New tech upends familiar job roles

Advanced monitoring tools are changing the nature of both plant work and workers.

By Frederic Baudart, Fluke Corp.

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While futuristic factories get the buzz, let’s not forget the hundreds of thousands of plants that don’t have self-diagnosing robots, artificial intelligence, and other embedded industrial internet of things (IIoT) devices.

For these venerable environments, maintenance is often still done the old-fashioned way – when equipment breaks, you fix it. That approach has kept many plants going for generations, with vital support provided by experienced maintenance personnel. However, people with that machine-level knowledge base are retiring; open positions leave the team short-staffed; and tightening budgets or margins reduce run-to-fail options.

Still, staying on top of issues before they snowball into larger problems is the name of the game today. There is momentum to be gained by leveraging advanced tools to provide insight into equipment health. At the apex of the shift in new workflows are new computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS) in the cloud. Add in wirelessly enabled vibration meters and thermal imagers plus remote condition monitoring tools, and you see an upending of traditional maintenance roles. Some experts advocate for a new class of workers who might be called “semiskilled” who primarily collect data and manage it through to the CMMS. And even more, maintenance managers are learning how data from their machinery can be used to extend equipment life.

Here are some examples we’re seeing of jobs that upend traditional roles.

Rubber factory

A 100-year-old rubber factory wants to be more efficient and move away from mostly reactive maintenance to an approach that accommodates more planned and preventive maintenance. The engineering supervisor determines that one way to help achieve that goal is to implement a new CMMS system. To make the most of the new system, he needs maintenance teams to be involved in the change. For them, this means entering data and job details in tablets on the plant floor.

He plans to transition in a methodical manner to get buy-in from supervisors and maintenance technicians, starting with a pilot program to test the new CMMS. There are additional steps, primarily completed with competence by a junior engineer with assistance from maintenance teams:

  • Port over more than 800 established PMs
  • Map out all new PMs for the most-critical systems
  • Upload information from manuals
  • Document tribal knowledge into check-boxed tasks
  • Attend a three-week boot camp on the CMMS to be able to train the trainer
  • Work with a customer success team on small customizations
  • Set up mobile work orders in anticipation of a move to tablet devices

In some cases, the team discovers unanticipated new time-savers. For example, the new system automatically generates work orders when the PM comes due – an efficiency that surprises and delights the maintenance planners.

Vehicle manufacturer

A vehicle manufacturer operates and maintains more than 100,000 pieces of equipment, including robotics, parts stamping machines, conveyors, and numerous motors and pumps. Its predictive maintenance (PdM) lab collects readings on the equipment on a regular schedule. When it finds issues, it passes the results to the maintenance department so that a work order can be generated and the repair completed during scheduled weekend downtime.

But much of the company’s equipment is older and doesn’t have sensors, and the reliability team supervisor and a company thermographer want condition data on that equipment. So the reliability team tests having maintenance techs, who normally do hands-on maintenance, run PdM routes using handheld vibration meters and thermal imagers.

The company’s goal goes beyond testing the tools; it also wants to test the idea of having maintenance techs, who might not be thermography or vibration experts but who know how to gather data, collect vibration data and thermal images in the field. They then upload the data so the reliability team can use cloud-based software to analyze it, find problems early, and schedule repairs where necessary.

Passing on some of the vibration testing and thermography scans to maintenance technicians, the company reasons, will allow the reliability team to focus on the most pressing issues and have more time to analyze more equipment. In the end, the pilot proves that techs coan be deployed to assist the reliability team. It also gives the maintenance technicians a change of pace from some of their usual tasks.

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