Maintenance engineering

Sept. 4, 2003
Keith Mobley, contributing editor, says maintenance engineering requires skills that aren't taught in college.

Many believe that maintenance engineering ought to be eliminated. As a result, the availability, reliability and lifecycle cost of plant assets have begun an upward spiral. Without viable maintenance engineering, plants can't focus on the factors that limit their performance. Transferring this responsibility to general maintenance or predictive maintenance teams means that many problems remain unresolved, because neither group can resolve problems that affect asset reliability or long-term cost.

The primary mission of effective maintenance management is to preserve critical assets, prolong their lives, ensure best maintenance practices and minimize cost. The maintenance organization must have a functional group with the responsibility, authority and accountability for these goals.

Maintenance engineering provides the leadership, direction, single-point accountability and technical expertise that achieve and sustain optimum reliability, maintainability and lifecycle cost. While maintenance engineering can't affect performance directly, it provides data needed to optimize maintenance and develop strategies that support continuous improvement.

Maintenance engineering's functions are outlined below:

Maintaining existing plant assets is why the group exists in the first place. Responsibility here is to make repairs to production machinery quickly and economically, to anticipate repairs and, where possible, use preventive and predictive maintenance to prevent them. It requires a staff that is trained, motivated and continually retrained to ensure that skills are available to perform effective maintenance. Finally, the group must keep adequate expense records.

Historically, 17 percent of reliability problems can be attributed to improper maintenance. The maintenance engineer is responsible for developing preventive maintenance task lists, performance intervals and methods to verify the quality of work performed and to ensure that best practices are followed.

Equipment inspection and lubrication, by tradition, have been assigned to maintenance. While the maintenance organization must control inspections that require special tools or partial equipment disassembly, using trained production personnel may represent a more effective use of labor. Maintenance engineers develop and verify the methods used for inspections, lubrication, calibration and preventive adjustments for assets.

Alterations, modifications and installations require control and administration. Uncontrolled alterations, modifications and new asset installations represent 22 percent of reliability problems. The maintenance engineer should be assigned responsibility, authority and accountability for these three tasks. The engineer should establish configuration control procedures that prohibit substantive changes, modifications or replacement of assets without a thorough evaluation and approval by the maintenance-engineering group.

Errors in specification and procurement represent 21 percent of reliability and lifecycle cost problems. Maintenance engineering should be involved in the specification and procurement of any new asset. Its role is to ensure that the asset meets acceptable reliability, maintainability and lifecycle cost criteria. Without involving the maintenance engineering group, there is a high potential for reliability and lifecycle cost problems.


Many assume that a degree in engineering is the only qualification for a maintenance engineer. Unfortunately, knowledge acquired in a classroom doesn't include such practical know-how as machine/system dynamics, operating envelope criteria, proper maintenance practices and failure analysis. An academic degree doesn't guarantee adequate communication and basic business economics skills, not to mention the motivation that is essential for this function.

To be effective, a maintenance engineer must be able to evaluate existing and new equipment and systems accurately to identify the inherent factors that affect reliability, maintainability and lifecycle cost. The evaluation must be based on machine/system dynamics, not theoretical college machine design courses.

Unfortunately, only a few engineers have the background and skills needed. Additional, practical on-the-job training is needed.

The maintenance engineer should not be viewed as an unnecessary expense. The function is essential to corporate survival.

Contributing Editor Keith Mobley can be reached via email at [email protected].

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