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For someone who has never been involved in supporting a manufacturing facility, production planning can be a complete mystery. Somehow, raw materials go in, and finished goods come out, but the business processes in between and the planning required for maximized efficiency and cost containment are often complete unknowns. Last week, I got some hands-on lessons in the variables of production planning and this largely unknown-to-me business process, when I was visiting family “back East” and thus included for the first time in a family ritual event, the annual tomato canning project.

 

When my sister and I showed up at my dad’s house, he had already taken care of all the supply chain processes; the raw materials — a bushel of locally grown tomatoes and a packet of canning salt– had been procured just-in-time and prepped for the production process, and the tools and production equipment were positioned in the processing and assembly areas. As the novice, I realized that I had a lot to learn, and we were all eager to see how the increase in the raw materials and the introduction of a novice assembly line resource would affect the outcome.

 

With years of experience under their belts, my sister and dad have this process down to a science- peeling, coring and chopping the tomatoes to a consistent and optimal size; filling the large pans and simmering the contents at the correct temperature to avoid scorched product; prepping the jars, both large and small sizes; filling them to exact specifications for the optimal proportion of tomatoes and salt; and the most critical phase of the production process, closing them cleanly and precisely to ensure a proper seal and no spoilage of the finished product.

 

 

I observed each step along the way and jumped in as quickly as I could in order to get the most hands-on experience.   There was a minor incident, when I failed to observe proper on-the-job safety protocol, which resulted in a mildly burnt finger. As plant manager, my dad bemoaned the end of his plant’s perfect safety record, and he “counseled” my sister for the lapse in her shift supervisor duties.  Fortunately, after some quick first aid was applied, I was able to return to the assembly line, duly chastened, retrained and rededicated to following proper safety procedures.

 

We did have a short downtime period, when the first three batches of cooked tomatoes were all canned and the second round was still simmering. It was a good time for a break with some locally bottled cold beverages. The shift supervisor attributed the uneven production process to the new experience of combining increased staffing and increased raw materials, as well as longer than expected cooking times due to the tomatoes being ever so slightly under ripe. As experienced as she is, I’m sure she will figure out how to adjust the process for next year based on the raw materials variables.

 

The result? With a 100% increase in raw materials and a 50% increase in production staffing, our plant was able to produce 100% more product in only 25% more start-to-finish time than the previous production run. The quality of the finished goods passed all visual inspections by the QA manager, five ruby-red rows of gleaming jars lined up on the display table, so we were all proud of our day’s efforts.

I came away with a new appreciation for the variables of production planning. The plant management is considering increasing the staff again next year; my teenaged niece is just about ready to be introduced to the family business. Some time in the next year, I’ll have to put pen to paper and see if I can calculate our plant’s optimal production capacity; if only we had the benefit of an SAP system!

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