Survey Says: You’re Up on Downtime

Dec. 2, 2004
Here’s the lowdown on pharma downtime, with running commentary from downtime guru Don Fitchett

A recent Pharmaceutical Manufacturing survey finds that unplanned production downtime is significant for most manufacturing plants, but not impossible to overcome. The email survey was designed to get a sense of how important an issue downtime is for you, our readers. We discovered that, while downtime is always a concern, most of your companies have metrics in place to measure downtime and have initiatives under way to reduce bottlenecks and production stoppages.

A total of 92 people responded to the survey. This included a healthy mix of maintenance, operations and control, and site management professionals.

Nearly all respondents (87%) noted that unplanned downtime was either extremely or very important. While most of you were at least somewhat satisfied with how much (that is, how little) downtime that you experience, 27% of you said that you are “not at all satisfied,” suggesting a need for better control of the problem. More than half of the respondents (55%) noted that their organizations tracked downtime, while 17% did not know.

Downtime expert Don Fitchett, founder of the Business Industrial Network and, conducts downtime surveys across various industries (see sidebar, below). Fitchett says his surveys and ours are encouraging. “The surveys show that more organizations track unplanned production downtime than they did a few years ago,” he says. “How they act on the information is anyone’s opinion, but we all agree that doing something is better than doing nothing at all.”

Only a few of our respondents were able to actually put a number on the hours their plants are in shutdown mode. Among those, there was an average of 225 hours of stoppage per year. Fitchett says this is pretty low in comparison with other industries, and he’s not surprised since pharma is highly regulated and has greater incentive to develop more efficient processes. Fitchett’s surveys show that, for instance, firms in the automotive industry average 661 hours of downtime per year, while food, beverage, and tobacco firms average 442 hours.

These figures can be misleading, however. Fitchett notes that he gets the most participation in his polls from automotive firms, who have long been keenly aware of the importance of downtime and tend to have broader, more comprehensive measurements. In other words, they have a better sense of what Fitchett calls TDC, or True Downtime Cost, a method of measuring which incorporates a wide variety of variables into downtime calculations. Power outages, for example, often have ramifications far beyond what is readily apparent and must be given greater weight in figuring costs, Fitchett says. (For Fitchett’s white paper on TDC, see "White Papers," elsewhere on this website.) As a result, he estimates that an average drug firm likely has about the same amount of work stoppage as the food industry—in the range of 400-plus hours annually.

The primary cause of downtime for 60% of respondents, our survey said, was due to equipment failure. Other primary causes were facilities/environmental problems (17%) and inventory/materials shortages (10%). Only one of you, it is interesting to note, cited human error as the primary culprit, though “human error” and “operator error” were mentioned several times as secondary or tertiary causes.

When asked whether your organization has standard metrics for calculating and reporting the amount of downtime experienced, 62% of you said yes. The most common metrics were cost of lost product, lost revenue and line efficiency. A number of interesting initiatives were mentioned to reduce unwanted work stoppages. Among them: predictive and preventative maintenance programs (including CMMS systems designed to track downtime), and Six Sigma and Kaizen programs. One respondent noted that a salaried position had been created expressly to measure and combat this issue. “These firms have some great initiatives to reduce downtime,” Fitchett says. “That’s comforting.”

Fitchett is a big believer in the OEE (overall equipment effectiveness) metrics and automated data collection. “When you see the red light come on in your car, you may chose to ignore it or investigate why,” he explains. “But if you don’t have a red light in your car to warn you, you have no idea that something is wrong.”

The best answer in our survey? One of you, when asked about the main causes of production downtime in your plants, bluntly responded: “meetings.”

Benchmarking Downtime Across Industries
Don Fitchett, head of the Business Industrial Network, spends his days tracking downtime costs to industry and developing strategies to reduce those costs. Fitchett’s latest surveys show industries vary widely in the amount of downtime they experience each year. (For more on the surveys, visit survey found an average of 225 hours of downtime per year, with 12 firms responding. Here are Fitchett’s numbers for other industries, and his take on what it all means:
Automotive 661 hours (29 entries)
Food, beverages, tobacco 442 hours (19 entries)
Injection molding/extrusion 262 hours (11 entries)
Metal 636 hours (19 entries)
Paper 498 hours (9 entries)
OEMs 472 hours (26 entries)
Other 480 hours (77 entries)
Fitchett’s interpretation: First of all, these are reports of what the participant thought the numbers where. When viewing the results, the number of entries is just as important as the data. The high numbers reported in the automotive industry just tells me they are more aware of their actual downtime.I think it is safe for this discussion to consider the food manufacturers in our survey as similar to pharma, as they too have strict regulations (FDA) which dictates an overall class of management and therefore OEE. Although stricter regulations and outside influences on management decision-making do create additional cost, regulatory demand creates a tighter-running ship by its very nature, with less downtime cost.