Small & Midsize Manufacturers: Up and Running

Small & Midsize Manufacturers: Up and Running

With very little margin of error when it comes to downtime, small and midsize manufacturers are adopting multipronged Maintenance strategies to keep their equipment going.

Forget about finding a "run it till it breaks" philosophy of equipment maintenance at Quality Float Works. This 93-year-old manufacturer of metal floats relies both on very large equipment as well as some pieces that are more than 50 years old to get its product out. A cavalier attitude toward maintaining such equipment could be costly indeed, particularly if the equipment would need to be replaced. "For a smaller company like us, [avoiding that cost] is particularly important," says Jason Speer, Quality Float Works' vice president and general manager. Twenty-seven employees work at the firm.

Speer points out that the older equipment has lasted for as long as it has because "we do maintenance so that it will last." A stringent maintenance policy includes a checklist of processes that must be addressed for the equipment. The company follows both weekly and monthly maintenance schedules that are addressed by internal personnel, and each checklist is tailored to a particular piece of equipment. Additionally, the equipment operators perform daily maintenance on their machines at the end of each shift, and outside professional maintenance personnel are called upon as well.

Maintenance doesn't always receive its proper due, though; as writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once observed, "Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance." That said, if you don't maintain your lawn, your home's curb appeal takes a hit. Don't maintain your car, and you're likely to end up stranded on the side of the road. Don't maintain your plant equipment, however, and the ramifications are more dire: lost production time and missed delivery dates if the equipment breaks down; poor quality and increased scrap when machines functioning at substandard levels produce substandard parts. If those aren't bad enough, add increased costs if you are one of those who builds excessive finished-goods inventory for "just in case my equipment breaks" situations or who builds up spare parts inventory because you have no idea when the next malfunction may occur. The ultimate end result could well be lost customers and lost business.

The Raymond Corp. addresses maintenance at its facilities using a variety of methods, including operator preventive maintenance, visual management tools, training and root cause analysis. Small to medium-size manufacturers also are exploring total productive maintenance, a program that calls for companywide involvement in the maintenance process.
Despite the consequences, maintenance remains less than a priority for many manufacturers until or unless they can't meet the needs of their customers, or their sales figures start to slide. "Then it becomes an issue," notes Rod Ellsworth, vice president of EAM (enterprise asset management) business solutions for software provider Infor.

Indeed, Robert Lyscas says he continues to see a tremendous amount of "fire-fighting" going on when it comes to maintenance. Lyscas is the director of lean business solutions for Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center (MMTC), an organization that provides assistance to small and midsize manufacturers as part of the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Manufacturing Extension Partnership.

"[The question] is not necessarily, 'Is maintenance important?' The answer is clearly, 'yes,'" observes John Pucillo, product manager for Predictive Service LLC, a predictive maintenance technology and services provider. The question, he says, is what strategy to use "to minimize the maintenance spend but maximize the equipment uptime and availability."

Answering that question is particularly important for small and midsize manufacturers that most likely don't have the maintenance spend or the personnel available that larger companies have. Size, however, should not be a deterrent to implementing maintenance improvement strategies.

Get Out of the Reactive Mode

Companies that operate in a reactive maintenance mode -- basically running equipment until it stops -- remain prevalent regardless of firm size, Pucillo notes. "It's a choice, or a gamble," he says. "But if it fails, you typically can't get product out."

Total Productive Maintenance Implementations
Plant size Percentage of plants at which total productive maintenance occurs
All plants 34.2%
Less than 100 workers 27.5%
100 to 249 workers 31.0%
250 to 499 workers 38.6%
500 or more workers 57.8%
Source: 2007 IW/MPI Census of Manufacturers
A reactive strategy, he adds, may be "as much as four or five times more expensive than a planned or proactive approach. You do more damage running to failure." Instead, get proactive, Pucillo suggests. That way, "you're controlling your costs. You're reducing your overall maintenance costs. More importantly, you're predicting your maintenance needs, both short-term and long-term."

Running to failure is not in the cards for The Raymond Corp., a manufacturer of material handling solutions, including lift trucks. The manufacturer requires reliable and efficient operations from a wealth of machinery, including robotic welders, laser CNC machines, machining centers and paint systems. And Raymond is constantly making efforts to improve that reliability. The company has a maintenance strategy that in the last year alone helped it to reduce its unplanned downtime by 50%. The firm's goal is to reduce that metric by another 20% in 2008.

Raymond has three primary areas of focus in the maintenance arena for 2008, says Dave Brigham, director of manufacturing engineering: operator preventive maintenance, root cause analysis and visual management. While preventive maintenance by the equipment operators is a focus this year, the practice is already in place at the company's facilities, he points out. However, while operators have been performing daily checks, not every operator did it the same way. In short, the company is aiming to both standardize its operator preventive maintenance as well as add rigor to it, Brigham explains.

Addressing the focus on root cause analysis, Brigham notes that while this problem-solving method has been used in other areas of the company, to this point it hadn't been employed in the maintenance area. The maintenance staff of about 10 has received training in root cause analysis and plans to employ the technique to unplanned downtime incidents.

