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Plant Management

How to prosper while short-staffed, without recruiting

February 23, 2021
With intense competition from overseas, growing concerns for the environment and thinning margins, the current skilled labour shortage only intensifies a growing list of challenges faced by the Pulp and Paper industry.

Worse: attrition due to older employees retiring from the workforce, combined with employee shortages in specialized trades, may threaten the jobs of current employees by impacting a plant's ability to keep up its productivity.

What if we told you that there are ways to compensate for these challenges without waiting to recruit from the next cohort of electricians, technicians, reliability engineers or metrologists?

1. Focus on your team's versatility

We already know that less graduates come out of technical colleges and schools than before. In plants, this leads to the combining trades such as instrumentalists and electricians. However, while they complement each other, both trades require specific sets of skills.

The good news is that continuing education is increasingly recognized as a motivation factor for employees. With the right training, you can boost morale and engagement, all while protecting your plant's productivity with a more versatile and competent workforce. That's a win-win for all involved.

2. Simplify decision-making with a defensive approach

When working with a small team, any waste of time or inefficient process can amplify an existing problem to unexpected proportions. In a plant, saving time can mean replacing manual readings with wireless instruments, which eliminates the need for rounds and contributes to employee safety. In short, simplifying this task also protects your small team.

However, the real advantage to monitoring assets remotely lies with the possibility to activate predictive intelligence, which means predicting which machines will require maintenance or repair, and when in order to avoid unplanned shutdowns, but also unnecessary maintenance on machines that are still in optimal condition.

3. Embrace Industry 4.0, one small step at a time

A trendy buzzword for some, a mountain of complexity for others: one thing that the terms Industry 4.0 and Digital Transformation don't evoke is simplicity. It is true that at first glance, the costs, learning curve and required training associated with such a change can be intimidating.

And yet, industry 4.0 really is there to simplify your life. The advanced diagnostics now available in most instruments can give you much more information on both the yield and health of your plant's assets. Deploying such diagnostics will allow you to detect potential failures before they become critical and to act in a timely manner, much like described above in point 2. An example of this 4.0 application is Remote Condition Monitoring which consists in real-time data collection and analysis to drive decision-making in operations, engineering and maintenance.

When combined with a preventive maintenance program, this solution will avoid bad surprises and unplanned repair work. When we present predictive intelligence at Laurentide, clients often ask us how to implement such measures with limited resources and without changing everything all at once. We recommend to start by targeting critical applications, where preventative measures will have the most impact on time and money savings.
One way to visualize this approach is through the SuperBowl analogy: if lighting fails during the event, it won't have the same impact if it's the washroom lights that fail versus the field lighting. Likewise, by identifying critical equipment to protect, we can ensure that your 4.0 technology investment will pay itself back as soon as possible in efficiency gains and will indeed help you compensate for short-staffing issues.

4. Audits and best practices

In a world of constant evolution and rapid change, another possible avenue is using best practices when installing new instruments. The field of instrumentation has greatly evolved in the past years and keeps on improving. Using best practices allows your plant to get better performance, using equipment to its full potential while also increasing its longevity. Not to mention improved process control and production quality, which means that the ROI of best practices is often  underestimated.

Auditing steams traps, air leaks, or the steam or gas network's mass balance, combined with preventive maintenance optimization (PMO) can also generate substantial savings and minimize losses due do unplanned outages. Thankfully, these audits can be performed by an outside resource: at Laurentide, this is a service that is in high demand and usually costs less than the savings it generates.


By focusing on the versatility of the team in place, best practices as well as progressively implementing automation, a plant can gain in productivity and counter the effects of retirement-led attrition and skilled labour shortages. Even better: by protecting plant revenues and productivity, you will be in a better position to hire when someone qualified will finally apply to join your team.