Effective management, at any level in the plant, depends on knowledge. Accurate historical knowledge is essential, but the effective manager also must have ready access to data that supports critical decision-making. The Web and evolving e-commerce technologies can provide it.
Much of the discussion about e-commerce centers on procuring production and maintenance materials electronically. While this is a valuable tool, the Web provides a more powerful management tool -- accurate data about new or replacement materials as well as equipment or systems essential to world-class plant performance. These data include almost everything from a potential vendors financial strength to specific technical knowledge about plant systems and components. Consider some examples.
Vendor evaluation: The first management problem is the ability to evaluate potential vendors accurately. Most publicly-held companies Web sites post the companys financial performance. While the reason these Web pages exist is to entice potential investors, the information also can be a tool for plant managers trying to select a vendor that will be around after the sale to provide technical support.
Technical data: A growing number of Web sites provide practical knowledge about plant systems and components. For example, a search for mechanical seals yields several thousand sites that provide enough knowledge to select a replacement seal or solve a chronic sealing problem. The same is true for motors, pumps, compressors and almost every machine, system or component required to properly operate and maintain critical plant equipment.
Technical data also is available directly from most vendors. If you have a specific brand of pump, compressor or even continuous process system, the vendor, in most cases, maintains a Web site with information that allows you to evaluate the technical merit of new or replacement equipment, or troubleshoot chronic reliability, quality or performance problems.
On-line technical support: Many Web sites provide direct, almost instantaneous technical support for both engineer and manager. While a few sites are sponsored by equipment vendors, most are hosted by a professional, trade or publishing organizations and offer an open-forum discussion group or chat room where plant professionals can share ideas and find assistance in resolving problems. In addition, Web sites are available for most of the functional groups within a company. Sites dedicated to maintenance, procurement, quality assurance and many others already exist and more are being added daily.
A word of caution, however. The suggestions or solutions these sites offer are not always valid. In some cases, the advice is tainted by misperception, miscommunication or simply because the author has a vested interest in the recommendation. This potential problem doesnt obviate the value of these sites. Most of the advice is useful and has proven to be correct and accurate.
Best practices: Many Web sites offer best practices for operating and maintaining a variety of machines, equipment and production systems. For example, a recent discussion group sponsored by an independent maintenance site had more than 100 users sharing their experiences on a single issue -- how often to conduct predictive maintenance inspections. The benefit of this type of discourse is a full range of advice that yielded both successful and unsuccessful performance.
Vendor sites offer recommendations for using their equipment properly and independent sites offer real-world history, a combination thats an exceptional tool for managers. The combined data provides practical history and knowledge needed for optimum utilization of plant resources.
Reduction of MRO inventory: The advent of e-commerce and the almost instantaneous communication the Internet provides helps purchasing and maintenance managers minimize MRO inventory. When coupled with a viable predictive and preventive maintenance program, this communication tool eliminates the need to maintain insurance spares and can reduce overall inventory levels because effective predictive maintenance anticipates material requirements. Information about stock availability and lead time now available via the Internet removes the uncertainty that had justified greater inventory levels.
Please dont misunderstand, the quality and quantity of online information currently available isnt perfect. Not all vendors have Web sites, publish comprehensive information or provide quick response to inquiries. However, the number of plants using this emerging technology force more vendors, as well as independent Web site providers, into continuous expansion and improvements in both the quality and quantity of data available to all managers. Those who embrace and use this technology will succeed and their companies will be one step closer to world-class performance.
Contributing Editor R. Keith Mobley, CMRP, is principal consultant at Life Cycle Engineering in Charleston, S.C. E-mail him at kmobley@LCE.com.