Operations: Maintenance Miscues

March 8, 2007
The consequences of missed or ignored equipment maintenance can range from lost production to costly and perhaps even fatal safety mishaps. Here's what you can do to keep costly breakdowns at bay.

Once upon a time there was a manufacturing company that suffered failure of a major piece of equipment at one of its plants -- and everybody panicked. Multiple lines of production came to crashing halts for hours and machine operators stood around idly as maintenance technicians crawled around the equipment trying to figure out the cause of the breakdown and then repair it. A full day's production was lost. Delivery promises were broken. Eventually the maintenance personnel repaired the machine, and all was well on the plant floor -- until the next equipment breakdown. And the next.

Does that scenario sound familiar? For many manufacturers, it probably does. Most manufacturers still are reactive in nature, says Andrew Ginder, vice president and general manager, ABB Reliability Consulting North America. "A lot of them have the 'run it until it breaks' mentality," he says.

Of course, there are coping strategies, like this one: Once upon a time there was a manufacturing company that suffered failure of a major piece of equipment at one of its plants -- yet nobody panicked. Nobody tore at his hair or raced madly to the machinery wielding a toolbox bristling with possible fixes. Nobody worried about missing production targets. Everyone remained calm.

Alcoa takes an aggressive approach to maintenance, says John Carter.

Why no panic? Because the plant had a spare -- a $2 million spare piece of equipment. Instead of lost production time, missed deliveries and idled workers, this plant hid its maintenance misfortunes in the expensive carrying costs of extra pumps, extra circuits and other spare parts. Needless to say, while the bloated inventory allowed the manufacturing plant floor to remain calm, there was plenty of hair-pulling in the purchasing department.

The fact is, poorly managed equipment maintenance can have a damaging ripple effect on an entire company -- lost production, spiraling inventory carrying costs, even injurious and potentially fatal accidents. Put the right procedures in place, however, and such ugly outcomes can become things of the past.

Many companies appear to understand the importance of asset maintenance. A recent study from analyst firm Aberdeen Group shows that nearly 87% of respondents consider asset maintenance as either extremely important or very important to their organizations' success, yet only 7% say they are completely satisfied with their maintenance performance.

Maintenance is More Than Repairing Things

Possibly the biggest mistake manufacturers make when it comes to maintenance is that they view it too narrowly, as though it was simply about repairing things. "What I believe they should do is take an expanded view of maintenance and think of it in terms of overall reliability," Ginder says. "That means not just looking at what they are doing from a repair standpoint, but looking at what activities they should be engaging in that prevent them from having to repair equipment in the future."

Ginder tells the story of a visit he made to an automotive plant, where management was documenting the time that elapsed from an equipment breakdown to the arrival of a mechanic -- in other words, response time.

"I was trying to tell them that while [response time] was good to know, your real focus should be on preventing the failure in the first place," he says. The managers didn't agree. "Finally, I said to them, 'If you were in your house and your toilet kept overflowing all the time, what would you have a greater interest in -- how long it took the plumber to get there or whether you could prevent it from overflowing in the first place?' Granted, we'd all want the plumber there pretty quick, but I'd rather make sure the toilet didn't keep overflowing all the time," Ginder says.

Alcoa Davenport Works employees participate in a Total Productive Maintenance special event -- cleaning, inspecting and tagging equipment for repair.

The Alcoa Way

The emphasis by many manufacturers on lean production has spurred a more serious approach to maintenance today than in the past. Malfunctioning equipment obviously does little to promote quality product, reduce waste and meet customers' expectations. For Alcoa Inc., a producer of aluminum and aluminum products, maintenance and reliability are part and parcel of the Alcoa Business System (ABS), which is modeled after the Toyota Production System.

"If we don't have well-run and well-maintained equipment, we are never going to be able to reach the higher levels of the Alcoa Business System that we want to get to," explains John Marushin, director of the Alcoa Operations Management Consulting group, which directs implementation of the ABS.

Alcoa strongly emphasizes the role Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) plays in driving maintenance reliability throughout the organization. TPM is a comprehensive program to maximize equipment availability in which -- among other components -- production operators are trained to perform routine maintenance tasks on a regular basis, while technicians handle more specialized tasks. (About three-quarters of IndustryWeek's Best Plants winners and finalists have machine operators perform preventative and routine maintenance of their equipment.)

Alcoa's 7-Step Method

Alcoa's TPM program, explains Marushin, is a seven-step method to help employees gain a deep understanding of their equipment. And it isn't simply operators who are involved, but also maintenance, supervisors, even office personnel. Cleaning is step one. "It gets people to start seeing what can break on a piece of equipment," he says.

