Learning from Change – How to make Great Super

The quality of the product and the performance of the plant varied significantly. The process was relatively simple. Sulphuric acid was mixed with phosphate forming a fuming mash. The mash was cured and then prilled. Prilling is the process of creating small ball bearing sized balls by spraying the mash with water and tumbling in a hot air. The little balls are then dried and hardened in a large rotary oven. And that’s it. Superphosphate.

The plant ran atrociously. 40% was its typical uptime. For each 7 day week  it averaged 2.8 days actually running. The plant though generally mechanically sound, stopped mechanically mainly due to blockages. Build ups would occur at choke points and block the ageing equipment or spillages leaking from the process would foul the drive mechanisms. It was a nightmare.

There was always something going wrong as well as mechanical failures. Out of specification product was a growing concern. Not knowing anything about the use of superphosphate I thought I better find out. Why not go out and see some customers and see what they wanted from the product. 

So I arranged a field visit to two of the largest farmers and contract spreaders of superphosphate in Victoria’s rich Western Districts wheat belt. These guys know their super having spread the stuff all over their own paddocks and over those to whom they contracted for over twenty years. I rode in their tractors and watched as the drivers made sure that the GPS laser guided sprayer didn’t create any over or under lap in the 120m wide spread from the spraying machine. The super had cost them heaps. When I asked them how they knew good super from bad they proudly showed me a portable particle size distribution sieve which by sorting a sample showed four different size portions in the proportions they needed. getting the size right is important. All the same size they will be flung the same distance. A distribution of varying sizes is needed to deliver the same weight of superphosphate on an area basis.

“We got these nifty sieves from your marketing folk” the spreading contractor told me. A wiry guy, he had the air of a bloke who knew his onions.

“You’re stuff has been shit recently, just cos the price is sky high you big companies think we’ll use any old crap you produce. The Chinese stuff we used to get was much better quality, but they played right into your hands by sticking their prices up with an increased tax,” the  farmer chimed in.

I knew that the Chinese had imposed export tariff on their product to ensure the local product was used internally and forcing their producers to sell inside China and protect their increasing internal production capacity. The world wide effect was to raise prices and Western producers were reaping the benefit of the worldwide shortage with astronomical prices. Our share price went through the roof. This was the right time to be increasing quality so that when inevitably the price fell we had a selling differentiation point which would protect us.

It was starting to make sense. I thought about it on the long road trip back to Geelong. I felt I had learnt something about super manufacture more than just trying to make it quick.

A day later I went to debrief Karl about my findings and insights.

“So where have you been,” he asked”

“Out to see some customers to see what they want from the product” I replied. Seemed like an obvious thing to do to me.

I mentioned the nifty little sieves then added,

“I’m going to get the marketing guys to send me 50 of these for our guys in the plant, so they can use them on their rounds.”

“So what else did you find?” Was all he said, adding, “We don’t need those toys in the plant, when we have proper sieve sets.”

“Well the feedback is that our super is highly variable in quality and size. In fact the two contractors I spoke to took me from one storage bunker to the next and told me what was ok and what was shit just by picking it up. It seemed mostly to do with the grain size to them, and me too. They said they only took it cos there was nothing else but it’s going to give problems for them to get an even throw when they disperse it over the fields.”

“So what else” he snorted clearly getting annoyed from what he was hearing.

The contractors had told me that in all their years in the game they’d never seen anyone from production out in the field to understand their issues.

“Well it seemed pretty clear to me that their issues were real and that I could do something to solve their problem,” I answered, not realising how naively he regarded this comment.

He soon let me know though. 

“Well I’ve been in the game thirty plus years and don’t need to be told by contractors how to make good super. I know how to make super. That’s the first and last time you’ll need to go out there. Concentrate on doing your job instead of swanning around out there wasting money. There’s nothing else for us to discuss.” 

It was clear the debrief was over and from here I can trace my decline at Pivot, with one remarkable upswing which ruined Karl’s parade.

Over the next few months I immersed myself in data from all parts of the process looking for the link explaining both the plant blockages and the product variability. The walls of my shabby 60’s office were festooned with print outs and data sets while I sat searching for something. The kinda something which is so obvious when you find it, you wonder why it took so long to find at all.

I worked late over weeks, chasing one lead then another. Nothing seemed to tie all the variables together. Different shipments from different countries, Vietnam, the Sahel, China and Nauru of different moisture, fineness and friability and slightly different chemical compositions. While the input quality varied the plant throughput was kept constant at 60 tonne per hour (tph). The rate was maintained by a train of six Lopulco roller mills, several of which could together maintain 30 tph   which when added to the 30tph output of the Ball Mill made the goal. If the Ball Mill failed all six Lopulco roller mills could maintain the needed rate. 

