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What is Idle Time? Learn How to Manage It in Industrial Operations

Also known as a ‘profitability killer’ in industrial settings, idle time — the period of time when an asset (a machine or an employee) is available but not productive — has a significant impact on operational efficiency.

Also, it’s a hidden drain that leads to lost production opportunities, higher operational costs and a bad workplace culture overall.

That’s why understanding and managing it is crucial for maintaining a competitive edge.

While some of this ‘waiting time’ is inevitable, strategic planning and effective management can minimize its impact.

In this article, we’ll explore the ins and outs of idle time and how to reduce it for better productivity. Let’s dive in!

What is Idle Time?

Idle time refers to periods when machines or labor are available but not in use. It’s a type of downtime that differs from other forms due to its often unplanned nature.

Here’s a closer look at its characteristics and examples from various industries:

Definition and Characteristics:

  • Periods when resources are available but not utilized.
  • Typically unplanned and often avoidable with better management.
  • Leads to inefficiencies and increased operational costs.

Examples by Industry:

  • Manufacturing: Machines waiting for raw materials or maintenance.
  • Automotive: Assembly lines paused due to delayed component delivery.
  • Food Processing: Equipment idle during sanitation processes or shift changes.
  • Textiles: Machinery halted awaiting quality checks or design adjustments.

Different Types of Idle Time

So, every time you see a machine or employee not working, does it mean the machine or the worker is idle? Short answer: no.

Not all idle time is the same, which is why it’s such an important topic to address in industrial operations.

A common confusion is to equate it with downtime, but here’s the key difference:

Idle time happens when resources are available but not used, while downtime occurs when resources are unavailable due to failures or breakdowns.

Understanding the nuances of the concept helps in identifying areas for improvement. There are two main types of ‘waiting time’:

Unavoidable or Planned Downtime

Usually planned and typically necessary for the smooth operation of industrial processes. It includes:

  1. Scheduled Maintenance: Regular checks and servicing to prevent equipment failure and ensure longevity.
  2. Regulatory Inspections: Compliance with safety and industry standards requiring periodic halts.
  3. Shift Changes: Transition periods between work shifts.
  4. Production Planning: Time allotted for setting up new production runs or reconfiguring machinery for different products.

While planned — and integral to maintaining high standards — it can be minimized with efficient scheduling and streamlined processes.

Avoidable or Unplanned Downtime

This one stems from inefficiencies and can be significantly reduced with better management. It’s the ‘bad guy‘, with a set of characteristics that may include:

  1. Inefficiencies: Poor workflow design or lack of coordination leading to delays.
  2. Bottlenecks: Points in the production process where work accumulates, causing delays downstream.
  3. Resource Shortages: Delays due to lack of materials or labor.
  4. Equipment Issues: Minor equipment malfunctions or setup delays not addressed promptly.

So, the long answer to the question we’ve asked earlier is: no, not every idle worker or machine is a bad thing. Actually, planned downtime is good for your assets health and can be linked to preventive maintenance actions.

Causes of Idle Time

So, let’s cut to the chase: what is causing the idle time in your plant? Actually, most times, there’s no single answer.

Here are some common causes:

Equipment Breakdowns

  • Unexpected machinery failures lead to production halts.
  • Lack of preventive maintenance exacerbates downtime.

Supply Chain Interruptions

  • Delays in raw material deliveries stall production.
  • Inefficient inventory management creates gaps in supply.

Inefficient Workflows

  • Poorly designed processes cause bottlenecks and delays.
  • Lack of coordination between departments disrupts smooth operations.

Human Factors

  • Unskilled workers take longer to complete tasks, increasing idle time.
  • Unexpected worker absences lead to understaffed shifts, causing delays.

Accidents

  • Unforeseen incidents, such as equipment malfunctions or safety breaches, can halt operations.
  • These events often require immediate attention and resolution, leading to unplanned idle time.

Natural Disasters

  • Events like earthquakes, floods, or hurricanes can disrupt entire production lines.
  • These disasters not only cause physical damage to facilities but also interrupt supply chains and workforce availability.
causes of industry idle time

Understanding these causes helps in formulating strategies to reduce idle time and improve overall efficiency.

Here, maintenance — both preventive/predictive and reactive — plays a crucial role in minimizing equipment-related idle time, while addressing human factors can further optimize productivity.

The Impact of Idle Time on Industrial Operations

Waiting time is a symptom of a much larger culture and process workflow problem in a business. 

When machines or workers are idle, production halts, leading to a cascade of operational issues, like:

  • Reduced Productivity: Idle time means no output, directly lowering production rates. In the U.S., it costs companies $100 billion annually. This disruption can delay schedules, reducing overall efficiency and output.
  • Increased Operational Costs: It can also be costly. For instance, prolonged equipment downtime requires expedited repairs or replacements, driving up maintenance costs. Additionally, labor costs increase due to overtime required to catch up on delayed production.
  • Decreased Profitability: It also eats your profit margins — remember the ‘profitability killer’ concept we’ve talked about earlier? With increased operational costs and reduced output, profitability takes a hit. The financial strain is further compounded when customer satisfaction drops due to delayed orders.
  • Extended Downtime: Especially when caused by unplanned maintenance, waiting time can prolong downtime, further delaying operations and escalating costs. Lack of preventive and predictive maintenance often leads to such unplanned events, highlighting the critical role of maintenance in minimizing waiting time.