John Carter, global director for Alcoa's Rolled Products, Hard Alloy Extrusions and Asia Group, says TPM has brought about a step change in plant reliability in locations in which he has seen it implemented. "It brings a level of awareness that's not been there before to production operators," he explains. "Production operators are the best possible people to monitor the condition of their equipment."

Carter's businesses take an aggressive approach to maintenance, he says. While TPM is a large component, planned maintenance is scheduled via a computerized maintenance management system. Predictive maintenance techniques, which are aimed at preventing unscheduled machinery downtime by collecting and analyzing data on equipment conditions, include thermographic, noise and vibration analysis.

A little friendly competition also helps. Alcoa's rolled products business will hold its third annual reliability competition this year. Plants compete for throughput and uptime measures. These metrics indicate not only plant reliability but also the ability to run the machinery at designed speeds for long periods of time, Carter says. Winning teams receive plaques to hang on their rolling mills, plus small cash prizes.

"It's been an interesting exercise, with lots of participation and lots of competitive spirit," Carter says. What's more, it helps spread best practices because plants are not allowed to keep their winning tactics under wraps. They are shared throughout the business. "The purpose of the exercise is to push us more toward operational excellence," Carter says.

Top-Level Involvement Required

As with much in manufacturing, if management doesn't show interest in maintenance reliability, many others won't either. Marty Osborn, with enterprise software provider Infor, says the biggest problem he's observed in companies attempting to develop a robust maintenance program is the absence of continuous management involvement. Osborn, who is Infor's senior director of industry product marketing for enterprise asset management, points out that "maintenance is like anything else -- it's a set of disciplines." If management doesn't demonstrate that it supports the disciplines, people will stray, he suggests.

Machine operators perform preventive and routine maintenance (% of plants)

Year Yes
2002 72
2003 92
2004 98
2005 75
2006 72
2002-2006 80

Reactive maintenance work, in response to unexpected machine or equipment breakdown (%)

Year Median Average
2002 20.0 17.9
2003 19.0 18.4
2004 19.5 21.7
2005 20.0 25.3
2006 14.8 19.6
2002-2006 19.0 20.5

Current operating equipment efficiency (OEE) for major product lines

Year Median Average
2002 83.5 82.8
2003 85.0 83.9
2004 89.0 86.3
2005 85.0 82.8
2006 86.3 83.0
2002-2006 85.7 83.7
Source: 2006 IW Best Plants Statistical Profile

ABB's Ginder shares some of that same sentiment. If you're not talking to your employees about the importance of maintenance and reliability to the organization, they're not going to address those areas, he says. "People base their actions on what we talk to them about; that's what they determine is important or not," he says.

Alcoa not only tells people, it shows them. TPM events can shut down equipment for massive cleaning, inspecting and tagging-for-repair efforts. "It sends an extremely powerful message that we're serious about [maintenance]. And that has been one of the most powerful psychological messages about equipment reliability that I've ever seen," Marushin says. "The message is, 'They mean what they say. We're stopping; this is important; we're doing it.' Because the first time you say, we can't [stop], we have to make output today, people realize you're not serious about it."

Key Performance Indicators

The key performance indicators employed by top-performing companies, according to Aberdeen Group, include asset reliability, asset productivity, frequency of unexpected downtime, and cost of servicing and maintaining assets. Alcoa encourages its businesses to track OEE, also known as overall equipment effectiveness or operating equipment efficiency. This measure indicates the percentage of time equipment is producing quality product at an acceptable rate.

Ginder says it's important that those KPIs are disseminated down to the crew level, meaning maintenance personnel and equipment operators. A best practice would include posting those indicators on the plant floor.

The ABB executive also encourages an effort to translate concepts of behavioral-based safety to maintenance reliability. For instance, he says, front-line supervisors for years have been holding periodic lunch box meetings with crew members to discuss safety incidents and safe work practices. They should be doing the same with the maintenance reliability performance indicators. "They should have the suite of indicators in the machine shop or wherever they give out assignments, and then take 15 minutes or 30 minutes every week to talk to their crew about those indicators and how they can impact them and whether they are going in the right direction."

Ultimately, keep in mind that the key to maintenance is maintaining. It is not an effort that allows a company to check a box off, declare success and walk away. Says Ginder: "If you're not reinforcing it in some manner, it's going to diminish in its effectiveness.

About the Author

Jill Jusko

Bio: Jill Jusko is executive editor for IndustryWeek. She has been writing about manufacturing operations leadership for more than 20 years. Her coverage spotlights companies that are in pursuit of world-class results in quality, productivity, cost and other benchmarks by implementing the latest continuous improvement and lean/Six-Sigma strategies. Jill also coordinates IndustryWeek’s Best Plants Awards Program, which annually salutes the leading manufacturing facilities in North America.

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