Precision maintenance: Learn by doing

A conversation with Ian McKinnon on the intersection of precision maintenance and reliability training

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Ian McKinnon is a pioneer in the precision maintenance field, a passionate instructor, and a founding principal of Reliability Solutions ( He recently spoke with Plant Services about the role that precision maintenance can play in driving effective plantwide reliability initiatives, as well as the role of hard skills training in higher education.

Plant Services: How do you define precision maintenance, and what is its value to the average plant?

Ian McKinnon: Precision maintenance is an approach of how work is identified or determined; planned for an improved state; executed with discipline, precision, and control; and audited for reliability. Within the maintenance world, the assembly and installation of machinery are where we can have an immediate impact, and it begins with the question, "What failures do you wish to control?"

The work is not only about the assembly, installation and repair of machinery, but also about how machines that are not failing can be improved before entering the failure cycle. Precision maintenance also carries on after the work is completed: it includes a measurement of how the machine is performing post-work to identify what improvements were achieved dynamically. The improvement results are audited over time to identify where the same actions can be applied on other types of machines.

When times get tough, what’s the first budget line to get cut? Training. The mentality is, “Well, that will help the bottom line, I just saved $200,000 this year.” Yes, but you cost the company $1.5 million.

Finally, precision maintenance can alter the performance of machines and manufacturing performance in the most positive sense. We begin to reduce the problems typically witnessed and associated with early equipment failure and mediocre performance if the way that we assemble, and then install all assets is:

  • Incrementally controlled (with knowledge in experience), 
  • Sequentially applied with discipline to known and proven standards, 
  • Always performed in the most precise manner possible,
  • Documented to maintain a correct history of exactly what improvements were performed, and
  • Audited with dynamic condition measurements.

Over the last couple of decades there have been many improvements made on everyone’s operating and maintenance floors, but universally we continue to be faced with some pretty big challenges. I've watched the erosion, first of all, of skill sets, but I've also watched the erosion of people who perform training. As an example, we see few shop classes in high schools (I think we’re too afraid that someone might get hurt so we fail to introduce these young budding minds to working with their hands and minds).

It is obvious that if we are going to improve reliability within our manufacturing workforce, we need to begin to encourage the development of “hands-on hard skills” activities before we release these young folks into the college, university, technical school, and working world. I think one of the things that makes Reliability Solutions rather unique is that our real goal is the transfer of hard skills – real, practical information. I'm from the trades background, and my business partner is also from the trades background. Even before we started Reliability Solutions, it became clear from the audience that I was working with in industrial manufacturing (and this includes operations as well as maintenance) is that people learn by doing, and applying.

At RS we are not going to do training until we know where you hurt, because, once we know where you hurt, we're going to provide systems and dynamic models that replicate what happens on the field. It may not look like the machine that they are working on, but it replicates it in exactly the same way. With our approach there is the excitement of discovery – "Oh, I can do that skill" and "Oh, it matters" – but the third one is the clincher, and that is where participants look at each other in the class and say, "We've got to apply this."

More important is that when they do something, if they can measure it dynamically, by any means, or maybe multiple means, then that causes the participants in that training to understand first-hand, gut-level, what is the value of that work. The excitement of discovery not only is in obtaining that value, the discovery was, "I can do this, I can do it well, and I can put it to work right here."

Also, whatever class we teach, we always use instrumentation on the devices or systems where the participants measure their results. It's a double-sided audit where we come back in, we review the work, so they know where their success is and we can still say, "OK, we still have to tweak this." We come from the field and that means we have a direct connectivity (with the participants), and I see that as being a very high priority for us.

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  • Ian's Precision Maintenance Class is well worth the investment. As an engineer, I had the opportunity to take part in the training and believe there is value in all levels of the organization having a basic understanding of reliability concepts and speaking the same language.


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