Seeking the maintenance 'Holy Grail'

Published:  08 August, 2018

Mark James, RS product manager, Automation and Control, for Northern Europe, looks at a combination approach that will help maintenance engineers overcome key challenges.

Whether working in fast-paced automotive industries with a requirement for cutting-edge technology, the logistics arena with automated process and production lines or the food industry executing core process activities, there is a plethora of challenges facing maintenance engineers today. Speed is one of these key challenges: maintenance engineers are often working against the clock and want to prevent downtime, whilst precision is equally important with high performance in mind.

So, getting the maintenance approach right is the Holy Grail for most manufacturing organisations. Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) Is a long-established concept – giving the operators responsibility for involvement in maintenance of their own equipment – but it is a concept that still needs to be fully embraced in the industrial sector. The philosophy of TPM was born in a time when the technology to fully support or optimise the theory did not yet exist. Fast forward to today, and there is an array of solutions to help operators and maintenance engineers achieve a combination of planned and preventative maintenance - key pillars of TPM - and formulate the best approach to modern maintenance to avoid reactive maintenance whenever possible.

Going back to basics

It is worth reiterating the purpose and value of TPM, which for most manufacturing organisations will be keeping assets operational at the lowest cost – not necessarily the lowest priced component, but the lowest cost taking into account avoidance of costly downtime.

Most maintenance efforts are often heavily reactive, but an emphasis needs to be placed on finding out why something failed in the first place. It is only then that preventative maintenance solutions can be developed, scheduled and executed. Without maintenance planners, tasks will never be effectively scheduled, and without maintenance development engineers, the reasons for component failure and the actions required to mitigate them might never be discovered. Similarly, the asset owner needs to be at the heart of the process to ensure their needs are fully understood in the operating context. This is crucial to breaking out of a reactive culture and still needs to be fully embraced in the manufacturing sector.

Technology helping to overcome barriers to effective TPM

One of the main barriers to this approach has often been the cost and implementation of components that aid predictive and preventative maintenance by informing the operative of when a machine or process performance is affected and maintenance is required. However, thanks to advances in this technology, it is no longer cost-prohibitive. The technology enabling TPM has become more advanced with many manufacturers now creating simple to use, cost effective devices, such as digital process indicators, which can be easily added to existing machinery to show performance changes.

Being able to monitor variables such as pressure, temperature and current, combined with some training on routine maintenance such as cleaning and lubricating, means an operator can significantly reduce unforeseen stoppages. Other benefits of this approach are that maintenance personnel can be freed up for higher-level tasks, and the operator gains further knowledge of their equipment with this greater ownership.

Data helping to negate maintenance issues

Knowing the condition of wear parts, and being informed on when they need replacing, would make maintenance much easier. There are some emerging technologies which can be retrofitted that will provide enhanced levels of information on the process status, including diagnostic technologies such as thermography and vibration analysis, which are helping to identify changes in equipment performance. However, these do still require the maintenance team to inspect the equipment.

A big advancement has been the arrival of IO-Link, an embedded technology that can be added to presence and proximity sensors to provide additional performance or status information. This technology is increasingly being adopted. The big benefit of IO-Link is that this data is invisible to the machine, captured via a gateway. This allows IO-Link enabled sensors to be added to existing equipment without extensive re-work. The status data can then be extracted and displayed via a separate PLC or IPC allowing the operations team to gain useful insight on the process or production line.

Access to the right products and services

One of the key success factors of an effective maintenance strategy is access not only to the right solutions and products for the job, but also access to superior product knowledge. Working with distributors that have a strong technical support offering and close relationships with manufacturers will make the job of procuring the right products, at the right time, that much easier. Also working with one distributor, rather than a number of different suppliers, will significantly help reduce MRO procurement costs. RS’ own independently verified research using consumption data showed that procurement versus product cost ratio is 3:1. It’s easy to see how dramatic cost savings can be made by choosing just one supplier – and multiply this over organisations with more than one site, and those cost savings can make a real difference to the bottom line.

Negotiating challenges pertinent to a variety of sectors

There are many challenges faced by maintenance managers the world over, regardless of the area or sector in which they operate, and the key pillars of TPM can be applicable to any organisation that can benefit from leaner processes. For instance, in the automotive sector where a ‘just in time’ solution is required, the key challenge will be maintaining accuracy of production while avoiding very expensive downtime. Challenges for those in the logistics arena - where processes are largely automated - include having maintenance teams available on a 24/7 basis, as that is the basis on which this sector operates. Whilst in food and beverage, failure of parts or assets exposed to the wash down process could result in a catastrophic outcome with the potential for contamination. The impact of downtime can be risk of process corruption or loss of productivity, so reactive maintenance can no longer be considered as any kind of solution.

The maintenance of capital assets, rather than being considered a necessary evil, is increasingly viewed as critical to creating value for an organisation and not just as a cost centre. Maintenance management has started to mature, in some organisations, from a focus on breakdown and time-based scheduled restoration to an increase in the use of predictive tools and the implementation of strategies that hold the principles of TPM. However, there is still some way to go before organisations large and small truly realise the benefits that planned and preventative maintenance can hold, and make the plunge to invest in a maintenance operation that supports a modern maintenance approach.

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