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Rethinking Equipment Maintenance: Transitioning to a Proactive Approach

by Larry Bouvier, CMRP, and Rob Levandoski, president

Fuss & O’Neill Manufacturing Solutions, LLC

The competitive pressures facing America’s manufacturers, including mold builders, are well documented. Labor costs, competition from inexpensive imports, inconsistent availability and fluctuating costs of materials – these are the day-to-day issues that keep manufacturing administrators up at night.

One of the biggest challenges facing manufacturers also is the most controllable – asset management. Manufacturers often fail to pay adequate attention to the condition of the equipment and infrastructure on which they rely every day. The result often is lower throughput, reduced equipment reliability, higher accident rates and increased expenses to meet regulatory obligations.

When these problems do occur, they represent self-inflicted wounds caused by companies taking a reactive approach to maintenance, waiting for equipment failures or accidents to occur before taking action. Instead, mold builders should be proactive, creating integrated asset management and maintenance programs designed to regularly assess and monitor equipment while also reviewing operator skills and workplace conditions.

This isn’t just an issue with mold builders; the problem is widespread and extends beyond industries. Only about one in 10 companies has an effective and comprehensive maintenance and equipment management program in place to keep systems operating efficiently and safely. As a result, each year American businesses lose more than $500 billion to equipment breakdowns or inefficiencies and the inevitable loss of productivity that comes with those breakdowns.

Proactive strategy

Having an effective maintenance and asset management strategy is crucial. Effective maintenance keeps equipment running properly, ensures production schedules remain on target and provides a safer work environment. Maintenance also can save companies significant money by avoiding costly equipment repairs or replacement losses caused by production shutdowns or slowdowns, and unnecessary worker injury costs. It typically costs companies five to 10 times more to act reactively to breakdowns than to implement a proactive maintenance program.

One of the primary challenges to implementing a proactive maintenance program is the shortage of experienced and qualified maintenance professionals, both at the manager and technician level. As a result, more than 90 percent of all American maintenance workers today have not been formally trained.

Think about that for a moment. A manufacturer may spend tens of thousands – perhaps millions – of dollars on equipment that is essentially its operational lifeblood. If that equipment doesn’t operate properly, the manufacturing process could come to a grinding halt. Yet, most companies have unqualified personnel keeping watch over it.

The problem has been a long time in the making and can’t be turned around in a week or a month. Apprenticeship programs for training maintenance managers and staff are no longer common among the nation’s manufacturers. In the past companies maintained grueling programs that provided the expertise and experience participants needed to take care of their companies’ maintenance needs, but today’s companies are cutting back on training and skills development, leading to a dramatic drop in technical competence. Now that the last generation’s trained professionals are rapidly approaching retirement age, too few trained and experienced people are available to take their place.

This shortage couldn’t come at a worse time. The complexity of the equipment and software systems that are in use at most manufacturers today make it more important than ever for companies to have proactive maintenance programs in place. Yet, many companies struggle to implement those programs.

Acting today

So, what can companies do to implement proactive maintenance?

The first step is to conduct a maintenance program audit, establishing a baseline assessment to understand where the program stands today vs. where the program and skills need to be, based on the type of equipment and the skills needed to maintain it. This starts with a visual evaluation of the equipment condition and technician interviews.

The assessment continues with an evaluation of how the company plans, schedules and monitors equipment functionally, further assessing the record-keeping and information management to monitor how it is operating. The evaluation, which also looks at failure planning and asset condition monitoring, can be conducted either by in-house maintenance managers or maintenance process consultants.

Once the evaluation is completed, a short-term plan needs to be developed to fix problems identified during the audit phase. The plan should be created with the goal of getting equipment fully operational as quickly as possible. Half solutions and quick-fix approaches don’t work, and they typically lead to new problems down the road, while hindering productivity in the short term.

However, while these initial steps represent progress, they are still reactive. The goal of every manufacturer should be to have a proactive maintenance program in place. This doesn’t happen overnight: Many companies find they need to implement three- to five-year plans to move from reactive to proactive maintenance.

Life-cycle plans are created by establishing production goals for equipment and then determining maintenance best practices that will lead to that equipment being able to achieve those goals. Every company, facility and piece of equipment is different, and the plans for meeting those goals must be built around the unique characteristics and challenges presented by the company and its equipment. Experienced maintenance managers who are familiar with the equipment being used and its capabilities should have no trouble creating a workable and effective maintenance plan.

The question is, where do these experienced managers come from if experienced and accomplished professionals are in such short supply? Companies with inadequate maintenance resources can follow one of two routes for acquiring the experience needed to create and implement a maintenance program.

The first is to recruit talent from other companies. This can be an excellent strategy for finding talented maintenance managers, but because the shortage of experienced managers has created a seller’s market, it also can be more expensive. One advantage of this approach, however, is that it provides a long-term solution, since the manager is likely to stay on with the company and implement the program after it is developed and running.

The second potential route is to retain a maintenance consultant on a short-term contract. The consultant can create a maintenance plan and coordinate training for the company’s maintenance staff to implement that plan. The long-term success of this approach rests on the ability of maintenance staff to implement the program after the consultant has left.

Mold builders that take a proactive approach to maintenance can save thousands – even millions – of dollars by avoiding expensive equipment repair, productivity stumbles and safety-related losses. Companies that make a commitment to proactive maintenance don’t just save money – they also create a better work environment, produce a better product and gain a competitive edge over their competitors.

Larry Bouvier is a maintenance reliability professional and Rob Levandoski is president of Fuss & O'Neill Manufacturing Solutions, LLC. Manufacturing equipment productivity typically runs less than 50 percent. Fuss & O’Neill helps clients bring greater efficiency to day-to-day manufacturing operations while developing improved systems for increased productivity, reliability and safety. With tools and training materials created specifically for its clients, the company provides results that are both immediate and sustainable. Bouvier can be reached at lbouvier@fando.com. Levandoski can be reached at RLevandoski@fando.com.