Reliability is the life!

May 24, 2012

In most lines of work, engineering entails balances and compromises. "How light can I make this frame and still have it strong enough?" "How much cost do I have to take out of a product in order to sell it in today's market?" "How many cycles does this hinge have to survive before it gets thrown away?"

In most lines of work, engineering entails balances and compromises. "How light can I make this frame and still have it strong enough?" "How much cost do I have to take out of a product in order to sell it in today's market?" "How many cycles does this hinge have to survive before it gets thrown away?"

These are all perfectly reasonable questions. They are an effort to determine the level of effort or spending needed to satisfy a customer without wasting resources. Still giving something usually makes it necessary to take away something else.

Industrial reliability engineering is a little different. Solid equipment reliability improves industrial safety and environmental performance. But it also improves quality of work life and saves a ton of money whenever it prevents equipment failures.

Two industrial fatalities have happened near me over the years. Both occurred when big equipment stopped running as planned and, instead, required people to ad lib in new operating situations.

The first fatality was caused by a steam boiler in South Africa. The coal conveyors loaded up with ash and jammed. A couple of operators opened the guards and turned a fire hose on the hot ashes to cool them off for cleaning. The resulting steam explosion killed an operator because he guessed wrong in an unfamiliar situation.

The other fatality happened in a heat treatment plant in the Midwest. A furnace with a reducing atmosphere (superheated gas with very little oxygen) had a plugged vent line. A pipefitter broke the line open where he always had, but this time it was below the obstruction. The hot gas shot out into the air and was ignited. The pipefitter burned to death instantly.

Simple condition monitoring and cleaning would have prevented both of these fatal situations and the human and financial costs that followed.

The same is true of the less dramatic failures that reliability and preventive/predictive maintenance help us avoid. Industrial Reliability promotes normal, predictable operations. Planned maintenance can be executed safely, with a minimum of cost and disruption to production. Quality of work life improves, along with environmental cleanliness, safety and profitability. Job security even starts to look better.

Yes, reliability engineering is long on benefits and short on compromise. Let’s hope it’s catching on!

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