Learn why plants are re-thinking their on-site maintenance teams

Dec. 2, 2021
In this episode of The Tool Belt, Brad Budde discusses the evolution and future of on-site maintenance teams.

Brad Budde leads the Digital Customer Experience Program for Emerson Automation Solutions, working on digitizing workflows both internally and with customers. Recently Plant Services Editor in Chief Thomas Wilk spoke with Brad about how digital technologies are helping organizations build new partnerships and re-think the way traditional on-site maintenance teams are staffed.

PS: If you could tell the audience of "The Tool Belt" podcast who might not know you already, tell us a little bit about yourself and what sort of digital projects you're working on right now that get you all fired up in the morning.

BB: My name is Brad Budde, I lead the Digital Customer Experience Program for Emerson Automation Solutions, and what we work on are digitizing workflows internally and with our customers. Our main objective is to make work easier, so we spend a lot of time thinking about digital technology and where that's headed. And when I get up in the morning, that's really the passion that drives us, is making sure we stay connected with customer expectations. Customers are people too, right? So people's expectations about using digital tools, and being easy to do business with. At the end of it all it's our job to make things easy, to make workflows easy. As I was telling my team, it's hard work to make things simple. So, therein is the job.

PS: That's a great point. I think just basic PM optimization on the part of plant teams can be a barrier. Something that so-called “simple” has nuances, right?

BB: Everything has a nuance. So, you have to work through all that.

PS: Let me start with a topic that we really clicked on last time we talked, which is the death of capital-M “Maintenance.” As plant teams get smaller or as plant teams go through retirements, many are reaching out to third-party partners for help or OEMs for help. What’s your take on this trend of maintenance teams changing or evolving from where they were even about five years ago?

BB: Yeah, we do see that happening. And I think for us, if you look back five years, first, I think there was a really strong push to move from paper into digital, especially through the pandemic. I've seen a lot of quotes from our customers that we are no longer using paper catalogs because we're either not in the office or we can't get to them. The move to digital, I think is just what we're in right now. And then where it's going in that shift that I think you're implying, the death of the big M maintenance that's coming, is as technology continues to advance. Both in the products of operations in running a plant and also in cloud capabilities like that, we're going to see that technology change so much that it's going to be so complex. Maintenance departments are going to have a hard time having that depth of knowledge to keep up with that complexity.

I think what that's going to, in turn, lead to is more reliance on original equipment manufacturers to help with the maintenance. I think there's going to be a partnership. If you want to look at an example, in my mind, the change that happened in automobiles and automobile maintenance is where I think that's going. Cars are so complex now that it's difficult for maintenance people to keep up with that change, and I think that same thing is happening in plants.

PS: I hear you, the corner mechanic is vanishing little by little as cars become more computerized and more chipped up.

BB: Right. So, with all those chips comes all the data and the technology, right? I think in order for that future state to happen, we're going to have to be more open to sharing data and in allowing that data to move between the asset and the maintenance department and the OEM in order to make the right decisions.

PS: Yeah, the first asset class that I notice a lot of that happening was compressors, simply because those are so complex. But I was down at the EASA, the EASA Convention in June and they were talking about seeing that shift as motors either get, again, too complex, sometimes for maintenance teams to handle, or honestly they get so simplified that they become commodities, and it's easier to replace than to repair. Either way, the direction gets shifted back towards the OEMs to assist maintenance teams in making the repairs.

BB: Yep. I agree with you. We see that happening.

PS: Let me ask you one COVID question today, and it relates to this topic about the death of capital-M maintenance. How are plants coping with challenges related to worker shortages right now, especially with that current one-two punch of COVID sickouts and a gradually aging workforce?

BB: What we see happening is simply forcing prioritization and planning: with a limited set of resources, you can only make a few decisions. What that means is there's more pull for better information, and then once we have info, that leads to better execution. I see what's happening in a two-part process. Again, the thinking of more technology being put into plants so you have better information. More tech being put on assets at Emerson. That's a big and growing part of our business is adding technology sensors and software over the top of assets. Then the information you get there is to put the context into a way that the maintenance manager or operations manager can make better decisions, so back to the idea of it's hard work to make things simple.

