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Don't let your condition monitoring get the recessionary axe

May 7, 2009
Cutting back on intelligence and efficient approaches to managing your assets is never a good idea. In fact, more intelligence and efficiency is always better, especially when times are tough.

These are cost-cutting times. A recessionary period is partially defined as a time when supply outweighs demand; when we are producing more products than people wish to buy. Depending on the industry, this might not be the appropriate time to discuss availability, uptime and overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), or how we can reduce yearly downtime by a percentage point in order to eke out some additional product. These are times of slowdowns, layoffs and plant closures when we reconcile our overcapacity for production and try to keep our doors open until demand picks up again.

Wherever you find yourself in the spectrum, one thing is for certain: Don’t think you are cutting costs by cutting back on condition-based maintenance programs or other intelligent asset-management strategies. Quite the contrary. Intelligent maintenance not only increases efficiency when the mantra is “Produce! Produce! Produce!” It also saves money when things slow down. Cutting back on personnel might be necessary and outsourcing some of these functions might be the best option, but cutting back on intelligence and efficient approaches to managing your assets is never a good idea. In fact, more intelligence and efficiency is always better, especially when times are tough.

Let’s do a quick experiment to prove the point. Imagine an airline is going through difficult times and decides to cut back on maintenance to save some money. What will likely happen? Perhaps nothing will happen for some time, but eventually we can guess the airline will begin to lose track of its assets (knowledge of the mechanical condition of the planes) and, in a best-case scenario, only reliability will suffer. At some point, it is going to cost a lot of time and money to regain control of the situation; more than was saved by shortsighted cuts. When business does eventually pick up, the planes will start breaking down and then the airline will find that it cannot meet demand. This recession will not last forever and, therefore, the question becomes not only how companies survive, but where do they want to be when it is over?

In his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey talks about the habit of “sharpening the saw.” He suggests that if a saw mill wishes to cut as much wood as possible, it will be more successful if it stops every once in a while to sharpen the saw. Just as one’s immediate inclination would be to cut, cut, cut if the goal is to cut more wood, the common business practice of eliminating programs, laying people off and stopping intelligent work when a slow time hits are wrong. A slowdown is an opportunity to “sharpen the saw” and to look for smarter and more efficient ways of running the plant; to slim down and shape up so that you are ready to run when the race begins again.

A slowdown in demand is the right time to invest in greater efficiencies, to streamline maintenance practices and procedures and to remove unnecessary maintenance actions through better understanding of the condition of the assets. These goals can be achieved by adopting condition-based maintenance practices. If you don’t have the in-house expertise to carry this out, ask for help. Outsourcing is an efficiency a plant can take advantage of, especially as it allows one to cut back on payroll when times are tough and use manpower only as needed. As the baby boomer generation begins to retire and the industry begins losing in-house experts, there will be even more incentive to take advantage of outside expertise, automation and remote monitoring.

Intelligent maintenance practices — which include predictive maintenance technologies such as vibration analysis, precision balancing and alignment, oil analysis, IR thermography and ultrasound, intelligent lubrication management regimens, process monitoring, root cause failure analysis and reliability techniques — are money-saving efficiencies, not expenses. Why would some choose to cut these programs in hard times instead of embrace them? One answer is that not enough has been done to actually calculate the positive economic effect these programs have had on the plant.

One goal of condition monitoring is to reduce the number of unplanned maintenance actions in the plant. Unplanned maintenance actions negatively effect production schedules and might cause injuries, accidents and collateral damage. When a plant has successfully implemented a condition-monitoring program, the expectation is that the number of instances of these unplanned failures is reduced. This is a fairly easy thing to track and measure. There are a number of other ways to measure the effect of intelligent maintenance regimens on the plant’s bottom line, but failure to actually measure and document these positive results can often result in a good program getting cut.

An economic downturn is an opportunity to step back, review internal processes and procedures, engage outside experts and improve the plant’s overall operations. As distant as it may seem, you must keep long-term goals in mind despite today’s troubled times. When the recession is over, you will need to be ready to compete, not be bogged down by accidents and reliability problems caused by shortsighted cuts in maintenance. When surveying current plant practices and beefing up or implementing intelligent maintenance strategies, it is important to consider the positive economic effect of these programs and develop metrics to measure your success or failure. One simple measurement, but certainly not the only one, is the relative number of planned to unplanned maintenance actions. In any case, good programs often get cut if metrics are not in place to justify them. Now is the time to sharpen the saw and to measure how sharp it is to see how this improves the plant’s bottom line.

Jonathan Hakim is president of Azima DLI. E-mail him at [email protected].

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