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By David Berger, P. Eng., contributing editor
Life is interesting for those who manage and maintain manufacturing assets in light of several trends that present both opportunities for improvement and threats to be managed properly. Understanding them well gives you the ability to respond more effectively and to build a case for changing your processes, technology and organizational structure. These trends are forcing plants to take a more strategic approach to asset management.
An uncontrollable factor that influences maintenance significantly is the state of the economy. Recent woes echo around the globe and history has shown that tough economic times doom any spending that doesn’t have a positive, short-term effect on the bottom line. During previous economic downturns, the thinking was that you can always hold off on planned maintenance expenditures for another year or two. But, history also shows that this shortsighted approach has a significant long-run cost. The deferral increases the probability of seeing a catastrophic failure, more expensive repairs, premature asset replacement and degradation to employee health, safety and the environment.
Of course, if cash flow is so tight that cuts are essential for the company’s survival, it’s imperative to use a risk assessment to determine how best to minimize long-term negative outcomes. For example, consider which is the most negative: cutting a reliability-centered maintenance training program, delaying a CMMS upgrade that features a condition-based maintenance capability, or postponing the replacement of a critical asset? Although most people would respond with the latter, it isn’t necessarily so. The answer depends on which option results in the lowest risk and the best chance of increasing profits.
A typical reaction to the growing economic doldrums is to lay off workers, offer early retirement packages and leave vacant positions unfilled. Although this reduces the cost base, there might be serious long-term repercussions. As baby boomers move toward retirement, their wealth of knowledge can leave with them.
Many companies have done little to capture that knowledge, either through training junior staff or transferring knowledge to electronic formats, such as updates to job plans on a CMMS. Any economic-based pressure to reduce staffing will exacerbate an already difficult and costly problem. So, before it’s too late, assess the risk, develop a succession plan and formulate a process to capture any knowledge that might disappear at retirement or earlier.
No industry is immune from the global escalation of regulatory pressures in matters concerning health, safety, security, legal, environmental, social and economic protection. This trend has major ramifications for asset managers. Almost every asset is subject to regulations regarding design, construction, acquisition, operation, maintenance and ultimate disposal.
However, regulatory compliance doesn’t necessarily mean increased administrative headaches, complexity or cost. For some industries, being forced to adopt and conform to higher standards for processes, quality, labor qualifications and so on is a step in the right direction. A CMMS is a useful tool for planning, tracking and reporting on regulatory compliance. For example, workflows can be automated with built-in security and controls, electronic signatures for approvals, error-checking and a permanent record of compliance activity.
One of the reasons for increased regulatory pressure is the steady rise in asset complexity. Take the defense industry as an example. It wasn’t very long ago that the most complex military asset being manufactured was a rifle or cannon. Today, the defense industry has multibillion-dollar submarines, ships, aircraft and other weapon-delivery systems that are extremely complex to operate and maintain. Many other industries have shared a similar progression during the past century.
Along with asset complexity comes the risk of grave consequences should these assets fail. Imagine a catastrophic failure within a modern nuclear plant located near a large urban center. It’s no small wonder that regulatory pressure has increased. The good news is that the tools for maintaining assets are improving at roughly the same rate. The bad news is that the attitudes and abilities of the people using them haven’t progressed quite as rapidly. For example, the CMMS, when used properly, is a sophisticated planning, analysis and reporting tool for maintaining the health of critical assets. With analytical functions such as root cause analysis, reliability-centered maintenance and condition-based maintenance, complex assets can be maintained properly and easily.
As asset complexity increases, not surprisingly, our reliance on them also increases. Where would we be without our computers, water/wastewater treatment plants and fully automated plastics manufacturing factories? It is, therefore, important for us to change the way in which we maintain assets to ensure maximum equipment availability, performance and reliability.
Here, too, a CMMS can be instrumental in ensuring we move from the firefighting mentality of yesterday’s managers to a more planned environment. Our society’s greater dependency on assets makes the consequences of doing otherwise more and more unconscionable.
Unfortunately, much of the greater reliance on complex assets has been within company silos, thereby intensifying these problems. Sophisticated software solutions, for example, have been centered around the needs of a particular silo, such as reliability software for reliability engineers, mobile solutions for those in remote locations, calibration software for quality-assurance inspectors, long-term capital planning software for financial analysts, project-management software for planners and so on. Although this improved technology better satisfies the requirements of a given silo, it fosters a new problem: the difficulty and cost of integration across the silos.
A simple analogy exists in the consumer world. Many people struggle with handling multiple remote-control devices for a TV, DVD, stereo, cable box and so on. Although each remote might be a superb solution for facilitating the operation of a single entertainment device, most consumers long for some way to integrate control across the many technological silos.
In some ways, modern CMMS packages act as the “universal remote” by integrating the many silo solutions through functionality such as automated workflow and various software bridges, as well as through formal relationships with key silo solution vendors.
One of the most significant trends for you to focus on is the seemingly endless emphasis on sustainability. Despite the opinion of some, this isn’t simply the flavor of the month. Sustainability is here to stay, and it presents a wonderful opportunity for you to guide the behavior of senior management, operations and maintenance departments in thinking more strategically about company assets.
For example, you can get senior management’s attention by pointing out that annual U.S. spending on capital equipment and services is $100 billion, compared to a whopping $400 billion spent on energy. Certainly CMMS vendors have recognized this opportunity, and are marketing their asset sustainability functionality to a more senior management level within their customer base.
E-mail Contributing Editor David Berger, P.Eng., partner, Western Management Consultants, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PlantServices.com is an MRO (maintain, repair, replace, retrofit, overhaul and operations) resource site that features problem-solving articles and editorials for plant maintenance professionals.