan and track peoples’ work.

On the production line, this type of resource management quickly falls apart with tasks taking longer than estimated; customers submitting change requests; team members getting pulled off projects; budgets changing; corporate priorities shifting; and so on. Regardless of the specifics, without proper project management, as things change, people waste time spinning their wheels, and decisions are made without full visibility into how these may affect other commitments.

Supplier collaboration
Food and beverage supply chains have unravelled in just a couple of months during the pandemic, as has the trust and goodwill between many buyers and manufacturers. And whilst it caused severe shortages of some food and beverage products, the food and beverage companies that specialise in supplying the restaurants, bars and pubs now have excess or spoilt inventory to contend with.

As Australia starts opening its eating and drinking establishments, carefully tuning inventories to slowly returning demand will require supplier collaboration. Working with these vendors to adjust and delay orders will be a strategy in use for a while yet, and implementing network inventory management using their Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system will help to predict and avoid future shortages as well as help to reduce excess supply.

Warehouse optimisation
Warehouse optimisation is the key to an efficiently run warehouse – big or small. It is a highly specialised process that involves automation and identifying ways to save time, space and resources while reducing errors and improving flexibility and communication. Achieving this improves customer satisfaction due to getting shipments out faster.

The automation of material-handling in a warehouse should be a key priority, with the right warehouse management software, materials and products can be automatically grouped by type and storage requirements. Automating much of the stowing and picking process means a greatly reduced likelihood of pallets and cartons going missing due to human error.

Removal of bottlenecks
The best way to solve this issue is to identify what areas have become bottlenecks by evaluating metrics such as throughput, capacity, and wait time. Then evaluate the consequences of those bottlenecks. What operations are being delayed as a result? Thirdly, manage those bottlenecks. What can be done immediately to solve them? And finally, work towards preventing future bottlenecks from arising.