Maintenance and reliability skill sets: What are the table stakes in 2024

Changing maintenance and reliability roles require new skill sets

Jan. 18, 2024
"I often get asked, 'what is a reliability manager?' It really depends on what company you go to!"

Luke Clark is a reliability professional and senior program manager for HECO Apollo. In his current position, Luke identifies reliability value for clients by utilizing vibration analysis and IoT technology. Luke recently spoke with Plant Services editor in chief Thomas Wilk about how the skillset for reliability and maintenance engineers has changed over the past 10 years. In addition, the two discussed the table stakes skills necessary for current professionals to succeed in their jobs. 

Listen to Luke Clark on Great Question: A Manufacturing Podcast

PS: I wanted to ask you about the role where a lot of people find themselves promoted into for millwrights, which is reliability manager. Of course, there's formalized training to be a reliability manager, but I’ve heard just as many stories where someone gets promoted into that role based on their progress. What's your sense of how the core skill set or toolbox of the average reliability manager have changed over the past 10 years?

LC: There's a similar answer to that, because of how the technology and the expectations have changed, right? So the same pressures are on reliability managers as well, but now you're shifting more to a decision maker. And so as a decision maker, you have to have a good understanding of not only your equipment, but the products that you're going to be bringing within your facility. You may not be certified a vibration analyst as a reliability manager, but you should have a good understanding of what vibration analysis is, and the benefits of it, and what you're going to use that data for. So if you bring on an IoT device, like we work with for the sensors, the benefits that you're going to get out of it are going to be exponentially higher if you have a reliability manager that understands those benefits in the first place and isn't buying a product just for the sake of a product. 

So there's more pressure to have that understanding of technologies and keep up with the market today, so it's not just about the equipment. In the past as a reliability manager, you were more focused on your equipment, you're focused on the people that you are working with, and you would do some internal data analysis. Now there's external forces that you're going to have to deal with. You're going to have to deal with the new technologies and the new devices that are coming in, and you're going to have to make the right decisions. What we've seen many times over is spending a lot of money on a project, whether it's a new technology device, a new process, whatever it is, it'd be a complete failure. For reliability managers, it's being able to manage all these external forces and new implementations all at once.

PS: Interesting, it used to be the plant manager was the primary influence, or the plant engineer. And now I get the sense, in many ways, a reliability manager or reliability engineer has just as much influence when it comes to specifying these “new” technologies.

LC: Part of that is in the maintenance technology world – and I’m going to use “new” in quotes because it's not new, as we all know, there's been many technologies around for a long time in this industry – for many companies, it's the first time that they've really invested in maintenance and reliability, at least to this extent. And so oftentimes, that buck gets passed down to our reliability managers, because they understand the business a little bit better. So the plant managers will lean on these individuals to say, “ok, I understand there's benefit out of getting this kind of sensor, this kind of camera, but what does that mean and what do we get out of that?” 

Those are the kinds of pressures and again, going back to what we spoke with the millwrights, is that it's this more corporate approach where everyone's part of the fabric of the company and the decision making. There's a lot of decision making for the reliability manager when it comes to these new technologies. Now, it depends company by company, and some companies don't have reliability managers at all, so it really depends. But yeah, that that decision making, they have to have a good understanding of “What does this mean, and how would this benefit them?”

PS: You put your finger on something important, I think, which is the extent to which a lot of companies, when they enter reliability investments for the first time, go through the reliability manager role, and so that person needs to be aware of change management issues really, working with everybody on the team to get through this first time, this first scary time, however you want to treat it, the first prove-it-out moment for this new technology. That's a very different dynamic than, say, 5 years experience with reliability in general, when you've got some proven successes.

LC: Exactly, there's a lot of different factors that come into play for what a reliability manager is. You know, I often get asked, “what is a reliability manager?” It really depends on what company you go to! Some wear 12 different hats, and some roles are very clearly defined, but they oftentimes are the person that gets a lot of things thrown in their bucket, because no one else knows what to do with them.

PS: Okay, well, let's move to a technology question. I'm really excited to talk to you specifically Luke, because your role at HECO involves IoT technology, front and center. And it's a simple direct question, what kinds of Industry 4.0 technologies or IoT technologies do you consider to be table stakes for current maintenance and reliability professionals? What do people really need to know to succeed?

LC: First and foremost, and I'll go with some personal bias here, but the sensors are a major factor right now. Sensors have been around for a long time (for context, mine are vibration sensors, but there's many different kinds of sensors, but I'll keep it broad) and there's many different reasons why you'd get a sensor. What we’ve found is that with sensors the technology has grown to the point, especially battery technology, where we're able to have remote sensors out there that we can have what we've always dreamed of, where we can put a sensor out there and forget about it. We're getting much closer to that, and so companies more and more are starting to implement that kind of technology, even ones that are in very remote locations. Cellular technology is getting better, and so we're starting to be able to utilize these sensors in ways that we never were able to 5-10 years ago. 