That software has to pull all the information out and give you a good idea of what to do. So then the maintenance department with dealing with COVID sickouts and all the experience that we have in the plant retiring, then it comes into execution. So this is the second part of the process: I think what we're seeing people deal with is, once a work order is cut, they need better, more detailed contextual maintenance content, like how-to or instruction manuals, that kind of thing, down to the assets specifically. Working to atomize that content and make sure the right stuff is in front of the right person who has the right skill set and the right procedure.

PS: You know, it's funny, we just wrapped up our workforce survey for the year 2021 for Plant Services. Interestingly, the number one obstacle that people pointed towards getting work done was knowledge transfer, knowledge capture, this issue you just talked about of getting the right information to the right person at the right time. And we've all seen the shift towards mobile. How do you think that shift is going? Are we there yet or do we have some ways to go?

BB: Yeah, I don't know that mobile is going to be the thing, we've actually seen penetration of mobile flatten in the way that consumers use our maintenance content and our engineering content. I still think that an engineer doing work is going to use two big screens, and on one screen they're going to have their ERP or CMMS, and the other screen they'll have their email and web browser. That's definitely true in engineering, and I think in maintenance planning, that same thing is true. You have your operational software on one screen, and then the other one you're pulling content and putting it all together, right?

I think just the mobile aspect of it really only applies once a work order is cut and a maintenance tech has to go out and do work. We saw a good ramp of that early when mobile devices really shrank and became computers, but flattened off in the last three years.

PS: Let's shift to a related topic, which is cloud-based maintenance. Plant Services editors seem to see a progression happening where once plants begin their condition-based remote monitoring programs and start moving some data into the cloud, then more data into the cloud, before you know it, you've got a cloud program going. What's your take on how cloud-based maintenance initiatives are changing business as usual for maintenance? And especially the way that it might change relationships with OEMs, distributors, people like that?

BB: Yeah, definitely. We're getting pressure for this all the time as a clearer line is being drawn between IT and OT. IT departments are really pushing for this, because they understand the value and the benefit. Frankly, as workers, you and I, Tom, we have Microsoft systems everywhere likely, and that kind of thinking creates the standard we expect to see, so when you move down into the maintenance process, you have that same expectation.

In regards to cloud, one of my favorite examples is John Deere. I love their example because in farming - one of the last places you think technology would really grab ahold or cloud would really grab ahold, they've automated tractors and put all sorts of sensors on your equipment, like a combine harvester, so that they can get data down in the field – what's happening on every square yard. So they're measuring yields as they harvest, they're measuring soil conditions, and they're sending all that up to the cloud, and that's the farmer's data.

Here's where I think the shift is happening is the cloud now enables all sorts of business models to arise on top of that. Let's say in the case of John Deere, 5 years ago I talked to them, they had 20 external users of APIs of that farmer's data. And I just listened to a podcast and they're now at 400 – four hundred users of that data. The cloud enabled that, and what's happening there is, business models are being enhanced on top of it. Like a fertilizer company, right? They can see that farmer's field data and the yields, and then they can provide back to the farmer a customized fertilizer solution that then goes down into the tractor when they go out tomorrow and fertilize. So for fertilizer companies, this makes a lot of sense. Insurance companies are looking at that. So now they can get a better idea of what their real exposure is across all these farms. Other equipment manufacturers are plugging into that data and coming up with new and different equipment that they could hook behind a tractor and send out to the field. Even drone manufacturers are using that, so they can send out drones to go look at bad spots or hot spots and diagnose without a farmer having to go out in the field. You have all these innovation layers that are enabled on top of cloud.

