A factory acceptance test (FAT) is a crucial part of any major equipment purchase. This is when stakeholders from the purchasing company visit the OEM’s facility to test out the new equipment and make sure it works as expected. An FAT allows vendors and their customers to identify any issues before the equipment is shipped to the processor’s facility. This significantly reduces the time and expense of resolving those issues and helps ensure that new processing lines are up and ready to go on time.
FATs can also be challenging. They require careful planning and coordination between various stakeholders, who might all have different expectations and requirements. This can lead to miscommunication, frustration, and project delays.
To learn more about what processors and their suppliers can do to ensure factory acceptance test success, we spoke with Sinclair Powell, a project manager who has been in the food industry for 17 years. He got his start at Kraft and then moved to Campbell Soup, where he has worked for 2½ years. Earlier this year, Powell attended his first FPSA Annual Conference, where he gave a presentation on factory acceptance testing sponsored by the FPSA Bakery Council.
What is a factory acceptance test and why are they important?
A factory acceptance test is a major project milestone where the OEM demonstrates to the customer that the machine meets the agreed-upon design specifications. The only way to determine this, of course, is to run the machine using real product to ensure the output meets expectations.
The importance of an FAT can’t be underestimated. Do it right and your project is on the road to success. Do it wrong and you could be looking at wasted time, cost overruns, and delays getting your products into the hands of your customers.
Benefits of factory acceptance tests
“The importance of an FAT is multifaceted,” Powell says. Here are the two main benefits:
- Driving vertical startup. All projects have a ramp-up curve, and the goal of vertical startup is to get up that ramp as fast as possible in terms of operating efficiencies and throughput. “Today, there is a need to bring products and equipment systems to market quickly,” Powell says. “Vertical startup is the expectation.”
- Enabling sustained ongoing operations. “The more planning you do upfront, the smoother both your commissioning and your ongoing operations will be.” This is because an FAT allows you to identify problems in advance.
What to look for during a factory acceptance test
While the specific requirements depend on the equipment and contract, Sinclair notes that these are the most common issues you’re likely to find during an FAT:
- Problems with machine quality or craftsmanship
- Equipment not being designed to sanitary specifications
- Lack of appropriate guarding and labels
- Lower than expected throughput
“At the end of the day, what you want to determine is whether the machine is doing what it’s supposed to do as consistently and efficiently as stated in the contract and specifications,” Powell says.
Biggest factory acceptance test challenges
Powell says that the biggest challenges he’s seen during FATs revolve around getting everything coordinated. “On Day 1 of an FAT, the expectation is that you’ll immediately get out on the test floor and watch the machine run. If you don’t have a plan, you can spend a lot of time figuring out who’s doing what.”
He’s also heard horror stories about customers arriving at an FAT only to discover that the vendors aren’t ready. “It’s the project manager’s job to have weekly or biweekly engagement with the vendor so that this doesn’t happen,” he says.
5 Steps to a Successful Factory Acceptance Test
The key to identifying and resolving the issues above is a robust FAT. Here are five things project managers can do to ensure their next FAT is a success.
1. Start planning early in the project lifecycle
“Have the foresight to think about budgeting for the FAT early in the concept/planning phase,” Powell says. “Make sure you capture all of the ‘watch-outs,’ which are things that, if you don’t budget for them, can cause problems down the line.” He recommends engaging with the OEM to make sure this information is in the contract documentation.
2. Make sure the parties (i.e., the OEM and the company buying the equipment) are aligned on FAT success criteria and expectations
You’ve given them your specifications for the quality, throughput, and efficiencies of the machine, but what about for the FAT? Powell has seen some major discrepancies between OEMs and CPGs about what the test will entail. For example, he notes that sometimes the OEM will expect an FAT to last just one day, while the customer wants to run multiple products over a couple of weeks.
Here are a few questions to gain alignment on:
- What’s the intent of the FAT?
- How many resources will you have on site?
- How long will the FAT last?
- What products will you run each day?
3. Develop a sound test plan with the appropriate stakeholders
Identify the stakeholders who need to be present. Powell suggests including members of the marketing, maintenance, plant operations, and engineering services teams.
“Make sure everyone is aligned on what you’re testing so they get to see what they want to see,” Powell says. He gives an example of a test where the marketing team didn’t like the color of the product that was coming out of the machine — if a marketing person hadn’t been at the FAT, they wouldn’t have discovered the color discrepancy until much later, which would have increased the cost of fixing the problem.
Don’t forget to consider external stakeholders as well. If you’re running a packaging machine, Powell recommends having the packaging material supplier on site. “There could be a variation in their product that you didn’t plan for, like the flaps on a carton being warped or the wrong length.”
Again, the solution is clear and frequent communication: “The sooner you engage the team, the better.”
4. Identify any issues that could impact the schedule and your costs
A well-planned FAT will save you time and money. A poorly planned one can cost you both.
Powell recommends making sure you have the right material, enough material, and the appropriate resources on site to test what you need to test. “The biggest thing is the material,” he says. “You need to budget not just for the materials you will run during the test, but also any pre-FAT material the vendors may want to run in preparation.”
Also consider the other resources that may be required. For example, if you’re running a high-speed machine, you may need ancillary equipment, like a feeding machine and a machine to handle the discharge. You’ll also need a plan for disposing of the material after the test.
5. Invite members of your safety, quality, and sanitation team
“The project manager should engage with these folks from a safety perspective,” Powell says. “That includes making sure the e-stops are located in the right place and that the guarding is non-obtrusive. They also need to look at the ergonomics — anything from a mechanic’s perspective that will impact ongoing maintenance — as well as sanitary design to make sure the machine can be cleaned effectively and that there aren’t any design elements that will impact food integrity.”
Ultimately, the goal of an FAT is to increase your speed to market in a highly competitive environment. That’s why it’s critical you have a disciplined process for executing projects. “Projects can get so complex that you don’t know which way is up. By implementing a process for your project managers to follow, you’ll be able to drive products to market faster,” Powell says. “The more vertical your startup curve is, more time and resources you will save, and the happier management will be with the project’s success.”