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Plant reliability in the post-digital era

Jan. 8, 2020
As equipment and skills demands evolve, is your maintenance strategy keeping pace?

In this article:

Digitalization is gaining momentum among manufacturers. Outdated processes are getting a much-needed overhaul. A new order of highly efficient, automated factories competing on a global scale is approaching. But what will a fully digital world mean to the plant maintenance industry? Will the factory of the future be self-running, self-diagnosing, and self-healing? Or will a limited number of skilled technicians struggle to keep the complex network of robotics and machinery working as needed? Predicting tomorrow’s response to escalating maintenance demands is no easy feat. But we know this: For digitalization to be effective, the plant maintenance strategy must also keep pace with technological change.

Forward-thinking factories understand the potential impact of technology on profitability and are embracing digitalization. Proof-of-concept projects have been completed, and full-scale deployments of new technologies are rolling out. The internet of things (IoT), embedded sensors, machine-to-machine connectivity, supply-chain networks, automated warehouses, and robotics are playing critical roles in driving shop-floor automation and improving efficiency. Even fundamental facility infrastructure elements such as lights and HVAC systems are becoming equipped with smart technology so that energy use can be optimized. Vehicles and material handling equipment, too, now have self-driving and self-monitoring capabilities.

Factories are hardly the labor-intensive, mass-production assembly lines that they once were. Escalating customer demands and heightened global competition have generated a “survival of the smartest” landscape. A need for creative problem-solving has led to expanded use of robotics and other automation-focused technologies, with these tools not necessarily replacing employees but often supplementing or complementing their work.  

The mainstream adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) applications has spurred wider use of smart machinery. These “smart” assets, from temperature-controlled warehouse systems to visual monitoring tools meant to support quality control, can be connected to a central solution, given operational parameters, and allowed to self-manage assigned work cycles. If properly deployed, most machines need little supervision. This allows personnel to focus on more-creative and challenging tasks.

But, any machine, no matter how advanced, will require preventive maintenance, calibration, updates, safety inspections, and periodic repairs. Many pieces of equipment require parts such as bearings, belts or valves to be replaced based on wear. Others need consumables, like oil or filters, replaced routinely. And in high-tech machinery, even routine tasks such as checking fluid levels require expertise and specialized training. No manufacturer wants to send a new apprentice to work independently on a multimillion-dollar piece of equipment, even if it is only to check the hydraulic fluid. In digital factories, these demands will only increase, placing greater strain on the maintenance team.

Increasing the stakes

Innovation, particularly AI technology, is continually being refined, becoming easier to implement and easier to use. Templates for do-it-yourself AI applications help developers as well as front-line users create their own use cases. This democratizing of advanced technology will lead to more and more physical assets being connected to the network, sharing data, and consuming resources. More automated machinery means more assets to be monitored and maintained. Each asset is like a link in the systemwide chain. When one link breaks, the entire end-to-end process fails.  

Complex machinery, a hallmark of digital factories, requires highly trained maintenance crews. Failure of a critical piece of equipment can be disastrous for the digital enterprise, halting all work. Think of a high-temperature curing oven that is two stories tall and weighs tons. In a less-automated, old-school world, a wizened operator may have been able to use experience and instinct to manually compensate for temperature fluctuations or other idiosyncrasies that can arise in aging machinery. But in a highly automated digital factory, machinery is likely controlled by electronics and software, not levers and dials. If sensors detect a slight deviation from standards, an auto-shutdown sequence may be triggered, locking down the machinery until the issue is resolved and reinspected. Alternative manual processes may not be an option.

Will standards evolve, too?

Many maintenance teams strive to follow industry best practices, but most organizations still have room for improvement. Deloitte estimates that poor maintenance strategies can reduce a plant’s overall productive capacity by 5%–20%. Unplanned downtime costs industrial manufacturers an estimated $50 billion each year. 

In the maturity model for asset maintenance, a prescriptive approach is considered optimal. This will be even more important in the post-digital era. In this approach, advanced enterprise asset management (EAM) solutions suggest preventive tactics, prescribe how to act, and predict the outcome. Prescriptive maintenance uses predictive science and algorithms to provide a glimpse into the future and anticipate how the asset’s performance can be optimized.

