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The fast evolution of on-site maintenance teams

Oct. 20, 2021
In this Big Picture Interview, learn why many plants are re-thinking what their on-site maintenance teams look like.

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: 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: If you look back five years, 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. 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.

Big Picture Interview

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

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: 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: 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 hold or cloud would really grab hold, 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. 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, five 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.

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.

This story originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Plant Services. Subscribe to Plant Services here.

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