Addressing idle time through efficient workflows, different maintenance approaches and technologies, and proper training can significantly enhance productivity, reduce costs, and improve overall operational efficiency.

How To Correctly Measure Idle Time?

To measure waiting time, use the formula: 

Idle Time = (Total Available Time – Actual Working Time) / Total Available Time

For example, if a machine is available for 8 hours (480 minutes) and operates for 6 hours (360 minutes), idle time is calculated as follows:

IT = (480 – 360) / 480 = 0.25 or 25%

Methods for Measuring Idle Time

  • Key Performance Indicators (KPIs): Track metrics like machine utilization rates, production cycle times, and downtime frequency.
  • Monitoring Tools: Use advanced solutions to monitor and analyze idle time in real time.

Recommended Metrics and Tools

  • TracOS™: Our comprehensive asset management software, TracOS™, simplifies idle time tracking. It integrates with existing systems to provide real-time data on machine performance, downtime, and maintenance schedules.
  • Machine Utilization Rates: Measure the percentage of time machines are productive versus idle.
  • Downtime Analysis: Track and categorize downtime events to identify patterns and root causes.
  • Maintenance Scheduling: Optimize preventive maintenance to minimize unplanned idle time.

And using TracOS™, you gain valuable insights into your operations, allowing for proactive measures to reduce idle time and enhance overall efficiency (or, basically, your OEE).

Are maintenance breakdowns affecting your bottom line? Schedule a TracOS™ demo and reduce costs!

Implementing Technology to Manage Idle Time

Leveraging advanced technologies like IoT, AI, and machine learning can significantly reduce waiting time in industrial operations.

Check out some of those innovations:

  1. IoT (Internet of Things): IoT sensors, such as TRACTIAN’s Smart Trac, monitor machine conditions in real-time, detecting anomalies before they lead to unplanned downtime. By continuously collecting data on vibration, temperature, and other parameters, these sensors help predict maintenance needs and prevent idle time caused by equipment failures.
  2. AI and Machine Learning: TRACTIAN’s AI-driven solutions analyze data from IoT sensors to provide actionable insights. TracOS™, our asset management software, uses AI to optimize maintenance schedules and improve workflow efficiency. This reduces unplanned idle time by ensuring timely interventions and efficient resource allocation.
  3. Real-Time Monitoring: Tools like TRACTIAN’s Energy Trac offer real-time monitoring of energy consumption, helping to identify inefficiencies and optimize operations. By tracking energy use and detecting faults early, Energy Trac minimizes idle time due to power-related issues.

Implementing these technologies not only reduces waiting time but also enhances overall productivity and operational efficiency.

Case Study: How Did An American Company Boost Productivity By Up To 50%?

American Wood Fibers, a leading provider of sustainable forestry products, significantly boosted productivity and reduced idle time using TRACTIAN solutions.

Specific Actions Taken

  • Implementation of Smart Trac Sensors: Over 100 critical assets, such as dryer drums and shavers, were monitored using Smart Trac sensors.
  • AI-Powered Fault Detection: The system detected over 50 faults through automatic diagnosis, providing real-time alerts.
  • Preventive Measures: The AI algorithms prescribed timely actions, such as lubrication and alignment adjustments, preventing potential equipment failures.

Measurable Outcomes

  • Increased Production: Productivity increased by 50% within three months.
  • Reduced Downtime: Downtime decreased by 60%, translating to significant cost savings.
  • Safety Improvements: Early detection of high temperatures and misalignments prevented potential hazards and extended downtime.

Key-Results

  • Temperature Monitoring: Our solutions detected high temperatures on a new gearbox, preventing a fire and 36 hours of downtime.
  • Vibration Analysis: Identified misalignment in shavers, saving 16 hours of downtime, and addressed lubrication issues in auger bearings, avoiding 4 hours of unexpected downtime.

So, by leveraging TRACTIAN’s advanced monitoring and AI technologies, American Wood Fibers not only enhanced productivity but also ensured safer and more efficient operations.

What about checking these (and other) complete case studies?

Conclusion

Understanding and managing idle time is crucial for optimizing productivity and efficiency in industrial operations.

By differentiating between unavoidable and avoidable idle time, identifying common causes, and measuring idle time accurately, businesses can take proactive steps to minimize its impact.

Implementing advanced technologies like IoT, AI, and machine learning, as demonstrated in the American Wood Fibers case study, can significantly reduce idle time and boost productivity.

Industrial professionals should view idle time management as an ongoing process, requiring regular assessment and adaptation.

Embrace these strategies and tools to stay competitive and ensure continuous improvement in your operations.

author-Billy Cassano
Billy Cassano

Specialist and salesperson at TRACTIAN, Billy focuses on helping frontline maintenance professionals get the most out of their machines by using cutting-edge condition monitoring and real-time analytics.

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