Listen to the entire interview

So for us and back to the maintenance department, I think that those examples are really real. The change is coming, albeit a bit slower. That's a little bit scary that we're moving slower than farmers. But what it does is it's forcing us to connect our systems, decide what data we're willing to take out of the plant, and then what partnerships we're willing to forge to take advantage of that.

Those questions are what we're challenging with now, and I think what that'll lead to, in our world, is an extension of the players in the vendor supplier relationship. If we build these connections to the cloud, now, raw material ingredient suppliers might be interested in seeing yield or process information. I used to work in the plastics industry. Never once did we think about sharing the output of our plastic extrusion parameters back with the pellet suppliers, or with the raw material suppliers. What if we had done that? Could their chemists had come up with a better way to formulate for our specific processes? Probably, right? So I think sharing that data will enable raw material suppliers to change.

And then another one that I think a lot about lately is sustainability. Downstream, what if our water and wastewater plants could be connected back to how we're consuming and using water in our plants, and then help drive better programs together using real-time information that we could load, balance, recycle, all those kinds of things? Those are new and interesting models that could emerge out of cloud-based initiatives and data sharing and partnerships.

PS: I'm curious about what you said about your example of plastics. Do you think long-term this has the potential to help overcome the supply chain hiccups that we're all seeing right now, as we look at a post-COVID world and see how those relationships have changed?

BB: Some of the events we're dealing with there were not predicted, right? So could we get better at predicting these things in our supply chain? That'd be one way to do it, perhaps. But then secondly, I think supply chain connectivity is something that we at Emerson are looking at a lot. We have to have really tight supply chain connections, not just one degree of freedom away, but two, and sometimes three down to the raw material coming out of the ground or coming out of the tank or whatever it is. So if you can connect it multiple steps and do better planning and allocation, yeah, I think there's opportunity there as well.

PS: Let me ask you one more question, which is specifically about work orders. Clearly plants approach work orders in a lot of different ways. Some plants may wrestle with moving the data they collect into their CMMS to actually trigger the work orders, some may have trouble getting through the backlog. Especially in the age of smaller maintenance teams and in an age where we're going digital, what are some things you'd recommend for plants who are facing work order challenges, who want to optimize their PMs or get through the backlog?

BB: Here at Emerson, one of the things we're doing is an extension of that first digitalization step I mentioned. If you can move from paper to digital content, that's a huge new opportunity for you. And you can start to take that digital content and contextualize it, make it smaller, easier to understand, easier for a maintenance planner to put into a work packet, and easier for maintenance staff to execute that. What we're doing to help enable that is putting QR codes on our physical products, for example. So, with a quick scan, now you know exactly what maintenance manual, you know the spare parts, you know the calibration cycles, all that kind of information, the lifecycle of the product, what we recommend for warranty and service. With that information, now, just through a QR code scan, now you're, like, lightyears ahead of knowing what to do next. I'd recommend maintenance teams look at trying to find better ways to connect that information into the work orders that they build.

Secondly, the CMMS and software that we use to run maintenance, we have to challenge that industry to really continue to evolve. I know some of them are moving to the cloud, and I think more of them need to move to the cloud. I view those as IT systems. I don't know if everyone shares that perspective. I'd actually be curious when I finish answering this what your perspective is on that. So I think if they're IT systems, that means they're in the cloud, we make sure the data that we keep in them is shareable with partners.

Then the last part of that, to answer your question, is I think we need to embrace this partnership concept. You know, if this is an IT system and we're not really as concerned about cybersecurity risks with a maintenance work order like we would be with plant information, we have to open up and embrace working APIs between these systems to help accelerate the work and get the work better the first time. Like you said early on, fewer people means we're prioritizing, so we have to get better at doing the work, and we have to open up and partner to get better at it.

PS: I hear you loud and clear. And when it comes to IT systems versus OT systems, it's a challenging question because traditionally, IT would be responsible for new software management and implementation. The challenge becomes, who can have the conversation on what's required of the system and the product. And so just in my experience, what I've seen is that IT will become the default project manager but IT can't always have the right kind of conversations that the operations side can and how to spec it out and design requirements.

