IT’S JUST NOT IN THE BUDGET RIGHT NOW
We’ve all heard it: “that kind of capital is just not in the budget right now”. So, how does a maintenance team keep their equipment up and running without spending more and more of their ever-shrinking budget?
I met a client some time back who was just hired into his position as maintenance manager at a full-line corrugated plant. He was brand new to the corrugated industry, though he was far from new to plant maintenance, having spent 10 years as a maintenance supervisor in various other manufacturing industries. “Everything is just so old”, he volunteered to me shortly into our conversation. “Welcome to the box business” I told him. It was a moment of realization for the both of us. He was quickly learning that maintenance can be tough when the average age of a machine seems to be 20 plus years old and I was shocked to think that other industries actually found corrugated’s reliance on older equipment as strange.
It did get me thinking, however. How were some of my clients so successful with maintaining their older equipment despite budget restrictions and seemingly endless shortages of skilled labor? What were the keys to their success?
As I began to ask friends and clients of mine, who I respected, for their feedback, it became apparent that almost everyone agreed on the problems associated with plant maintenance. “Time… not enough of it”, one maintenance manager with 25 years in the industry told me. “Convincing Production that we’re not the enemy” offered another. “Well, that goes back to time, doesn’t it?” I countered. “Sure it does. Deciding whether time down or time spent on PM maintenance is more worth it.”
Time, and the value we place on it, seems to be one of the key factors. So what is the solution?
It did not take me long into my research to stumble across a startling statistic. In the USA, average equipment productivity stays at or below 50%. It is no surprise then, that maintenance teams seem to be stuck “putting out fires” constantly and feel like they need another 8 hours in their day.
“We already do a PM and we’re still having problems.” That is a common response I hear when asking production supervisors what they think about their maintenance team saying they need more time to keep things running smoothly. “It’s all about what your PM entails”, offered a reliability manager I work with frequently. Judging by his plant’s impressive production and profit numbers, he knew what he was talking about. I encounter many plants who plan all their preventive maintenance around the calendar and are riddled with generic checklists asking them to “check fasteners for tightness every week” or “conduct weekly inspection”. But is that kind of standard PM truly beneficial? According to the AICC’s continuing education course on maintenance optimization, only 10%-13% of machine failures are related to the age of the machine. An estimated 90% of failures are considered random failures related in one form or another to contamination, improper lubrication or unknown factors. The OEM recommendations for service frequency and parts life expectancy help maintenance managers prioritize what PM work to schedule, but they can only cover so much.
Unfortunately, standard calendar PM’s are only geared towards preventing age related failures. That leaves the other 90% of machine failures without a preventive measure to address them and keeps maintenance teams stuck in that reactive “putting out fires” mode. How do we work to help prevent more of these random or non-age-related failures? “Responsibility. Operators have to share some of the responsibility. It can’t be all on maintenance. We can only see so much”, said a maintenance manager with 10 years experience at a sheet plant. “The operators are in front of their machines all the time. They know how they should run. If something doesn’t sound right or feels off, they have to tell us before it breaks.”, he continued.
The AICC maintenance course referenced earlier suggested that at least 50% of breakdowns could be detected in advance by the operators before a PM could take place. That means that if operators are encouraged to take responsibility for some of their machine’s preventive maintenance then failure and breakdowns are more often prevented. Something as simple as a start of shift checklist or minimum cleaning standards that operators follow can go a long way towards being more proactive and getting some of the pressure off the maintenance team. If Production and Maintenance can work together to formulate a straightforward procedure for operators to “own” more of the preventive maintenance at their machines, it can and will have a real effect on a plant’s bottom line. Communication becomes paramount here. Production management is focused on uptime/output and sometimes can find the demands of the maintenance team as inconvenient. A successful maintenance manager recognizes that disconnect and learns to work with Production. One such manager put it this way, “How can I complain that Production isn’t giving me enough time, unless I watch them and see how I can help them? If they know I am there to help them maximize their output and uptime then they’re more willing to let me slide in where I need to get something done”.
So what about those generic PMs? The most successful maintenance managers I know track their breakdown history. They know what breaks the most often during a run and what things are the most difficult to repair if they go down. Taking that knowledge and turning it into data, that is then input into a computerized maintenance management system, can calculate failure causes and help identify patterns. Those patterns have to then be addressed by a PM. “You should always be trying to get rid of the call… if you are frequently getting a call for a problem on the same machine then you need you need to take that as a clue that a big breakdown is coming and figure out what’s going on”, said an experienced maintenance manager I interviewed.
Rather than feeling like some PM procedures are busy work, maintenance technicians can begin to ask why they are doing what they are doing. If a weekly corrugator PM calls for checking the air pressure to the dancer system but you haven’t had a problem with your dancer in 6 months then perhaps you can reduce that to only checking the air pressure twice a month. However, your brake fans have failed three times this month, so now you use some of that time you used to dedicate to checking your more reliable dancer air pressure and instead dedicate it towards cleaning and checking your brake fans. This, of course, is a hypothetical example, but the core concept rings true. Encouraging maintenance teams to study their machine failure histories and periodically adjust their PM procedures based upon that information is one way to help prevent more of those “random failures”. After all, if a PM is not creating a need for a corrective action then it really is not doing much good. This is an idea you begin to pick up on with time.
There is no substitute for the knowledge that comes with time and experience. All the best planning and proactive steps can only go so far. When I asked John Lancaster, a Maintenance Manager at a full-line plant in North Carolina with 18 years experience, what he thought was the most important thing for a maintenance team to know and prioritize, he surprised me with his answer. “Know your boiler. They’re intimidating at first if you don’t understand them but once you learn it, everything just runs better”. He added, “I can look at a plant’s boiler room and know if they take care of their machines because if you don’t care about your boiler then you don’t care about your machines”.
In the end, while you’re planning for the unexpected, remember that you can’t learn everything right away. Don’t give up. Learn, as Lancaster put it, “to use a cheat sheet. Read the [corrugated] board. The board will tell you what’s wrong with the machine 99% of the time. I can look at it and how it is warped and know what part of the corrugator to start with to find the problem”. Tricks of the trade like “reading the board” come with time. Working with operators to share some proactive maintenance responsibility with you can be a defining change for your plant’s maintenance culture. Pair that with learning to adjust around your breakdown history and maybe next time you’ll have time to take some deep breaths before the next breakdown call comes in.