The future of reliability

The dilemma that American companies face and will continue to face during the next five to 10 years is having a poorly educated, unmotivated workforce when something else is needed to operate and maintain ever more complex production and information management systems.

By R. Keith Mobley, CMRP

The dilemma that American companies face and will continue to face during the next five to 10 years is having a poorly educated, unmotivated workforce when something else is needed to operate and maintain ever more complex production and information management systems. Many of our operators and maintenance craftspeople already struggle with current technology, and the situation will get worse. Just 10 years ago, a typical maintenance technician was expected to read and understand about 500 pages of technical information, written at the eighth-grade level, to maintain plant equipment. Today, that technician must read and understand 5,000 pages written at undergraduate or higher level. What will they need to know in five or 10 years?

Combine this problem with a declining educational system that doesn’t produce competency in basic skills such as reading, writing, mathematics and the sciences, and in the future, companies will face an even more daunting problem. As a result, these new technologies are a blessing and a curse. The anticipated capabilities of the computer-based production and information systems of tomorrow are much needed and should add value, but without the skills to use them their value is nil.

If we’re to remain a competitive force in the global market, our view of reliability must radically change. First, reliability must expand from a simple view of predictive maintenance and application of technologies to prevent asset damage to a view of comprehensive life-cycle asset management.

This change is driven by two critical factors, as well as other forcing functions that technology can’t resolve.

The first factor that will force a change is the loss of our skilled workforce. For decades, American industry has relied almost exclusively on a workforce that was well trained in the skills required to design, install, operate and maintain its production and manufacturing assets. Unfortunately, our society has virtually eliminated these workforce traits and the situation will only get worse. As a result, manufacturing companies, as well as vendors and service providers, must invest heavily in training and workforce development to survive in the global marketplace. This will mandate a return to the apprenticeship programs prevalent in the 1950s, as well as remedial training in the basic skills that our education system fails to provide.

The second factor is the degradation in the basics of good business. America achieved its premier role as the leading producer in the world by absolute adherence to sound business practices, such as product quality, fair prices and single-point accountability throughout its workforce. Most, if not all, of these tenets have disappeared in today’s businesses. To survive and be competitive, American business must return to the basic concepts of good business practice. These concepts are simple enough:

Standard operating procedures: There’s only one best way to do anything. That’s the way we should manage a business and perform maintenance. A successful company will return to this fundamental requirement and reinstate the use of and absolute adherence to SOPs in every facet of its operation.

Long view — not instant gratification: We’ve become a nation that seeks instant, easy solutions to any and all problems. We’re impatient and want immediate results when we should be taking the long view with business decisions that yield the best long-term results.

Data-driven decisions: Most companies have computer-based systems that store and report performance and financial data, but few use this information to make business decisions. Instead, plant and corporate management make decisions based on perception or skewed data generated by selective use of the data contained in these systems. Without a basic change in the use of data to ensure decisions that are based on fact, nothing will change.

We are capable of using these technologies. Now we need the skills to use the gained knowledge to manage a competitive business, operate new generations of production systems and perform sustaining levels of maintenance that will keep them running.

E-mail Contributing Editor R. Keith Mobley, CMRP, principal consultant at Life Cycle Engineering, at kmobley@lce.com.

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