As technology evolves in the next decade, maintenance solutions likely will evolve, too. This has happened in the past. PAS 55 was originally produced in 2004 by several organizations under the leadership of the Institute of Asset Management. It then underwent a substantial revision with 50 participating organizations from 15 industry sectors in 10 countries and evolved into PAS 55:2008. The PAS gives guidance and a 28-point requirements checklist of good practices in physical asset management.

ISO-14224, guidelines for the petroleum, natural gas and petrochemical industries, is another standard that has evolved and will likely continue to do so as the public demand for greater environmental safety continues to escalate. Industry groups and councils, which form PAS guidelines and then ISO standards, will continue to influence expectations of manufacturers and maintenance teams.

Software solutions, too, will evolve. It’s hard to predict what new features and functions may be rolled into future versions of EAM software. But, some general trends can be anticipated:

  • Solutions will get easier to use, more intuitive, and responsive to different devices.
  • Voice activation and the use of personal assistants will continue to gain adoption, empowering users to verbally ask the computer questions and make commands.
  • Flexibility and scalability will come into increased focus as companies will seek to connect multiple types of assets and pieces of equipment to the network.  

Holistic approach

The most critical change on the horizon, though, is the need for maintenance solutions to become part of the holistic plant management strategy. Maintenance needs to move away from being considered a siloed operation with separate priorities, budget, and resources. Too often maintenance is an afterthought for executive leadership. This will change as factories realize the essential nature of their high-tech assets. Keeping the digital operation running smoothly in the post-digital era will require a strategic approach. Asset management will include evaluating risk, reliability, co-dependence, financial impact, inventory, and budget planning. Technicians will require extensive asset-specific training.

McKinsey is optimistic about the future of maintenance, with a 2018 article from the research and consulting firm stating: “Advanced predictive maintenance (PdM), enabled by extensive sensor integration and machine-learning techniques, is one of the most widely-heralded benefits of the fourth industrial revolution. The idea is certainly a compelling one, and it is encouraging companies in asset-intensive sectors to pursue investments in digital maintenance and reliability.”

Maintaining asset wellness will also mean managing the asset’s IT wellness, as it likely will be capturing data, sharing data, and sending triggers to other machines or generating reports for managers. The asset will either have AI and ML embedded in its programming or it will interface with other solutions to consume the relative data. The asset’s lifecycle, including upgrades, replacement parts, and planned sunset, will be orchestrated and part of the factory’s contingency planning and capital investment strategy.

Machinery and technology will be symbiotic. Each piece of equipment will be high-tech, with its own OS, version provisioning, and need for periodic upgrades. Cloud computing will be essential in tomorrow’s digital factories, giving maintenance technicians greater flexibility and storage capacity.

Future challenges

The shortage of skilled maintenance technicians will continue to plague factories. Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute’s 2018 Manufacturing Skills Gap Study estimated that 2.4 million positions will remain unfilled between 2018 and 2028, with a potential economic impact of $2.5 trillion.

This is clearly a challenge that manufacturers need to address. Educating and training technicians in-house rather than relying on the education system to do it for them may prove to be a wise investment of resources. As assets evolve to being able to “tell” operators and/or technicians how to maintain them, technicians will need to be in place, ready to listen and act.

Actionable advice

Although McKinsey predicts that most assets will be able to warn their operators of impending failures, the consulting firm also suggests caution. “Treating PdM (predictive maintenance) as a panacea for maintenance and reliability challenges may prove to be short-sighted,” the five authors of an October 2018 McKinsey article wrote. “Partly because advanced predictive techniques can only be practically applied to a subset of use cases. But also because an overemphasis on one approach means companies won’t position themselves to capture all the potential benefits of a fully digitized maintenance and reliability function—one that’s focused on increased uptime and improved maintenance efficiency.”

To prepare for future demands of the digital factory, manufacturers should start now to build the necessary infrastructure and consider, as needed, replacing legacy software with more-flexible, cloud-based solutions. Maintenance teams also need to work closely with the plant CFO for planning asset investments and incorporating IoT capabilities throughout the facility, beginning with the shop floor but continuing to the warehouse, the shipping dock, and the facility exterior.

Teams must also be brought up to speed on how to consistently and rigorously apply data-driven reliability analysis techniques to address the root causes of failure modes. Training takes time. Changing a mindset takes even more time. Manufacturers need to take decisive steps to move forward on their journey to digitalization of the plant – and the maintenance operation. The two go hand-in-hand.

About the Author: Kevin Price

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