The journey from reactive to proactive maintenance

Editor-in-Chief Paul Studebaker writes about how a maintenance veteran named Denver Osthoff took the journey from reactive to proactive maintenance using an ultrasonic instrument – and made it look easy.

As you can see in our news story about Ultrasound World at http://www.plantservices.com/industrynews/2008/015.html, this recent conference included many useful sessions on predictive maintenance led by consultants, engineers and even the occasional college professor. But the most powerful presentations were made by technicians with first-hand experience with the nuances of the technologies and how they interact with real equipment on the plant floor. Of those, the most memorable was by a grizzly veteran named Denver Osthoff.

Now in his 50s, Denver has been a mechanic, welder and sometimes maintenance manager in heavy-duty industrial process facilities since he was 18 years old. With experience as both a union mechanic and a supervisor, he’s been on both sides of the management fence, and appears to prefer hands-on work.

Denver’s current managers bought an ultrasonic instrument in 2003 as part of a corporate initiative to implement enhanced PdM technologies. It gathered dust until sometime in 2004, when his supervisor started looking for a mechanic who was willing to implement it.

The mechanics were practiced at and partial to the screwdriver method of bearing evaluation – put the end of a long screwdriver on the housing and the handle up to an ear to listen to a bearing, lever the shaft or bearing holder with a big screwdriver or prybar to detect looseness. As a group, they weren’t interested in trying to see how the instrument would supplant their trusty screwdrivers

But Denver agreed to give it a shot. He wasn’t trained, just trying out the instrument, and at first he got nowhere. But with practice, he was able to identify the difference between typical and unusual sounds.

The first time he encountered an alarming sound, he wasn’t sure it meant anything, but he reported it to his supervisor. “The mechanic working on the bearing was sure it wasn’t failing,” Denver says. “But even though he wasn’t convinced the information was correct, the area supervisor made the call to replace it.”

The old bearing wasn’t obviously bad. “That night, after everyone else was gone, I cut it open and cleaned it up, and sure enough, it was on its way out,” he said. “It was failing and would have caused unplanned downtime.”

This “right call” built trust in the system, but Denver needed to understand how different loads, speeds, applications, materials, etc. affect the readings, and how to deal with them to make reliable findings. He learned to record and trend “decibel” readings (if the reading rose 20 decibels, the bearing should get attention), the first step in training that earned him Level 1 certification in 2007.

Denver’s presentation included multiple cases in which detecting incipient failures (and defective new equipment) turned potential unplanned downtime events having costs of $70,000 or more apiece into planned repairs at less than $2,000. The plant now has three Level 1 technicians and, he says, “In the past two years we haven’t experienced a catastrophic failure in our plant with the exception of a pump that we knew about before it failed.”

When you talk with consultants and experts about the journey from reactive to proactive maintenance, you tend to hear a lot about executive involvement, top-down commitment, KPIs, culture, change management and other complications.

Denver made it look easy.

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