Manufacturing during a pandemic: Tales from the COVID front

July 15, 2020
In this Big Picture Interview, Mike Macsisak says, “Everybody's now realizing that the old norm is out and the new norm is in, because if this happened once, it could happen again.”

Editors’ note: Plant Services met veteran millwright and newly minted predictive maintenance technician Michael Macsisak several years ago, and Mike has checked in with the editors as he began work in mining and then again earlier this year to discuss how technicians can change from a predictive mindset to a more reliability-focused approach. Our latest interview was conducted just as industry was ramping up to cope with the coronavirus pandemic, an effort that is far from over.

PS: We haven't talked for an interview since COVID-19 hit the United States. What's it like out there in industry? How are things changing?

MM: Everybody has to change with the environment, but now some change has been forced upon us. So instead of fighting it, we have to do what's right for everybody: adapt and change. My lifestyle is changed now, where I am very cautious of what I do. I make sure I keep my social distancing, I sanitize my house once a week, and I try to do everything I can to make me and everyone around me safe.

PS: How is your workplace supporting these kinds of changes

MM: At work, I spend most of my time now making sure that everyone is safe. Our lunch rooms, we’ve cut them in half, and we spread everything out so that everybody is at least 6 feet apart from each other. We have people going around sanitizing doorknobs, push bars, anything that anybody touches. Everybody now wears gloves or masks, and we do temperature scans at the door. We do as best as we can to make sure everybody coming into work is in a safe way, and everybody is safe working together.

I probably have put in an extra 50 hand sanitizers, so there's no way that you have to go far if you need to sanitize your hands. We even sanitize with gloves on, because the gloves can hold it just as well as anything else. But I see other industries also doing the same thing that we are. We're adapting Plexiglas windows in place, steam cleaning the rugs. We're doing everything we can to make the office a safer environment.

PS: Do you get the sense that either in your workplace or just from all the stories you've heard from your colleagues in the industry, that the these workplaces, especially manufacturing workplaces, are taking advantage of this moment to look at even more than the safety processes? Or do you think that the effort has focused more on the immediate safety concerns?

Big Picture Interview

This article is part of our monthly Big Picture Interview column. Read more interviews from our monthly Big Picture series.

MM: Everybody is worried about safety, and manufacturing in general must start up at some point. But by the same token, even though most industries are closed, they still have a maintenance staff and they're going over all the equipment to fine-tune it. And as far as onboard sensors that are remote, we're running from remote, and you can monitor the vital equipment that can't stop even though most everything else may have stopped.

You're monitoring it 24/7 so you have an idea what's going on all the time. And if an alarm arises, you have the people there to attack it right away. Because at the moment, keeping everything up and ready to run is more important. The critical equipment cannot stop, like ammonia rooms, ammonia compressors, chillers, coolers; all of those assets can't turn off because sometimes it'll take a long time to bring it back up to speed.

So, I feel like as far as maintenance, everybody is making things better because they're not worried about day-to-day, and they’re not working on stuff that they would just patch in order to get through another week or two. Now they're getting to fix everything the right way. And once we open up, they'll be ready to go, and it'll be all hands on deck.

PS: It seems like for a long time people in our industry and also in the industry press have been talking about maintenance and reliability working closely with safety. We know that a lot of places do, and it sounds like right now there’s an emergency relationship in place to combat COVID-19. Do you think things will stay this way, or do you think when people open up and get back to focusing on OEE and other production metrics, that we're going to go back to the way it was before?

MM: I don't think that's going to happen. I think now that, with all the safety protocols going in place, everybody's now realizing that the old norm is out and the new norm is in, because if this happened once, it could happen again. So, I believe that all the safety precautions, the hand sanitizers, the spreading, keeping distance, wearing masks, Plexiglas and everything involved will make the workplace a better environment.

We're learning as we go. This whole process is learn as you go and keep moving forward. Because that's all we do is keep moving forward.

PS: In a recent ISM report, the food and pulp & paper sectors were cited as not having felt a dip in productivity due to the virus. Does that match your sense of what's happening, or do you see other sectors beyond those two running normally or close to normal?

MM: The industry I'm in, I guess you could classify us as a rubber industry, and I see everybody running normal. Everybody has new protocols, and they do the protocol because if you're packing food or packing anything without the protocols, you could have all the supplies there, but if there's no one there to process it through the system and get it out to market, it's going to fail. So, you have to adapt and change your thought process to make this all work.

Take utilities like electricity, water, and natural gas. With everyone concentrating on the virus, if you lose the grid, or have no water or natural gas, then everything shuts down, and that will shut down the supply chain. Image what would happen at a hospital if they lose any of those. Also, gas prices are down right now because no one is driving, but that doesn’t mean the fuel industry can do anything differently right now. They have to maintain the wells, they have to maintain the supply chain, they have to maintain everything.

So, I think there's a lot going on behind the scenes that mainstream doesn’t see, because nobody talks about maintenance much. But maintenance is still the backbone of it all because if it doesn’t work, it won't run. And if it doesn’t run, you won't be able to sell.

PS: It makes a lot of sense, especially on the supply chain side and all those smaller operations which are either doing some belt-tightening to keep the production going or had a temporary shutdown. I'm also not hearing a complete industry-wide breakdown.

MM: Everybody thinks of the big companies but there's a lot of little companies out there too, and they have to do the same precaution, but sometimes they don't have the finances necessary to make this happen. So, when the government came out with the small business loans, as long as it worked out right and went to the right people, that should sustain them enough until we get the economy rolling again.

I just hope that this all works out for everyone and we return to our status and the way we were before. We'll probably never be that way now because of all the safety precautions, but safety is always good no matter what. And unfortunately, this makes people that don't think about it more aware. And being aware and changing your thought process is the key to survival in today's economy.

Contact Mike Macsisak at [email protected].

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