What is Debottlenecking?

In every sense of the word, debottlenecking is the effort to alleviate or widen a bottleneck within production. Through careful focus on limiting factors, debottlenecking aims to increase production output and mitigate constraints.

A bottleneck is formed when a production phase or action reaches full capacity, causing all preceding production actions to slow down. By finding the rate-limiting factors within production and correcting them, companies can widen their bottlenecks and achieve a higher level of productivity and flow.

Key Takeaways

  • Debottlenecking is a methodology that sees the improvement of processes and equipment to increase production.

  • The process of debottlenecking is to pinpoint production bottlenecks and optimize to a sufficient level that production capacity is no longer a limiting factor.

  • The advantages of debottlenecking are low capital investment, higher output, and better quality.

  • Standard debottlenecking methods include identification & detection, evaluation & alleviation, and interactive continuous improvement.

What is a Production Bottleneck?

Before we can uncover why debottlenecking is important, it will be beneficial to understand what a bottleneck is and how it affects an operation.

A bottleneck in manufacturing is when a section or phase of production is at full capacity, meaning that production volume is at its maximum within that phase. Bottlenecks are particularly undesirable within manufacturing because they slow down the other production processes behind them.

Common reasons for production bottlenecks are:

  • Workforce knowledge and the skills gap: If workers are unsure of how a process is performed, or if workers are using differentiating methods, production cannot be smooth and bottlenecks will appear.

  • Surplus of inventory: Companies can run into an inventory bottleneck if they produce their product faster than their logistics department can move them, resulting in a lack of space and mobility.

  • Equipment performance: If one machine is slower than the others and leadership has not factored in a time offset strategy, a bottleneck will appear at that machine, causing a build-up of materials and products.

  • Uneven expansion: If an organization increases capacity and throughput within a limited number of sectors, other production sectors may not be able to keep up, causing a bottleneck to occur at less advanced points of the production line.

  • Market change/consumer behavior: If the product does not meet the demands of the market, selling and distributing the product will significantly slow down, causing a bottleneck in the supply chain.

  • Regulation changes: If governing bodies make changes that slow down current production speeds, companies can run into bottlenecks if they fail to adjust and optimize production accordingly.

Why is Debottlenecking Important?

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In the modern era of manufacturing, two key challenges come consistently rise to the surface.

  1. Variability
  2. Complexity

With increasing product variability, manufacturers need to understand how to time their production strategies and avoid the above bottlenecks across multiple processes and product lines.

At the same time, manufacturing productions are becoming increasingly complex, especially for vertically integrated companies. This added complexity and multi-phase production creates more areas for bottlenecks to occur, making debottlenecking a crucial practice.

The Debottlenecking Strategy

One could think that debottlenecking is simply a matter of finding bottlenecks and widening them. However, it is often more complex. Bottlenecks could be occurring without workers or leadership being aware of them or their impact.

For this reason, debottlenecking requires a step-by-step approach.

Debottlenecking Phase 1: Identification & Detection

Identification of bottlenecks can go one of two ways.

First, management can take an in-depth look at the most heavily used resources. Since these resources are in high use, it would be logical to assume that bottlenecks would appear in these areas. This approach could be similar to a Pareto analysis where 20% of the resources contribute to 80% of the work and bottlenecks.

However, bottlenecks do not only occur within high-traffic areas. Any process, big or small, could contribute to slowing down the entire operation. For this reason, it can be useful to widen our search and see where bottlenecks can appear instead of only looking for already existing ones.

To quickly gain a comprehensive understanding of potential bottlenecks and their impact, companies are opting to create simulations of their operations and then virtually adjust operational factors such as performance. This simulation works as a digital twin of the operation and enables businesses to identify potential bottlenecks by adjusting and observing key metrics like cycle time.

Debottlenecking Phase 2: Evaluation & Solution

Now that bottlenecks have been identified, it is time to evaluate them and find solutions that widen the rate-limiting factors.

While these solutions will be fairly different depending on the scenario, there are some standard methods to evaluate the bottlenecks and find a solution. If using a simulation method from the step before, engineers can begin adjusting key metrics and evaluate their success in mitigating the bottleneck.

For instance, let’s imagine you found a severe yet sporadic bottleneck within your workforce. Some operators perform their jobs quickly and efficiently while others are confused about their procedures. In this case, an immediate solution is to provide workers with a standardized procedure that guides them through their tasks and responsibilities.

In your simulation, you deem that workers need to complete the process in 1 hour - this is derived from your calculated takt time and the optimal flow within your simulation. With this knowledge, you create a standardized process that will take 1 hour to complete, effectively refining the cycle time and consistency of the process to the optimal standards.

Lightbulb Pro Tip

Pro Tip

Keep in mind that over-optimizing one limiting factor can cause an even more severe bottleneck to occur elsewhere.

If using work instruction software, tracking cycle times and evaluating performance is simple and immediate. Cycle times can be viewed in reports and organized by process and employee.

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Debottlenecking Phase 3: Iterative Continuous Improvement

As with all things manufacturing, the work is never finished. But this is actually a good thing as it enables businesses to push forward and continuously optimize their processes.

There is always at least one limiting factor/bottleneck that affects the whole production's speed and productivity.

As soon as we remove and/or widen bottlenecks with an operation, new bottlenecks become the limiting factor. However, these bottlenecks can be resolved by following the above procedure and consistently evaluating where bottlenecks occur and how they affect the operation.

This iterative process enables businesses to create a debottlenecking pathway that they can track over time. This pathway can be useful to measure the efficacy and ROI (Return on Investment) of every debottlenecking implementation.

Lightbulb Pro Tip

Pro Tip

The Theory of Constraints is another key method manufacturers use to understand and increase their production flow by maximizing limiting factors and bottlenecks.

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