A failure to communicate can be the root cause of expensive machine breakdowns

In this installment of What Works, a customized, cloud-based reliability program helps Eastman Chemical close communications gaps and cut unplanned downtime.

Kingsport, Tenn.-based Eastman Chemical prides itself on having world-class maintenance and reliability teams, with experts in their fields helping the company serve customers in more than 100 countries worldwide and continually earn Eastman spots on "partner of the year" and "best places to work" lists. But frustratingly, Eastman found that communications breakdowns between these teams too often were at the root of expensive machine breakdowns.

"We knew that most of the problems that we had were communications issues," says Steve Powers, Eastman's reliability team lead. When it comes to optimizing maintenance planning, "It's hard to communicate everything that you need to do," he adds.

And from a maintenance and control perspective, there’s a lot for Eastman to wrangle. The company’s manufacturing reach is broad, extending across five business segments: additives and functional products; adhesives and plasticizers; advanced materials; fibers; and specialty fluids and intermediates. The Kingsport manufacturing site alone consists of more than 500 buildings on 4,000 acres; the main plant site itself covers 900 acres.

Several years ago, growing production demands that the company found itself facing were good for business, but the unplanned machine downtime that was resulting repeatedly from communication failures sounded alarms for management. “We knew we had to move quicker and faster than we usually had in our reliability journey,” Powers says.

The fix for Eastman had two main components: a customized asset performance management (APM) software tool for maintenance and reliability professionals to use and a deliberate push to foster more direct communication between engineers and operators. Eastman labeled its initiative Reliability-Based Operations and Maintenance.

On the software side, Eastman worked with Roanoke, Va.-based Meridium, incorporating a Meridium data-gathering module called Operator Rounds as the technological heart of RBOM. With Operator Rounds, operations and inspection data are captured by workers on the plant floor using handheld mobile devices.

Eastman used failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA) to identify the assorted factors that were leading to critical machine failures and to pinpoint where and when, specifically, communication gaps were contributing to these. That information and other data about trends in equipment failures helped Eastman create smarter maintenance recommendations. 

These recommendations and maintenance alerts are now triggered automatically through Operator Rounds and are viewable and trackable for both engineers and maintenance pros, creating greater consistency in maintenance communications and allowing for greater accountability of which tasks are performed when. 

Providing asset performance data to a wider range of personnel was key, Powers says. “The same information is communicated to a lot of different people,” he says. “One person might dismiss it as a small problem, but another person with a broader knowledge base might identify it as a problem that needs attention.”

The new technology was an invaluable tool to help promote communication, but cultural barriers between engineers and maintenance personnel needed to be addressed, too.

That effort involved relying on a cross-functional core team – incorporating management, reliability or process engineers, IT personnel and others – to both collaborate on the rollout of RBOM tools and go back to their own specific work teams to get members on board with the initiative.

“One of the things we did right was having that dedicated core team in place,” Powers says. “These are the people who can make it happen.” A solid IT infrastructure and leaders who can help remove roadblocks around implementation and workflow processes are essential, he adds.

The results of Eastman’s reliability overhaul: a 60 percent reduction in unplanned maintenance events and a 40 percent reduction in reactive maintenance costs in the first year of RBOM’s implementation.

What’s next for RBOM at Eastman? A growing focus on mobile and on allowing for the use of tablet devices in the field, Powers says. “We’re thinking mobility will be a great step forward for us,” he comments.

For now, though, it’s tough to argue with the success of Eastman’s communications-focused approach to improving machine reliability. “We’re all the same but we’re all different,” Powers says. “The focused effort really makes a difference.”

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