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Optimizing Efficiency Through Quality Management

By Chris Wiberg - July 13,2016

If implemented correctly, a well-designed quality management plan should target increased production efficiency to optimize pellet tonnage produced with the least amount of customer complaints or other product performance related issues.

As you are probably aware, EPA’s New Source Performance Standard for residential wood heaters requires pellet stove manufacturers to test their stoves to assure that the emissions are below regulated limits. As part of this regulation, EPA has stipulated that the fuel used to conduct the emissions test must be produced under a licensing agreement with an approved quality certification program, which includes the Pellet Fuels Institute Standards Program, ENplus and CANplus. Once testing is complete, stove manufacturers are required to incorporate language into their owner’s manual specifying which fuel(s) are approved for use in the stove. The consumer is then required to buy only the specified fuel(s) or risk having the warranty considered void. It is ultimately this language that has put a regulatory onus upon producers of wood pellets to adopt these quality certification programs so that consumers will have compliant fuel to burn in any stove produced under the EPA’s NSPS.

Irrespective of EPA’s regulation, adoption of these quality certification programs brings great value to wood pellet producers in that they require a quality management plan that is intended to assure consistent product quality that complies with the grade criteria published for each grade. If implemented correctly, a well-designed quality management plan should also target increased production efficiency to optimize tonnage produced with the least amount of customer complaints or other product performance related issues. By optimizing throughput while minimizing product performance issues, the cost of these quality certification programs can be largely offset.

To date, I have had the pleasure of working with over 50 wood pellet production facilities within the U.S. and Canada to help develop their quality management plans. Most have been in conjunction with either a PFI Standards Program or ENplus certification, however several others have been for supplying power companies overseas. Regardless of the intended market or certification program, the quality management plan requirements are very similar. The following examples are specific components that I have found to be critical to optimizing overall plant efficiency regardless of which market or certification program you plan to participate in.

First and foremost, develop robust monitoring processes for your incoming feed materials. This includes fiber supply agreements that specifically define what is considered acceptable or unacceptable. Strong vigilance is needed to assure consistently compliant materials are received and to prevent inappropriate materials or contaminants from getting into the fiber. In addition, raw materials should be tested if they are questionable. This is most critical for producers that accept materials from a large number of suppliers where the wood pellet producer is not in direct control of the fiber in advance of receiving it. It is most advantageous if the testing can occur at the production site so quick decisions can be made to accept or reject the material.

Be sure your quality management plan reflects strong processes for monitoring your production data, equipment operating parameters, all maintenance and inspections. The main idea is to develop monitoring, inspection and maintenance practices that limit the amount of nonconforming product that could possibly be produced. As an example, if your screen plugs, a frequent inspection of the screen or running a fines test after the screen assures that only a small amount of production would need to be recovered if a problem is discovered. Conversely, if regular checks are not conducted then hundreds or even thousands of tons can be produced out of spec resulting in great effort to fix the problem. The best monitoring programs should focus on developing checks and inspections that assure non-conformance issues never exceed a single shift.

Invest in a robust on-site laboratory and take the time to confirm that all testing, sampling and sample preparation procedures are being conducted properly. To date, most of the production sites I visit are not performing tests correctly or the sampling and sample prep does not generate accurate test results. When first getting started, monitor as frequently as needed to assure a high level of confidence that your production is within spec (even multiple times per shift if necessary). As you gain confidence in your ability to control various parameters, you can reduce your internal testing over time, but always keep at least a minimal amount of monitoring every shift.

If you adopt one of the quality certification schemes referenced in the EPA’s NSPS (PFI Standards Program, ENplus or CANplus), you will already have the basis for a quality management plan that can achieve what I have outlined above. Sure, these quality certification programs cost money, however, there are cost savings as well, and the implementation of a well-designed quality management plan can and should result in better overall production efficiency, more consistent product quality, reduced consumer complaints and, hopefully, a better bottom line for the producer. In time, if enough producers adopt these programs, improved product performance as well as consumer confidence should be realized industrywide.