If a thing is worth doing ...

18 June 2005

Whatever the size of the operation, there are three universal truths which apply to the whole industry: * Tanners need to protect the profit margin * The case for process control, as the means of cutting costs and protecting the environment, seems not to have been adequately explained, or believed - to the extent that tanneries retain a widespread scepticism * Everyone connects the concept of process control with very large $ signs - they expect excessive costs beyond the reach of most tanners. But today, costs have fallen well within the means of the most modest tanneries. However, if a thing is worth doing…… Cutting costs and protecting the environment is one and the same side of the coin. Maintaining quality consistency is the other side. The coin we speak of is the money going down the drain of the conventional tannery, the hidden costs which sap the life-blood of a business along with the effluent. The waste due to inaccuracy has been described as a haemorrhage destroying the economic base of an industry. The first step towards stemming this flow need not be intimidating or expensive. Tools are available which can leverage even the most modest business into a highly competitive and profitable position. The goal of these systems is to promote tight control of the leather making process, including the chemical steps and the machine settings. The consequences are to ensure product consistency, prevent waste and to accumulate the savings which themselves pay for the tools which brought about the improvement in the tannery's fortunes in the first place. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg . . . ? Here lies part of the problem: it seems too good to be true. Tanners have had so many undelivered promises! Cognitive dissonance also cuts in: most tanners don't use these tools, so it's probably not safe to make the changes! Then there's the syndrome: 'We don't want to be the first and make ourselves look silly.' But what can be more silly than, in the words of AA, continuously repeating a behaviour-pattern, always expecting a different outcome 'next time'. The behaviour-pattern in question is the belief that that process control is a luxury which is not affordable and human-error can somehow be eradicated by better management. That behaviour has led to the tragedy of closure of so many tanneries. The challenge today for the leather industry is to persuade decision-makers of the benefits, savings and improvements of systematic process control, making a start at the most modest level of cost. To begin with, costing less than $300, are pH sensors which are able to resist poisoning by the typical tannery chemicals. Somewhat more expensive, due to special electronics, are 'differential pH electrodes' which eliminate the silver or mercury halides in the reference half-cell. Their accuracy and stability are such that continuous monitoring of pH is made possible. With pH as the most important control parameter in wet-processing, how can these new tools be ignored? Adopting systematic control of tannery processes, does not in fact need to begin with installing hardware. Perhaps the greatest stride towards process control is systematic record keeping. It is high time that the records of the standard tannery 'Recipes'/ Formulas - the specifications of the leather itself, and the discrepancies noted in actual production, be transferred from private notes and paper recipe sheets, and entered into company databases. Some tanners (and chemical companies) feel they have already made great steps in this direction by entering their recipes as MSWord or Excel files. Yet these 'flat files' only offer the tanner a fraction of the power and functionality of proper 'relational databases' from which so much more information can be correlated, calculated and reported. Fortunately, for less than $1,000, dedicated PC applications (eg Recipes TIM©) can be found today which follow the systematic flow-chart shown, and which make it quick and easy to enter and store data, and to apply that data to evaluate and control processes. This becomes an intuitive task, which is well within the skill-set of the tannery technician. It is legitimate at this point, while discussing tannery processes, to include tannery 'business processes' in the discussion. The complexity and risks associated with the business environment are hard facts of life for all tanners. The difficulties of gaining insights and transparency and keeping the management team updated with valid information, are well known. Most of the privileged few, who have implemented one of the main-frame based packages, do agree that Enterprise (ERP) and Manufacturing Resources & Planning (MRP) tools do provide a greatly improved level of control over business costs, raw material sourcing, manufacturing, scheduling, out-sourcing and job-work, invoicing and monitoring of payments and cash-flow. Lately, the development of ERP/MRP relational databases running on Intel-based Server-PCs has brought the tools of ERP & MRP specifically to the leather industry. Now available is an ERP system custom made for the leather industry ('TPCS'©) having a modest price tag, which is not cumbersome or time-consuming to install. Today, a licence for a module of such a system is available for as little as $2,000. The modules available include Materials Requirement & Planning, Initial Sampling, Order Management & Tracking, Capacity Requirement, Production Planning, Purchasing Supplies, Inventory Control, Outsourcing (Job-work), and Cost Analysis. The power of such modules is so much greater than conventional auditing packages, since the modules are supplied with built-in understanding of the tannery manufacturing and business environment. Of course, every tannery is different, and the ERP package still needs to be customised to reflect this fact - but the adjustments are minimal compared to the main-frame packages. The most precious raw material in the world is water. It is an unfortunate fact of life in the leather industry that water consumption is high. However, water-use can now be controlled by means of very recent technology which significantly contributes to cost cutting. Gone are the days when a water control system was a complex and costly piece of machinery - technology has moved on, and costs have plummeted. The temperature of the water is the temperature of the chemical reaction. Inconsistency of process temperature leads to inconsistency of the process chemistry, the leather quality and the final colour. While the industry believes that it does not need 'rocket science' to survive and prosper, there is no reason why the wise tanner and businessman should not take and use those aspects of modern technology which are appropriate and cost effective. Water control systems are easy to install, not difficult to operate and pay for themselves very quickly. No environmentally aware, cost and quality-conscious tanner should be without one. The advantages of having a chemical weighing station/dosing system are clear and, though the savings are significant, a higher level of investment is required. Accuracy of weighing is guaranteed to within 100gm in 250kg (or better) and the assured consistency of chemical preparation and dilution, ensures the reproducibility of production results. Chemical weigh stations eliminate wastage by conventional materials handling, and introduce safety of operation by distancing the operator from dangerous chemicals. Even though such systems have been around for a couple of decades, the number installed in tanneries is disappointing. Modern variants of these systems provide even higher accuracy, and ease of use by tannery operators. More recently, the 'magic' of SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) has been put to good use in tanneries. SCADA correlates all the signals generated by the distributed PLC controllers in charge of each module of equipment. A demo of the functionality and power of these systems can be seen at http://www.swystemlogic.com. This demo makes use of an actual tannery application developed using 'Reliance' SCADA by Geovap. Lately, new drum technology developed and proven over the past decade (eg Cangilone drums) has also evolved and has significantly changed the way leather is made. It is simply not possible in such a short space to cover all the possibilities and advantages that are 'out there'. In these challenging times the leather industry has available to it the means and methods to fulfill the three critical objectives mentioned above: cut costs, improve quality consistency and protect the environment. These days the need is to 'Stay ahead of the pack or get trampled'. Technology - the right technology - is the way not just to survive, but to prosper. As implied throughout this article, if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing well.

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