Slowly the data gave up its information. There was no doubt that major plant stoppages for blocking occurred subsequent to changes in the combination of mills. Thank God I had experience in running both types of mills. While the fineness being ground out of the roller and ball mills could be maintained at the required rate the actual material ground was of a different surface area, though of the same fineness. In fact the surface area of ball mill product was four times higher than the equivalent weight and fineness of Lopulco mill product. Chemical reactivity depends on surface area product. The higher surface area the faster the reaction. So for the same surface area the ball mill could be run faster at a coarser grind? We were in fact running the ball mill slower than needed!

Karl was never convinced. He knew nothing of surface area. He harped on and on about the fineness. I took ground samples from each mill  samples up to the old plaster mill I worked in at Yarraville where I started my chemical engineering career. I wangled some tests from the lab. Good old Frank Coloca did the testing for me. We were still mates, not having seen each other for more than  thirty years.

I set out to have the plant run the differently. We ran the ball mill faster decreasing the fineness but because the surface area was maintained at the same level as the Lupulco mill product it maintained consistent properties for making  superphosphate. The higher rates boosted production and significantly reduced blockages.   

Funnily enough the best ever daily, weekly and monthly outputs resulted. The plant was awarded the Boss’s Baton, for the best plant performance worldwide. The corporation CEO came from the USA and presented me the Baton in the canteen where less than six months earlier a skeptical crowd watched me as the potentially new production manager at their Christmas party.

Karl was not was not well pleased at the Award function, grumpily shaking my hand whilst gritting his teeth. I can trace my demise from that point.

So what did I learn. 

Chase quality improvement as near to the start of a process as you can get.

Query received wisdom, the stuff made of one years mistakes repeated over and over. 

Don’t  be afraid to step outside your area of narrow expertise. 

God gave us variation, our job is to decide how much of it we can tolerate.



A Squadron of ?

At Yarraville railway station a knot of folk milled around the exit. The station wasn’t as I remembered it from long ago but there was enough structure for it to be recognised as Yarraville. Gone are the ticket collectors of yesteryear. Gone are the barriers they once guarded. Stout government brown painted, picketed gates. Those fences were reminders of the fences around most suburban house. There were of course those families who’d succumbed to the modernity of cyclone wire and galvanised metal poles. It was a memory of the front gate at our home in O’Grady St, Clifton Hill. The memory is not quite exact. The railway barrier gates were different in heft and bulk. The gates were hung on huge stout iron hinges and were a bull to charge at them they’d most likely have ruined the bull.
Through this barrier I passed in my youth. Yarraville was a much different place then. Full of the Greek immigrants who manned the factories which were run on the banks of the Maribrynong River, the CSR sugar refinery, the plasterboard plant and the ICI sulphur works.
But today it was different, much different. Folk swiped their myki cards off themselves, well most folk, especially under the eagle eye gaze of the uniformed inspectors. Not uniformed in a martial manner, they looked more like a style of a Squadron of Mormons. It took a while to conjure up the correct collective noun for a mass of inspectors, or for that matter earnest worshippers, but there you have it, a squadron. It seemed fitting.
Passing the barrier in front of me I noticed one lady dressed casually in browny beige not swipe off. As I swiped later, I wondered how she seemed so able to saunter through the barrier in the midst of the squadron. Clearly not an inspector, as she plainly did not have the requisite badge dangling on her blouse pocket or jauntily arrayed off of her belt. No she simply didn’t swipe.
Ah ah I secretly thought, was her conversation with the inspectors a cover for fare evasion?
We trudged down the slight incline from the platform level to the street. The railway level crossing had closed, and a knot of previous passengers waited fidgeting at the horizontally flashing red lights. The squadron mingled with the passengers. And one of them caught my eye. Not an inspector, she was the beige brown woman. She was still engaging them in conversation. The train speed through, the gates opened and we flooded across the bituminised tracks. Through the opposite gates the squad turned, up the down line platform ramp, readying for another assault on fare evaders. As I passed, the brown beige woman’s comment to the squad leader floated to my ears,
“And are you married?” Was all I caught.
You could have knocked me over with a feather.
“Are you married” I repeated silently to my self and the whole scene crystallised in my mind.
A ticket inspector stalker!