Q: Materials handling seems to be growing in complexity in today’s manufacturing world, especially hazardous production materials. Can you offer some thoughts about key things to consider in relation to handling, as well as facility design and renovations?
A: “Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it. Some can avoid it. Geniuses remove it.” Alan Perlis
While it’s safe to assume the famed computer programming professor and author Alan Perlis wasn’t contemplating how to handle materials and hazardous production materials in today’s laboratory and manufacturing facilities, his words are worth noting. When considering the myriad issues associated with this challenge, it’s wise to pause, view the whole picture, break it down into sub-categories that make sense, and conquer — ensuring each decision fits nicely into the whole. And, as in all things facilities related, it’s always wise to follow the rule of KISS — “keep it simple, stupid” — ensuring that your solution is scaled to the operations requirements it needs to meet, and aligned with the goals of future flexibility, the skill levels of personnel in your organization, efficiency, and your budget.
Removing unnecessary complexity is always a worthy overarching goal, but it’s important to remember that many of today’s materials are classified as hazardous production materials (HPMs). The nine letters in the word “hazardous” immediately increase complexity, and risk. From Bhopal, India, to Sherbrooke, Canada, and from Kaohsiung, Taiwan, to Channelview, Texas, history — both recent and distant — records industrial disasters involving production materials. Often, the root cause of large disasters can be a stunningly small detail, simply overlooked. The end results include death, injury, damaged company reputations, financial loss, and dramatically impacted stock in publicly traded companies. Failure to handle HPMs correctly can, literally, bring a company to demise.
Hazardous production materials are defined by the International Code Council as, “A solid, liquid, or gas that has a degree of hazard rating in health, flammability, or reactivity of Class 3 or 4 as ranked by NFPA 704 listed in Chapter 44, and which is utilized directly in research, laboratory, or production processes that have, as their end product, materials that are not hazardous.”
What’s a facilities professional to do? While the challenges of designing production materials systems and storage (including for HPMs) are larger than this column, let’s touch on some guideposts:
- Materials handling decisions are not afterthoughts. Whether you are charged with driving the renovation of an existing facility or the construction of a new manufacturing site, make sure the topic is discussed early and kept in the mix of initial planning. You need to make sure materials handling is an integral driver of facility design. Remember, form follows function.
- Process and applications drive the solution. There are multiple options to engineer the system, but manufacturing processes and specific applications are driving the car.
- Flexibility is an underpinning. Product lines, processes, and companies change — quickly. As you’re designing the production materials systems, future flexibility is key.
- Regulations (despite any political rhetoric) rule, are complex, and vary widely by geography. But they are important safeguards. There’s no such thing as a “uniform code” governing HPMs, and the regulations not only vary by state, but can be quite different between cities and towns. Never assume that your facility is in compliance because it mirrors another recent project somewhere else (or for that matter, a recent project in the same municipality). Regulations can change often. Storage and handling requirements can, literally, vary by floor within a facility — particularly regarding storage quantities.
- The decisions about materials handling and storage do impact operational efficiencies and ongoing costs. It’s all about the flow — not only during process and production, but during receiving, handling, storage, and disposal. From “cradle to grave,” the way the flow is designed will significantly impact costs, staffing, throughput, and efficiencies.
- Own it. Understanding the regulations, the impacts on operations, the possibilities of design, and costs belong squarely on the shoulders of the facilities group, despite what an org chart may say. The buck stops with you. There can be conflicting interests inherently baked into the roles of the facilities staff versus operations and procurement. At the end of the day, the operations department is charged with getting the product manufactured. The procurement department is charged with procuring. It’s unrealistic and unreasonable to expect either to be current on regulatory restrictions regarding quantity, storage, and disposal. The operations department focuses on what it needs, and when, in order to meet production quotas — not on the nuances of where they are allowed to store the stuff or how it needs to be handled.
- Materials handling is often overlooked, and not considered “strategic.” It’s up to facilities professionals to change that perception. In the design of production facilities, the impact and importance of the handling of production materials is often close to invisible. It should be understood, at its most basic, by everyone.
- There’s more than one way to design production materials systems. The design of production materials systems within a facility is determined by the processes they feed. However, there are more design options on the production materials side, than the process side. Decisions need to be made, and options selected, throughout the chain of receiving, storing, moving, feeding the processes, and collection. There’s no singular solution. Every production materials system is impacted by throughput, budget, existing structural constraints when dealing with an existing building, future expansion plans, single story or multi-story configuration, budget, the production materials involved in the process, and storage/containment considerations, among other factors.
- Stay abreast of automation (and other innovation) developments. The accelerating pace of innovation, automation, robotics, and AI can make heads spin. Sometimes, keeping up with it all can seem like a full time job in itself. But knowing what’s available, and what developments are on the boards, can significantly impact decisions.
- Build your alliances, internally, with those that can impact the success of your handling system. We’ve talked about operations and procurement, but a host of others can influence facilities decisions, or may have responsibility for one aspect of the materials handling chain. Get to understand the challenges of, and build alliances with, legal, government relations, communications, health and safety, supply chain management, and the C-suite, among others.
- Stay ahead of the curve and stay informed. Today’s knowledge is tomorrow’s former truth. Don’t ever assume. And make sure your staff is well trained, and current.
- Develop, and execute, an aggressive maintenance schedule, while ensuring your staff is trained and competent for the work at hand. Many of the most stunning disasters involving production materials handling were traced back to a simple lack or maintenance, or oversight of basic repairs.
- Develop a bulletproof documentation protocol, diligently use it, index it, and securely store it. While keeping these types of records can be tedious and exhausting, they can prove to be invaluable and must meet regulatory requirements.
Keeping these guideposts in mind when undertaking a materials handling projects will remove complexity and help ensure that a critical detail isn’t overlooked.
Kate Everett, PE, LEED AP, is a principal and director of mechanical engineering services at SMRT Architects and Engineers. She has more than 25 years’ experience engineering complex, sustainable mechanical systems for science, technology, healthcare, education, and government clients. firstname.lastname@example.org; www.smrtinc.com