Seven tips for picking an outside contractor

These pointers can help industrial plant managers select a contractor for outsourcing maintenance and reliability services.

By Michael McMahon, Coating Systems

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At some point in time every industrial plant must bring in an outside contractor to do specialized work such as boiler blasting, concrete waterproofing and ceiling painting that in-house manpower can’t perform on a cost-effective basis. Such an option makes sense, in that many industrial operations don’t enjoy the luxury of reassigning staff to do labor-intensive work that requires additional training. Nor does facility management have at their ready disposal the unique equipment required to perform major maintenance or upgrade projects.

However, the greater challenge lies not in deciding whether to call in outside help, but, rather, determining which contractor is best able to perform the job on time, within budget, with the best outcome and the least lapses in safety. With the right selection, an outside contractor can act as an ongoing partner to help plant managers and facility engineers reduce costs and add value over the long run.

1. Precise planning

The need to run at 100% production levels at all times heads the list of priorities at most every processing plant. Downtime for maintenance or upgrades equates with an interruption in revenue stream. In defense, the best way to avoid having any outside work halt the process is to ensure that the contractor provides a precise, highly detailed plan of the project work in advance.

If a contractor can’t tell you how he’s going to do that job and lay it out in an organized, detailed, step-by-step fashion, then you shouldn’t hire him because he isn’t sure of what he’s doing.

Put another way, if you can’t build it on paper, you can’t build it in reality. For example, by using “critical path method scheduling,” which incorporates close to 30 items and covers the scope of work, the crew, the specifications, the safety checks, the tasks broken down by craft and a complete timeline from start to finish, a project schedule should be provided to the plant manager in advance of any work.

2. A qualified workforce

Given today’s scholastic environment in which far more students study computer science as opposed to metalworking, the pool of skilled craftsmen continues to dwindle. After soliciting RFQs, the down-selection process must include a careful evaluation of the contractor’s complement of tradesmen.

At some point in time every industrial plant must bring in an outside contractor to do specialized work such as boiler blasting, concrete waterproofing and ceiling painting that in-house manpower can’t perform on a cost-effective basis.

The importance of having a job go smoothly rests, in great part, on the skill of the people actually twisting the wrenches. They must possess a basic aptitude for the job, as well as a good work ethic.

Advance determination of such qualities isn’t as difficult as it seems. Recognized training programs can vouch for satisfactory performance levels from a given craftsman. Additionally, most every technical discipline has credentialing bodies which evaluate respective contractors and their employees for competency.

Judging work ethic takes more effort. Look for a contractor who features a dedicated, long-term team of workers versus hiring a local crew off the street. Ask the contractor to provide a list of the potential workers and request their job histories If not available, think twice.

3. The right equipment for the job

Often underestimated, the painful truth is that inappropriate or underperforming equipment can greatly increase the time it takes to complete a project. On the other hand, contractors can actually bring about a cost savings for plant management and return the plant to full operation more quickly if they possess equipment selected with forethought and applicability to the specific project.

However, the greater challenge lies not in deciding whether to call in outside help, but, rather, determining which contractor is best able to perform the job on time, within budget, with the best outcome, and the least lapses in safety.

When tackling a critical project such as applying a coating of epoxy novolac to the inside of a 300-ft diameter storage tank, contractors should be willing to go through the trouble of bringing in portable air conditioners or heaters, depending on the time of year, to manage the environment within the tank. This controls the humidity and prevents premature rusting of the exposed metal before the coating goes on. Unanticipated coating failure could develop without such precaution. At the same time, the controlled environment allows workers to continue spraying 24 hours a day instead of only eight. The job gets finished in one-third the time, so the tank can be back in service that much sooner.

Even something as simple as ready access to the equipment and tools can make a difference in the timeline. For example, one informal time/motion study revealed the average mechanic spends an hour and five minutes each day looking for tools. Ask to see photographs of the contractor’s equipment and tool trucks. If, for example, you see a gang box filled with a bunch of tools that guys have to dig through to find what they need, then that disorganization can lead to cost overruns.

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