Guest Column | November 11, 2020

Best Practices For Conducting Virtual FAT's In Food Manufacturing

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it became critical that manufacturing plants remain open and operating to provide essential items such as food, beverage, sanitation supplies and more to consumers. New practices were put into place to ensure the safety of all and maintain efficient, effective operations. A critical aspect of keeping up with consumer demand has been the testing and acceptance of new equipment. With consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies reluctant to bring suppliers into their facilities and service technicians limited in their ability to travel due to COVID-19 protocol, the industry has had to get creative to complete the process.

During PMMI’s Virtual Townhall focused on conducting business in uncertain times, OEMs and CPGs discussed the Factory Acceptance Test (FAT) process and how it has gone virtual to meet the needs of these challenging times. The participants in this town hall were James Couch, director, equipment engineering, Smithfield Foods; Randall Cotton, senior project engineer, J.M. Smucker Co.; Brian McCann, global accounts manager, Polypack; and Lanel Menezes, business manager, Safeline X-Ray, Mettler Toledo. Tom Egan, vice president, industry services, PMMI moderated the panel.

Tom Egan: This past summer, to assist OEMs and CPGs, the OpX Leadership Network’s Capital Projects Solution Group developed guidelines for conducting a virtual FAT. This product is an addendum to the existing One Voice Factory Acceptance Tests: Protocols for Capital Equipment in the CPG Industry best practice document. One key element of the Virtual Factory Acceptance Test guidance document is the checklist. How are you using this checklist? Is it an active piece of what you do with your OEM as you go through a virtual FAT?

James Couch: Yes, we follow the checklist with a few modifications based on the equipment and the intended use of our equipment once it goes into our facilities. It becomes part of the actual agenda when going through the FAT process from a virtual standpoint. We try to get this document out front as either part of the request for proposal (RFP) or immediately after the RFP. We don’t want any surprises with the OEM. We want them to plan and make it part of the upstart.

Randall Cotton: We try and communicate [the checklist] out very early to the OEM. It helps set expectations, keeps everybody on track and allows us to determine what has been met and what has not been met.

Tom Egan: OEMs also use the vFAT Checklist when communicating with their customers. How do you use the checklist when working with your customers on a FAT?

Brian McCann: We use the checklist as an internal reference for our preparedness before the FAT. Many CPGs have an internal checklist that they provide along with the order months in advance, but we do send this out to customers prior to conducting a virtual FAT and we do find it a very useful tool here internally.

Lanel Menezes: The checklist is a fantastic tool to keep things structured. The only advice I would give is that no matter how many times you do a FAT, in general, having good checklists throughout the process keeps things structured. As you have new team members come on board, it also helps them effectively be part of the process. The checklist should not be skipped, even if you are restricted on time.

Tom Egan: What type of equipment are Virtual FATs being done on – custom, standard, all equipment?

Lanel Menezes: What we are predominately seeing is virtual FATs on custom systems. They want to make sure they dot their I’s and cross their T’s. On standard machines, a lot of our customers are comfortable with simple videos. We run their protocols, take videos, forward them the videos, they look at the videos and then we discuss and review at that time to determine if it warrants a full virtual FAT.

Randy Cotton: The vFAT we recently conducted was for a custom piece of equipment and represented new technology for us. We did very specific things to structure the virtual FAT to make sure that we had success. Part of that was moving quite a bit of the performance-based FAT testing to site acceptance testing (SAT), recognizing that we probably could not do a comprehensive job of virtually testing those aspects.

Brian McCann: I would say that more than 90 percent of the FATs in the last six months have been virtual. We have had a few CPG clients who want to come in, and we have taken proper precautions and made that happen for them, but for the most part, everyone is very accepting of the virtual FAT. We have invested heavily in new technology, additional robotic cameras, live streaming portable cameras.

Tom Egan: The OpX Leadership Network vFAT document provides some guidance on the personnel that should be involved. When we were developing this document, there were some conversations about bringing in experts who would not have normally been involved in an in-person FAT. Can you share some thoughts there?

James Couch: In a normal environment, we might deploy anywhere from two to four people. The advantages that we’ve seen in a virtual world are we now can bring in other resources. We bring in the general manager of the facility so they can see the equipment long before it arrives at their facility.