Taking a page from lean manufacturing, Raymond incorporates visual management in maintenance. Among the visual indicators are a display board that shows all of a facility's machines and their current status; a daily assignment board for workers; the departmental training plan; and graphs that track several key performance indicators (e.g., number of downtime occurrences and minutes of downtime).

Outsourcing Maintenance
Plant size Percentage of plants outsourcing maintenance/ asset management
All plants 7.1%
Less than 100 workers 9.0%
100 to 249 workers 4.0%
250 to 499 workers 7.4%
500 or more workers 7.1%
Source: 2007 IW/MPI Census of Manufacturers
Among other metrics the company tracks, at the factory level and/or machine level, are percentage of unplanned downtime (vs. scheduled uptime), the ratio of unplanned to planned downtime, mean time between failures, and mean time to respond and fix an issue. At the corporate level, several cost metrics are collected as well.

Brigham notes several additional maintenance goals Raymond has in addition to reducing unplanned downtime. One of them is to reduce spare parts inventory in dollars. The other is to update training. Given the increasing sophistication of equipment and the growing interaction between mechanical and electronics, training is a must for effective troubleshooting of equipment, he says.

His opinion is shared by Predictive Service's Pucillo. "One of the aspects of training that may be overlooked is the amount of training [companies] give their folks." Today's maintenance personnel are "computer technicians" rather than "hammer and screwdriver guys," he opines.

What shouldn't be overlooked is the importance of maintenance to a lean operation. Over at Baldor Electric Corp.'s Marion, N.C., plant, maintenance excellence recently won the facility the 2007 North American Maintenance Excellence Award, presented by the Foundation for Industrial Maintenance Excellence. Maintenance excellence is simply part of the facility's focus on meeting the customer's needs. "Everyone here realizes that machine reliability is the foundation for consistently delivering outstanding customer service," said Harley Freshour, maintenance supervisor, in the company's announcement of the accolade.

The Marion plant, which manufactures mounted spherical and tapered roller bearings, is also a superbly lean operation. That fact won the facility (under a different moniker) an IndustryWeek Best Plants award in 2004, but it also meant that the facility focused its lean initiatives comprehensively, including on its maintenance operations.

Consider Total Productive Maintenance

Right now, MMTC's Lyscas says, what he sees among smaller manufacturers is "marginally okay" preventive maintenance practices but little to no established, effective predictive maintenance programs. They can do better, and the Michigan organization aims to help. This year, he explains, the MMTC is making a concentrated effort to introduce and encourage manufacturers to implement total productive maintenance (TPM) into their facilities.

A Fire-Fighting Approach
to Maintenance

Atlas Machine & Supply is a beneficiary both of manufacturers' decisions to outsource some of their maintenance activities, as well as the fire-fighting mentality other manufacturers take toward maintenance. Among the services the 200-person company provides is equipment rebuilding and repair. President and owner Rich Gimmel says he's seen a surge in this business over the past decade.

Interestingly, the company takes a fire-fighting approach to the fire-fighting mentality of manufacturers. "We've adopted the theme that we're an industrial fire department," with 24 hour a day, seven day a week availability if needed, Gimmel explains.

The company also has an engineering staff who will redesign and reengineer equipment for manufacturers to make it less maintenance intensive. While that may seem counter-intuitive, given the services it offers, Gimmel says, "It creates a more loyal customer for us."

He must be right. Atlas Machine & Supply has been in business for 100 years.

TPM is a comprehensive program to maximize equipment availability that includes both preventive and predictive maintenance. A central idea in TPM is the notion of autonomous maintenance, in which machine operators are responsible for the routine maintenance and operations of their machine. Those tasks may include cleaning, lubricating, adjusting and inspecting. It calls for continuous improvement and companywide involvement.

On a positive note, Lyscas says some of the smaller manufacturers his center serves have begun to see the need for TPM. To illustrate, he says that while 10 or fewer companies have indicated a need for a TPM program in the past 18 months, three or four companies already in 2008 have said they want to be more proactive in developing a TPM program. "They see it as an opportunity to be more competitive," Lyscas says. (As a side note: TPM implementation isn't widespread even among the general U.S. manufacturing populace. According to the 2007 IW/MPI Census of Manufacturers, TPM strategies are occurring at about one-third of all U.S. manufacturing plants. The larger the plant, the more likely it is to be implementing TPM. Lyscas calls TPM "the weakest link" in many manufacturers' lean implementations.)

Lyscas points out that today's manufacturing environment calls for an ability to run smaller quantities with quicker turnarounds, and maintenance is a key element in making that possible. "Our belief is it's all about time. If you shorten time, you can be competitive in whatever market you participate in."

Where to Start?

Your resources are limited, and your maintenance efforts need a helping hand. The question is: Where do you start? Predictive Service's Pucillo suggests that focusing on the problems that are causing you the most sleepless nights and/or on the problems that are happening on a repeatable basis.

He also points out that sometimes manufacturers get focused on addressing maintenance "the way it's always been done." Take a step back, he says, and get new data. Go to trade shows, explore new techniques and talk to people outside of your facility.

Particularly for manufacturers spending too much time fighting fires, "I would recommend they get a second opinion to expand their thought process," Pucillo says. "If they're in that fire-fighting mode, they're probably not happy because they're working too hard."

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