What bottling port taught me about process

(This is the second in an occasional series posts recounting real life process issues I have encountered)

Several years ago I was working with a very well known Port manufacturer in Oporto, Portugal. At the time I was helping them to implement a new financial accounting package. However they were also rolling out a new bottling line in the bodega.

Port is aged in huge barrels which are kept in cool cellars in bodegas on the banks of the Douro River in Oporto. It is a picture postcard scene with steep hills and multi-coloured buildings leading down to the bodegas which usually line the quays along the river bank.

On a beautiful September afternoon we were taken from the offices and toured through the bodega by George the owner of the company. (I could tell you his surname but that would give away the name of the company). Anyway we wandered into a cellar where new pipes had just been fitted into a huge aging barrel along one wall. The pipes ran up the wall, along the ceiling and through a hole in the far wall to an adjacent room. As we followed the pipe we came to a bottling line.

A bottling line is essentially exactly what it sounds like - a processing line where port is placed in bottles. In the more modern manufacturing businesses these bottling lines are huge and the throughput is phenomenal. You've probably all seen the footage of the Budweiser bottling line where hundreds and hundreds of bottles are filled every second. This isn't like that. Although the technology is modern it is very small scale. The throughput is quite small and the prices are quite high. This is how the company maintains quality and profits.

So the bottling line was essentially a single throughput line which processed a full bottle of port from end to end in something like thirty seconds. Quite slow by other standards.

Here's how the process went. Empty bottles are feed into one end of the line from a pallet. They are funneled down a single channel which accepts only one bottle at a time. The bottle meets the port and is filled. A label is added to the front of the bottle. A cork is added to the top of the bottle and finally a customs stamp is place over the cork. For those of you that don't know about this, the customs stamp is proof that duty has been paid on the alcohol to the government. It is essentially a strip of paper that is glued up the neck of the bottle, over the cork and down the opposite side of the neck. Opening the bottle will result in the strip being broken identifying that duty has been paid. (Note: The bottle in this picture does not have a customs stamp on it)

There were two problems with the process which I saw. The first related to adding the label. On beer bottles and a large number of other spirits, the label is just slapped on as the bottle passes a certain point in the line. As long as it goes on straight and level there is no issue. However with a number of spirits (and this one in particular) the bottle had a stamped-in seal on the neck which was created as part of the bottle manufacturing process. The label had to align perfectly underneath it. So how do they ensure that the label is placed in the right area? The answer is quite easy if you think about it but off the top of my head I struggled to find a solution. The bottle is manufactured with the stamped-in seal on one side and - directly behind it - is a little notch at the bottom of the bottle. The bottling line jiggles the bottles around until the notch aligns with a stud on the side of the moving belt and this guarantees that the front is facing the labelling machine. Next time you pick up a bottle of spirit with a glass seal on the front above the label check the back of the bottle near the bottom. You'll find the notch.

The more interesting problem was the customs label. To add this label the blanks are fed into the machine in a long strip. The machine cuts the strip behind each label, positions it over the top of the bottle and a sleeve comes down from above and forces it over the cork and down the sides where the glue would attach it. The problem was that the tolerances for this process are very small. If the sleeve is a fraction of a centimetre misaligned with the bottle it would come down and crack the glass. Indeed as we were watching the engineers were attempting to align this part of the machine and succeeded in smashing three or four bottles of vintage port all over the floor. Each time this happened the machine needed to be stopped, the wreckage cleared, the floor cleaned, the machine realigned and the while thing started again. This was taking quite a bit of time and costing a lot of money. After watching this happen for the fifth time (and starting to get a little high from the alcohol fumes drifting up from the floor) I turned to George and said "Why don't you stop filling the bottles and just use empty ones until the alignment issue is sorted out?"

Ultimately in process modeling it is the small items such as that detailed above which simplify the whole process.

Can you think of something you are doing in a process now which you can stop but which will
Improve the overall flow? I bet you can.

Reminder: 'The Perfect Process Project Second Edition' is now available. Don't miss the chance to get this valuable insight into how to make business processes work for you.

Click this link and follow the instructions to get this book.

All information is Copyright (C) G Comerford

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