Randy Cotton: When you are on an on-site FAT and you have a select group out there, typically everyone is assigned different responsibilities as you are going through and validating all your FAT criteria and attributes. With the online FAT, it is very easy for the participating attendees to slip into an observer mode versus being actively participating. One of the takeaways for the next virtual FAT is that we will assign specific items to individuals and have them interface directly with the OEM on those aspects to ensure they are not just observers of the process.

Tom Egan: It seems the vFAT takes more time, how is that time allocated?

James Couch: Normally, we have two, eight- or 10-hour days at the OEM for the FAT. With the vFAT, we might only schedule four to five hours max each day because it is difficult for people from a virtual standpoint to have the attention to sit there and stare at a screen all day.

Lanel Menezes:  Scheduling and the planning side are important. When you are on the computer, it is hard to keep the attention span for several hours. We incorporate plenty of breaks. Sometimes, when you are running a protocol, a customer doesn’t have to be actively participating because you are recording the session. So, if there is a protocol that says I need to run X number of assets through the machine, it is, for the most part, idle time because the camera is on the system. You are running the product through, then it is just recorded, and the customer can look at that recording later.

Tom Egan: What is the most important thing to have in terms of technology?

Brian McCann: You have to be versatile. We have a wide range of cameras as some machines can fit into one frame with a single camera while other larger systems have six or even eight cameras trained on it at one time. A few of the cameras are robotic, so we can remotely control them. When we want to break it up and go over specific components, we can easily do that with this system.

Randy Cotton: On a recent FAT we completed, we kept it pretty basic and it turned out to be very effective. We used Microsoft Teams as the platform and the OEMs logged on with one laptop and two camera phones. The laptop gave us the wide view of the equipment as they were interfacing with it. With the camera phones, they went in and took videos of specific areas of the machine. It did not require a lot of investment in technology and we still had a very good FAT.

Lanel Menezes: We have multiple camera angles depending on the nature of the system. We also have an orientation camera that gives you a nice view of the entire landscape. As you move the secondary camera to specific locations on the system, you know exactly where you are looking. The other thing is during the FAT, you are trying to capture a lot of information, and you want to make sure all your teams are aligned. We also make sure we have an overhead monitor,  so as action items are coming up, we are punching it into a projected document onto that screen.  That way, everyone is aligned. We want to keep it simple, but do it in a manner where you have an excellent experience.

Tom Egan: With the virtual FAT, we know some things just cannot be done virtually. What items do you typically move to an SAT?

Randy Cotton: A lot of the performance items, whether it was quality checks or machine operation performance or even a lot of the testing like mean time to recovery testing. We recognize that those items are challenging to do in a virtual environment.

But equally, we identified a lot of functions that we do in a FAT that can be pushed to a pre-virtual FAT environment and done offline ahead of time. That turned out to also be very positive in the overall virtual FAT because it allowed us to acquire documentation in advance. We request a lot of videos and pictures of specific functions of the machine that we can watch offline. All of that combined gives us a comprehensive FAT.

James Couch: We did a pre-FAT before going virtual. Ultimately what we want to achieve in the FAT is to validate the machine performance as designed. If we are looking at validating safety components, we purposely trip a safety off and on. We are going through the lockout tag out protocol and doing the visual inspection with the electrical components, etc. long before the actual FAT process.

Tom Egan: How has validating the changeover process been impacted with the vFAT?

Brian McCann: Actually, going virtual has helped us out because now we’re forced to record the changeover process with every machine and that is a great reference tool that we can send to our CPG clients to have in their library. Whenever they are training new operators, they can pull up that video and watch the factory acceptance test technicians perform that changeover.

Tom Egan: Any last thoughts?

Randy Cotton: Flexibility is important with this process. We put together multiple contingency plans depending on how the pandemic progressed and I think we ultimately ended up on plan C or D for our virtual FATs.

Brian McCann: I think this is a process that is going to go on well into the future. People are becoming more comfortable with a virtual FAT process, and it is going to help reduce travel time and expenses and put those resources someplace else.

Lanel Menezes: We are going to get smarter as we learn. Just exercise creativity and communicate with each other. Once the virtual FAT is complete, don’t just do a quick wrap-up. Spend an extra 10-15 minutes to help optimize the process so that you have an even better experience the next time.

James Couch: I suggest that the OEM community remain agile.  We all jumped into this thing uneducated and unprepared. I commend all of our OEMs for their participation early in this process. From our standpoint, we recognize this as a fundamental tool, and it will become part of our arsenal moving forward.