That one is really pushing forward because it's also allowing us to feed data up to say an AI, which I would put as number two. We can start utilizing AI because when we start to put these sensors on, we have remote data being fed up – live data, even – being fed up to AI, and then AI could start making decisions. 

My second one would be AI because we're starting to pull in so much data, and that's why I'm kind of combining these two because the pros and cons of sensors are how much data that is being brought in. Sometimes it's so much data that we don't even know what to do with it, or we don't have the people to deal with it, and that's where AI is starting to come into play. Our platform uses an AI machine learning basis for our analysis, and then there's other technologies that are coming out there. We're starting to get to this point where we have data, we have lots of data, but we don't know what to do with it. We don't know what's valuable and what's not, and that's where AI is really starting to come into play, where we're starting to analyze massive amounts of data.

One other one that I would mention is that cameras are really coming into play too. Our friends over at RDI do motion amplification, and they just got another camera that's going to be mounted. I think that's really coming into play, because especially what I see with the sensors and AI is that the one thing we missed is true visibility. You know, can we just look at the piece of equipment? Obviously, if you're using motion amplification then you can get a lot of other inputs in there as far as vibration and the movement of the equipment. However, this will give us true full view.

(At HECO) what we go after is, we have highly certified technicians, and when we do our remote condition monitoring, the idea is that we have our technicians from anywhere can look at our client's equipment and work on it. And that's the idea, right? Even internally, you could do that. The idea is that you don't have to have someone on site at all times looking at that piece of equipment. And so we're starting to get these cameras that are really tied into the IoT network, and they can send up data, and you can get different types of analysis such as motion amplification, and that's starting to really piece it all together. 

Between sensors, AI, and cameras, we're really getting to that point in time where we can actually look at a piece of equipment, we can analyze it in multiple different ways, and then we can also take that data and push it through AI or machine learning and make some actual educated decisions from it. That's the shift that we're seeing in our current IoT sphere.

PS: Now that I appreciate you mapping out those three areas. It's amazing how quickly cameras especially have caught on. I echo what you're saying, there’s nothing like a visual to convince somebody to get take some action.

LC: Exactly, it will, and that's the nice benefit of the cameras, too – it's so visual. Anyone can look at a camera and visually see an issue. That's why I like motion amplification technology, if something's off balance, you don't even have to be mechanically minded to see, okay, that motor is bouncing back and forth, right? So you're really utilizing all the senses that are natural to us as humans to analyze, and it's becoming very, very intuitive.

PS: When it comes to industry verticals or sectors which are adopting these newer technologies, IoT/AI, are there any that are quicker than others to embrace these? Or is it sort of a general slow adoption across the board?

LC: It can vary company by company, but if I were to say any industries that that really jump on these kind of technologies quicker, they're either ones that are heavily audited, or they're ones that are entirely dependent on uptime. 

Two examples of that: first, life sciences/pharmaceutical. They tend to be on the leading edge for technology, because they get audited, they have their data that needs to be in a specific way at a specific time. To survive those audits, they need to be able to show their process, so they are very much into standardization. Now, the funny drawback to that is that once they get their technologies, they've got them set in stone, right? So you’ve got to make sure you really convince them with the new technologies. But they're very standard, right, and they need that process, so they are usually highly advanced when you walk into one of those facilities, and they have the leading edge technology to standardize their processes. 

Another one that we've seen a lot of gain on when it comes to IoT devices is the power industry because they are measured entirely by uptime. They aren’t sending out a product and they don't have time to catch up. Whenever they're down, they're down, and whatever they lost is in the past. So for them to be able to constantly monitor their equipment, that's crucial for them and they see the benefit instantly because their entire measurement is based on how often they're up and running. 

Those are two that we've seen that are really common. There's some variance company by company, some of the oil & gas companies have really implemented a lot of the new technologies, especially when we talk about remote use, because they have some very remote locations. Mines are one of the ones that have been leading with robots like Spot with Boston Dynamics; they have safety issues, right, so they have reason to go after technology, too.

PS: The last two questions are more people focused questions, so let’s tackle the first one. You touched on what happens when these new technologies are introduced a little bit earlier, Luke. Are there any specific members of the wider teams that you find are the ones driving the projects? And does it make a difference, for example, if the technology is hardware or software, like maybe IT would be in charge of software? I guess I'm thinking more the maintenance and reliability staff, if there's anyone in those asset management roles which are the ones driving these things.

LC: It really depends on the technology. I would say when it comes to sensors, oftentimes it's the reliability manager, it's the maintenance supervisor, maybe if they have a director of reliability, it's whoever is very tied to the equipment. We often see that that those are the ones that are driving for sensor-based technology or getting some kind of analysis on the equipment.

