Maintenance as a profit centre

Published:  08 April, 2015

Once, maintenance was seen as simply an on-going cost of business. But, its ability to banish downtime means it is now a key contributor to the bottom line, says Phil Burge, country communications manager at SKF.

Maintenance is usually seen as a necessary cost of doing business: without it, machines would simply stop working and production would dry up. However, one train of thought suggests that manufacturers could make a return on their investment in maintenance – and even that maintenance should be seen as a profit centre.

The logic behind this is sound: taking an enterprise-wide approach to maintenance, and making it a key part of overall strategy, can improve profits by reducing the scourge of machine downtime. For maximum effect, maintenance should work in partnership with other elements of the business – such as engineering and production – to pinpoint how a reliability-focused maintenance process can deliver specific business goals.

The technology required for this – in the form of various condition-based monitoring (CBM) hardware and software – is already in place. But this is only part of the solution. Without a strategy in place, to ensure these programmes are implemented cohesively throughout a plant, it remains difficult for managers and machine operators to maximise productivity. Fortunately, companies can now use a new generation of integrated approaches that take the needs of the entire organisation into account. Once implemented, these strategies enable maintenance requirements to be analysed, assessed and managed simultaneously – raising uptime and productivity and improving the bottom line.

The larger and more complex the plant, the harder it is to determine the right maintenance strategy. Attacking the problem raises a number of questions that are relevant across the entire operation: for example, when does the risk of equipment failure necessitate a preventative intervention? What is the ideal period for scheduled maintenance – and what, precisely, should it cover? Such complications make it difficult to implement an enterprise-wide solution.

One helpful approach is to look at maintenance procedures. Factory maintenance has historically been done reactively, linked to set time intervals and machine or component failure. This gives little control of production assets – people and machines – and drags productivity down. A more proactive, holistic approach can help manufacturers unlock hidden savings, thanks to better asset control that minimises unexpected downtime and boosts productivity.

This is the basis of an Asset Efficiency Optimisation (AEO) plan, a work management process structure that delivers maximum efficiency and effectiveness from activities focused on the overall business aim of the plant. The plan takes account of top-level business forecasting and system-wide analysis. It is a shift away from the reactive approach, to a selective mix of scheduled, proactive, predictive and reactive maintenance. It has in-built sustainability and provides rapid results and payback on investment.

XHEAD: Integrated elements

There are four integrated elements to an AEO programme: maintenance strategy, work identification, work control, and work execution.

The maintenance strategy sets business goals and objectives, assesses plant criticality and risk, and defines the most important issues and priorities. This enables an effective maintenance plan that is tailored to the needs of the business and can be easily communicated throughout the organisation. It involves training staff to carry out regular machinery inspections, from which a wealth of process data can be gathered.

The approach encourages active participation of engineers in reliability-related activities, such as Root Cause Failure Analysis (RCFA) or maintenance strategy review processes, while the dominant causes of failure in critical equipment are addressed by Streamlined Reliability Centred Maintenance (SRCM) processes. The process reviews the asset operating context, failure mode and the effect that failure has on the business goals, and identifies the most appropriate migrating maintenance tasks for that equipment.

The second element is the identification of work, where critical plant information is gathered – by relevant CBM equipment – and analysed, allowing informed decisions to be made and the corrective maintenance operations carried out.

The third element, work control, involves detailed planning and scheduling of maintenance activity, taking into account timescales, man-hours, data feedback, and competence levels. Effective planning at this stage will fully optimise resources and plant efficiency.

The final element, work execution, sees all this planning and preparation carried out. Feedback is collected via post-maintenance testing and fed back into the maintenance system to ensure constant ‘fine tuning’ of the maintenance plan and a maximum return on investment. A strategic tool like AEO helps a company manage its assets more effectively – ensuring smooth running and minimum downtime across the entire plant. It boosts profitability by increasing output for the same cost, or maintaining output for less cost. Either way, AEO is a consistent, measurable way of maximising assets via a structure that will enable continual improvement.

XHEAD: Cultural significance

Condition-based monitoring (CBM) cannot easily be separated from asset care, as the two are closely linked. Maintenance is carried out under normal operating conditions, which means that any potential faults or failures are detected and acted upon at an early stage, before they lead to major damage or downtime.

This careful monitoring and measuring brings into play the three elements necessary for success; culture, process and technology. A common stumbling block is when technology is prioritised over the other two factors, as it appears to offer the most obvious short-term and tangible gains. If anything, culture is the first thing that needs to stabilise as it is this complete understanding and adoption of CBM across the business that will enable accepted processes to alter and new technology to be implemented.

In addition, new monitoring and analysis tools introduced to the factory floor – whether they are used to measure vibrations or maintain machine health – are ineffective without trained operators, who understand what to do with the information and data that is collected.

Operator Driven Reliability (ODR) is an approach that enables operators to use their skills and knowledge to detect and report upon very early changes in equipment conditions – from abnormal readings and strange sounds to signs of leaks or pressure drops. From their position on the front line, operators play a vital role in managing assets and minimising downtime. The cultural aspect is that operators better understand the importance of their role, are empowered to make decisions and can appreciate the significance of their actions and findings.

This is where the process and technology stages come into play. Data collected by operators is uploaded onto shared software for analysis and to develop improvements. This mining of information is achieved using a raft of CBM tools and techniques. Only by understanding the causes and consequences of change can the benefits of the supporting technology be fully realised. While the short term effects are better run equipment, less occasions for repair and a lower energy bill, longer term gains are centred on a more transparent cultural environment, with regular interdepartmental collaboration – such as stronger ties between maintenance and operational staff.

As these key people start communicating more regularly and effectively, it brings greater business goals within reach. By creating a common culture for the ‘greater good’ of the entire organisation, smooth running and personal interactions are as important as the equipment.

A CBM programme anticipates machine behaviour, but only by adhering to the principles of culture, process and technology can it play a part in continuous improvement.

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