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An interview with Slater Jinkinson, Head of Sales at Vacuum Furnace Engineering (VFE)

“The first thing on every manufacturer’s mind this year is how they can reduce costs”, Slater explains. “Covid-19 is continuing to impact the daily running of operations in a variety of ways, making it a priority for businesses to keep their cost base to the absolute minimum.”

Whether manufacturing has been paused, maintained or actually ramped up in response to the global pandemic, many businesses are recognising the need to minimise overheads, maximise budgets and reduce business risk. How are manufacturers achieving this?

“Some businesses are unfortunately having to let staff go. Others are reducing shift numbers or reviewing the effectiveness of their operations. Even small inefficiencies in production are suddenly looking a lot more expensive.”

But implementing these measures is easier said than done. In the highly regulated, process-heavy manufacturing space, how can businesses roll out these changes without negatively impacting uptime or compliance?

Drawing on his front-line experience speaking with facility managers across the industry, Slater offers three rapid solutions for manufacturers seeking to reduce costs in 2022.

Streamline suppliers

“To begin with, a lot of companies have an independent calibration supplier and that's their go-to”, Slater explains. “We might come in and do the servicing on their autoclaves or vacuum furnaces, and they might have another company carrying out the calibration.”

In any industry, the need to engage with multiple suppliers reduces efficiencies. There are separate call-out fees to consider, never mind all the administrative work that comes with each service contract. It’s an expensive game, dealing with multiple suppliers. In the manufacturing space, where non-compliance often leads to downtime, it can be disastrous. 

“A lot of manufacturers experience problems, especially with older pieces of kit. A calibration or a temperature uniformity survey might fail. But the calibration company won’t help. They’re only there to check whether or not the equipment passes, not to fix it or provide solutions. When that happens, we end up getting the call anyway. For the customer, that means more downtime and they have to deal with multiple suppliers. It’s a lot of unnecessary steps, especially for the heat treatment industry and the composite industry, when we can be an all-encompassing supplier. A lot of customers are very intrigued by that.” 

Related read: The Hidden Benefits of a Reliable Calibration Process

The move to streamline suppliers is an efficient one, especially at the beginning of the year when many sites’ service or calibration contracts come up for renewal. If maintenance or facilities managers find themselves in a similar position towards the beginning of 2022 and they are trying to get their contracts in place for the year ahead, cutting down from two or three suppliers to just one will make managing that contract so much easier in the long run.

“It’s less cost, it’s less hassle and it’s less downtime for the equipment”, Slater reveals. “To have a company like VFE that can come in, service the equipment, calibrate it, fix or amend it there and then and recalibrate it all in the same visit is so much easier and more efficient.”

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Cut energy wastage

At a time when many businesses will be reviewing their site’s energy efficiency anyway, in line with the new year’s revised or updated sustainability targets, one obvious avenue for cost savings is a reduction in energy wastage.

“In the past year, a lot of facilities managers and people in similar roles that I’ve spoken with are being challenged on how much energy their site uses or consumes. Increasingly, heat treatment and composite manufacturing machines are now fitted with energy monitors, highlighting just how much energy the equipment is wasting when it’s left on indefinitely.”

It’s not unusual for operators to leave vacuum furnaces or industrial ovens running all week or over the weekend, even though they have no products inside. The preconception is that it is less efficient to shut them down and start them up again. This isn’t an unfair assessment; the manual start-up/shutdown process is complex and fraught with risk.

“At the same time, when you've got a piece of equipment that you know has been sitting empty for a week or you definitely didn't put any product in over the weekend and it's still costing you several hundred pounds, you think, 'what a waste'. The reaction is ‘what can we do to solve that?’”, Slater explains. “Our smart energy-saving solutions solve this. They’re small and easily installed onto vacuum furnaces and autoclaves to switch off certain parts or shut down the machine completely after X amount of idle time. It saves our customers energy and it saves them money.

“As more and more businesses switched on to the savings to be made in this area last year, this was a big topic, and I'd imagine it will be exactly the same this year.”

Discover how to reduce your vacuum furnace’s energy consumption in three days. 

Solve staffing and remote monitoring challenges 

One of the biggest impacts of the pandemic has been on staffing levels. Throughout the UK, businesses of all kinds had to make difficult decisions going into 2021 in order to weather the economic unrest. Many manufacturers were similarly affected.

“Companies let staff go or reduced shifts but their production might still be running 24/7. They've just got fewer people to man it and watch over it. This can put a great deal of strain on operations, with direct repercussions on health and safety, compliance and risk.”

One way Slater has seen businesses adapt to these changes is through the uptake of remote monitoring technology.

“For non-production staff, who don't necessarily need to be on-site but want to know where their products are in the process, the ability to remote dial in and see ‘that [product]'s still in the autoclave or it’s still in the vacuum furnace’ is invaluable.”

As well as helping sites on reduced capacity to continue operating at maximum uptime, remote monitoring has applications that facilitate remote working and staff safety.

“Whether you're working from the offices, from home, or you’re out on a site visit, for example, you can keep track of what the machines are doing at all times. In the current landscape, it really lends itself well to stay-at-home policies and business continuity.”

Related read: Remote Monitoring: A Practical Solution to Today’s Manufacturing  Challenges

Taking care of all your heat treatment requirements 

If 2020 has proved anything, it is that no one can predict how the year ahead will play out. Site managers looking to reduce costs and build resilience into their operations can still achieve this by engaging a dependable partner like VFE for all their heat treatment needs.

VFE has 35 years’ of experience helping manufacturers to improve the efficiency of their heat treatment operations, remain compliant and keep their businesses running. Our high customer retention rates — approximately 80% over the last 20 years — demonstrate our exceptional standards of service, tailored to meet every customer’s individual requirements. 

A commitment to innovation has enabled us to turn our experience into cost-effective technology at the very top of the industry, including the Energy-Saving System and Remote Monitoring System detailed above, but it is the expertise and the service excellence of our people that drives our business forward.

“The broad scope of services we can offer our customers is unparalleled”, reveals Slater. “We don't just focus on vacuum furnaces or autoclaves. We are our customers’ one-stop shop, giving them the confidence that whatever 2022 throws at their operations, we’re here to help.”

For more information about VFE or to enquire about our range of heat treatment products and services, get in touch by clicking the button below.

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