But on the opposite side, you've got OT that may not be able to have the business conversations that IT can have based on all the other systems that are in place in the plant, and help leverage a good deal, for example, or to identify integration risks. So, if pushed, I'd say IT systems but barely, because these days, the IT/OT integration and partnership is a very real thing, and I don't think plants will get the best out of their systems unless those two teams come together to have the best conversation. Does that make sense?

BB: Yeah, that does make sense. And so I think that the people collaborating between IT and OT needs to happen. The information system might have some boundary layer between it. Do you think there's a willingness to share information with partners? Like, how close are we to that, in your view, Tom?

PS: Interestingly, in the surveys that we've done, year over year, we see a gradual increased willingness. When we ask people how often do they share data and who with, we see an increased willingness, say quarterly, with teams outside the plant, and that includes OEMs and third-party maintenance teams coming in to help.

So, there is a willingness, a very slow willingness, and it's related to the trends that you talked about, which is that, number one, plant teams, I think, recognize that they can't do it all themselves digitally, that there's partners out there who can help them make sense of their data. But number two is necessity. You know, you've got to diversify your maintenance workforce, not only on a person-to-person level but also on a team level. You can't just rely on that capital-M maintenance team to get done what has to get done with asset care. Your thoughts on that?

BB: Yeah, I guess I fully agree with you. I wish it were happening faster. It's interesting to hear that data. When I see how fast farming is changing, they clearly realize the financial benefits of sharing data and information, and they see the business outcome in the yields coming out of the field. Maybe we just haven't figured out the best financial tie-out to this problem that we're talking about here, and we need to simplify the answer to that and then simplify the messaging.

PS: I wonder about the killer app effect. One case I heard out West in a mining company, the company had sensored up all their vehicles after they rebuilt them to the point where they could detect whether a vibration anomaly was a vehicle issue or a road issue. And what they found was that they actually improved road repairs – it was a secondary benefit, but that was the real benefit. You could manage your fleet and repair it and avoid new capital expenditures, but the real benefit was increased throughput by having the road rebuilt a lot more often.

BB: See, I think that's a great example of partnering because you bring in the road maintenance department to help solve the core problem, which is only tangentially related to all the sensors in the asset class.

PS: Yeah, and I don't think it occurred to the team to actually look at throughput benefits when they were repairing their trucks, but turns out they could do it.

BB: Yeah. Right. So then when you tie the financial outcome to it, you can tell this great little vignette of a story and people begin to understand it. I think the tech's there. I think all the cool features and data analysis we need is there. I think we have to get better at the business value that it creates, and understanding that, and being able to scale it out.

PS: To that point too, a part of what Plant Services tries to do in the magazine and on the website is to arm our readers with that vocabulary. When it comes to those conversations, plenty of maintenance teams, reliability managers, can have these business conversations and build a business case, discuss ROI, replacement asset value. But there are those who would need to get their game up and recognize that the more those conversations are possible, the better they can run the maintenance team.

BB: Yeah, right, they're directly linked. Good point.

Sponsored Recommendations

Arc Flash Prevention: What You Need to Know

March 28, 2024
Download to learn: how an arc flash forms and common causes, safety recommendations to help prevent arc flash exposure (including the use of lockout tagout and energy isolating...

Reduce engineering time by 50%

March 28, 2024
Learn how smart value chain applications are made possible by moving from manually-intensive CAD-based drafting packages to modern CAE software.

Filter Monitoring with Rittal's Blue e Air Conditioner

March 28, 2024
Steve Sullivan, Training Supervisor for Rittal North America, provides an overview of the filter monitoring capabilities of the Blue e line of industrial air conditioners.

Limitations of MERV Ratings for Dust Collector Filters

Feb. 23, 2024
It can be complicated and confusing to select the safest and most efficient dust collector filters for your facility. For the HVAC industry, MERV ratings are king. But MERV ratings...