Role of Quality in Cement Plants
If one hears an y company official outside the plant premises talking about the product, the first thing which is deliberated is on is the quality of the company's products. The same thing is applicable to the cement industry. Right from CEOs, MDs, Finance, HR, Head office officials, etc. and of course the marketing officials all harp on product quality as the most important criterion for advertisement and promotion.
While quality function enjoys the maximum recognition in developed countries, in India this function is not in the limelight. Probably most of the cement customers except in metropolitan cities are also responsible for this poor state of affairs as most of them have no idea of cement quality. What they want is cheap cement. Therefore cement sells provided it is cheap. Only a few companies command spect for their product quality and are trying their best to educate the customers.
Now the question is where does this quality come from? Is it something that comes out of the blue or due to the efforts of a dedicated team in the plant called the quality team. Within the plant premises, many people feel it is a white-collared job related to testing in AC rooms. For them getting dirty in dust and oil and moving round the plant is a real cement plant job. This is an old concept. They forget that quality department is one of the think-tanks of cement plants where highly-qualified people are recruited and if allowed to work freely can contribute handsomely in the productivity of the plant.
Possible reasons for the low recognition of quality officials in cement plant in India are:
1.Most of the quality professionals are docile and humble in nature and cannot gather courage to fight and put forth their personal viewpoint on career progression. Most of them are first-class post graduates, which naturally brings in humbleness in them and makes them mild
2.Mostly they are a satisfied lot and do not have very high ambitions
3.Most of them do not go into the depths of financial, operations, logistics, supply chain management, etc. to make them capable of handling higher positions
4.A few get involved in nefarious activities in raw material procurement and this brings bad name to the function
5.It is difficult to quantify the goodness of quality compared to other departments where it is comparatively very easy. For e.g. A production manager's performance can be easily gauged by increase in production
6.Apathy on the part of many unit heads especially from engineering background who feel if it a plant it is the engineers
What can be the possible solutions for better recognition of quality function in cement plants?
1.Quality department should be continuously experimenting with locally-available cheaper raw materials and fuels to reduce cost of production in lab scale. Fortunately the future is Alternate Fuels and Raw Materials (AFR). Here the quality function has ample opportunity to contribute. Quite a few quality managers are already experimenting in lab scale
2.All reports on productivity enhancement and quality improvement must be quantified in monetary terms for selling the concept
3.Quality people should take interest in process and master it in addition to quality. This will put them in a win-win situation. Process measurements and process monitoring should be an integral part of quality management. With the advancement in cement technology and setting up of state of art modern cement plants the role of process engineers have increased manifold and it is this area where the quality people should tread in for a bright future. The advice is to switch over to process after spending few years in quality if possible
4.After the initial period of plant stabilisation after commissioning there is not much to do in engineering except maintaining high maintenance standards. The advancement in technology will speak for them. Later it is going to be the materials science approach which can guarantee continual improvements and sustenance. Refining existing products, developing cost effective new products with value addition is the order of the day. Improving burnability, finding ways and means to use low grade limestone or high magnesia limestone are burning issues of Indian cement industry which can be addressed only by a good quality and process team. Considering all these, the quality and process functions have enough avenues to show their mettle and prove themselves. However this will demand hard work, dedication, knowledge and will power to succeed
HR should find ways and means to assess correctly the performance of quality department. Everything going right cannot be an alibi to conveniently forget this important function. After the cement comes out of the factory the general public does not know how the mechanical or electrical team or HR has contributed. They are only interested in the quality of the product. If that is so why the quality people who produce the quality are not in the limelight? It is difficult to find a quality person to go beyond general manager-level in most of the organisations. In some companies you find a heavy team of high ranking HR, logistics and even Safety personnel sitting in head office and getting full opportunity to manipulate the top management in their favour. It is very rare to find a skeleton quality team in head office (HO).
What role has HR or safety in HO? They need to be connected with the people with their physical presence in plants. In the past, one Managing Director of ACC Limited decided that barring a skeleton staff in HO all should shift to plants and this helped a lot in reducing cost and improved working. A glaring recent example is the case of North America where more than 150 very senior people of cement industry lost their jobs because of mergers and acquisitions. HOs are almost non-existent but the plants are running. This proves the point that plant operations have the primary role to produce the product with top quality in a very competitive market. Cement manufacturing is a continuous chemical process with substantial involvement of cement chemistry. In such a scenario how can the owners of cement chemistry left behind?
About the author:
Professor (Dr) KN Bhattacharjee is with the Department of Cement Technology, Faculty of Engineering and Technology, AKS University, Satna, Madhya Pradesh. The author has spent 36 years in the quality control and quality Assurance function in the global cement industry before taking up a teaching profession.