However, some of the larger projects, say an AI project, or CMMS, or something that would be corporate wide, which could be sensors as well but not always, would oftentimes be the VP or director level, depending on how their structure is. So it depends on what kind of technology we're talking about. 

But again, what we find oftentimes with the maintenance & reliability field is, it tends to be that the people that have the knowledge for maintenance & reliability rely on the reliability manager type roles, so oftentimes they are the driving force. That's typically what we run into when it comes to these kinds of technologies. Now, if you get a VP or director that’s been doing their homework and they understand what they want to do, or they've been speaking with their team, you can catch them at the right time. 

But oftentimes, companies are driven from that maintenance group, which is unfortunate. That's it's slowly changing And we're seeing that less and less now. But there is still that culture where the maintenance group does maintenance things, and everyone else does production or supply chain or so on, and it's very separated, where really it should be integrated and we should be speaking holistically.

PS: You're reminding me of the conversation we had in December, where I noticed that one role was now hybrid operations and maintenance, and it was just tough to fill.

LC: Yeah, there's not many people that have truly sat in that kind of role. And that's unfortunate, because decision making wise, they should be considering all facets of the business, including maintenance & reliability.

PS: The last question is on the general skills gap and hiring challenges in our market. Instead of trying to solve the entire problem all at once, I'll frame it like this: what do you think are one or two things that make a strong impact in alleviating the kinds of challenges related with hiring these days?

LC: One of the obvious challenges this industry has is, what everyone talks about when it comes to work these days, is remote work. You can either be remote, you could be at work at home, whatever it is. Well, one of the challenges we run into is we've found no way so far to do that for a millwright or maintenance technician. We're going to always have somebody that needs to be on call, on site, available and ready to go because sometimes equipment goes down in the middle of night, and we need to get it up and running. So that's always been a challenge, because right now there's a set expectation that we could jump on Microsoft Teams or Zoom or whatever, and have a discussion. 

We need to focus on the things that we can control because we can't control that at this moment. And I think one impact that we can have –people talk about pay or benefits and all that, and the reality is there's always going to be somebody willing to pay more. Now, I strongly recommend that you pay within market price because that could be something that's impacting you. But I think oftentimes what keeps employees in this business is I would say it's more investment. And what I mean by that is, is investing in your employees, that means training, that means safety, that includes certifications. You know, send them to a conference, get them involved and invest in those individuals. 

What that's going to do is it's going to do two things for your company: (1) it's going to get your people trained, it's going to show that you find what they do important, and that you're willing to invest some money in them actually learning and bettering themselves. (2) if those people leave, and this is part of your culture, you're just going to continuously do that. Because here's the reality, and this is why I don't focus too much on pay, is because there's always going to be that person that's going to pay more. Even as a service provider we run into this all the time where you get someone up to Cat III vibration analyst, right, and you invested all this time in them, and then they get hired by somebody else that's willing to pay them more. It happens to us all the time. And I know that happens to our clients as well. 

But here's the reality, if you decide to invest in training, and you're constantly bringing people up, and you're focusing on that mindset that “we're investing in you and we're actually invested in the job that you're doing,” that's going to keep people around, or at the very least the people that come in are going to be well trained, ready to go, and you're not going to skip a beat. I think that makes a big difference for this kind of job, because the reality is, it's a tough job, you're going to be asking people to have some hard hours, they're going to have to do things that none of us want to do, so show that you care, show some investment and make those people see this as a career versus just a job.

PS: I like how you tied it up, at the very end by saying, “hey, you know, this is a hard job, and so the best way to keep someone if you've invested in them is to keep investing in them.” And as you said, make sure they know they're appreciated. And then that the sacrifices are seen and appreciated.

LC: Absolutely, and I think what people learn is, even when you get younger people into this industry, is that it's an industry with a lot of pride. When people do get involved with it, people tend to stay. It's not a career that people leave very often. I mean, if you go to these conferences, and I know you have Tom, it's a lot of the same people over and over, because people tend to stay and it's a good career. The flip side of that is that since it is a hard job, it can be a very miserable job too. I've been to some of those sites where it's just like, these people are working crazy hours, and they're just not getting any benefits from it, and they're not getting extra pay, they're not getting the Christmas ham, whatever it is, and it's a miserable job. So it's very easy to make this job miserable. But I highly encourage people to find every way to invest in those employees and show them that you care, and that the extra work is actually going somewhere and will lead them somewhere and you somewhere.

About the Author

Thomas Wilk | editor in chief

Thomas Wilk joined Plant Services as editor in chief in 2014. Previously, Wilk was content strategist / mobile media manager at Panduit. Prior to Panduit, Tom was lead editor for Battelle Memorial Institute's Environmental Restoration team, and taught business and technical writing at Ohio State University for eight years. Tom holds a BA from the University of Illinois and an MA from Ohio State University

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