5 ways the maintenance and reliability industry has evolved over the past 10 years

5 ways the maintenance and reliability industry has evolved over the past 10 years

Feb. 13, 2024
When it comes to skills development, is your team holding a winning hand?

Last January, ChatGPT and generative AI took the world by storm as the latest technologies of several poised to change manufacturing and heavy industry. To kick off the new year, Plant Services asked four expert practitioners and consultants to tackle questions on the ways that technology and market forces have shaped the maintenance and reliability industry over the past 10 years.

This month’s Ask The Experts panel:

  • Luke Clark, senior program manager for HECO Apollo
  • Shon Isenhour, CMRP, founder and owner at Eruditio
  • Chris Pepin, founder and managing partner at Progressive Reliability
  • Jeff Shiver, CMRP, founder and managing principal at People and Processes

1. How has the core skill set (and/or toolbox) of the average mechanical plant millwright changed over the past 10 years?

Jeff Shiver – First, there’s a lot of issues around the plants being at capacity. They’re trying to produce everything that they can, and they can sell everything they produce. If we think about the millwright, specifically, they’re doing a lot more with technology. There’s a lot more automation, controls, and instrumentation than in the 10 years prior.

In reality the expectation for core skill sets among new millwright hires is being at the journeyman level. When new hires come in, there’s an expectation that they can step in and do the role, or basically hop on shift and do the best they can. Technicians that have the skills are being asked to train the others but not allowed the time. In the past too, we would find that the unions would take a very active role in training. That’s not the case anymore, although it varies by union.

Shon Isenhour – I’m not sure the tools specifically have changed that much, but I do think the skill set has probably decreased. As far as the tools, the mechanical equipment hasn’t changed significantly so the tools have not changed all that much. While we could argue the electrical and controls has for sure, but in general the tools have not changed significantly in the last 10 years.

Now let’s talk about skills. There’s been a huge loss of experience. A lot of people are understaffed or can’t fill roles, so they are accepting people into their organizations that maybe are at a lower skill level than they would have in the past.

One of my concerns, is we’ve got this lower level of skill with the retirements and the lower standards of hiring, and then we’re asking them to do more technical things. To me, that’s a recipe for reduced reliability. If I don’t teach them that there is a difference in two types of lubricants and they mix those two lubricants together, now I’ve got a potential reliability issue that was born out of a lower skill level and a lack of training.

Luke Clark – I think the biggest change has been that in the past we would see a millwright or a technician be in a role and be in that same role for 10, 20, 30 years. What I think I’ve seen change in the workforce in that regard is upward mobility. Now they’re more involved with decision making, more involved with the technologies, and the ones that really shine in those categories and move up, all of a sudden they have managerial expectations.

Chris Pepin – I would say for the average millwright, the mechanical/technical piece hasn’t changed very much in five years. Let’s face it, we’ve still got plants with equipment going back to the 1930s. I think right now, the biggest challenge is doing more with less.

Also, the challenge is often more environmental than technical. We’re working with a lot more bilingual sites, which isn’t the core skill set you’re probably thinking about, but it’s certainly an environmental change that’s going on. We’ve worked with plants that are Spanish-speaking only. You’re going to have language barriers going on – northeast, southwest, south, you name it.

2. How has the core skill set (and/or toolbox) of the average reliability manager changed over the past 10 years?

Jeff Shiver – For the reliability manager, the focus is shifting more and more to the following:

  • strategic asset management
  • data driven decision making
  • regulatory compliance and sustainability
  • financial acumen and risk management
  • change management and the rate of change.

Some managers are really struggling with the rate of change in industry. Back 10 years ago, that rate of change was somewhat steady, but I would say now it’s almost exponential. Also, as a manager, how do I become more financially aware and be able to talk the lingo to connect our work to higher-level financial goals?

Luke Clark – 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. For reliability managers, it’s being able to manage all these external forces and new implementations all at once.

You may not be a certified 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, 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.

Shon Isenhour – It changes cyclically, as far as what’s in favor and what people are excited about. You see things like Lean and Six Sigma, or PM optimization or FMEAs become very popular, and then they fade away, and then they become very popular again. On the bigger side, we’ve got a lot of new technology at our disposal that we didn’t have 10 years ago, and the cost has come down on many of these technologies, so as a reliability person, the technologies may be a little more appealing than they were even a few years ago.

One thing I’m starting to notice is that a lot of people are doing potentially the right things for the wrong reasons, and using new technology to enable their reactive maintenance culture. They’ll go out and they’ll buy predictive maintenance technologies, not in order to enable their planning and scheduling process and reduce their maintenance costs and improve their reliability, but more-so because they want to be able to identify problems and do emergency repairs on those problems. So they’re not using the technology where it adds the most value.

Chris Pepin – With reliability, the fundamentals are still the fundamentals, more now than ever. There’s no new technology that’s going to replace the importance of asset criticality and asset hierarchy. It doesn’t matter how great the promise of your new Industry X.0 equipment is for productivity, the fundamentals remain. I think, in fact, as you add connectivity complexities and digital intervention in the environment, the ability to focus on the fundamentals of reliability has become even more important.
The other thing is, leaders today are working with three to four generations on-site at the same time. We’ve got Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z; so that creates a lot of viewpoints to manage. Diversity of thought and diversity of perspective is a major reality today, so the importance of communication and the importance of buy-in has expanded beyond previous years.

3. What Industry 4.0 technologies do you consider to be table stakes for current M&R professionals?

Luke Clark – 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.

Chris Pepin – IoT is in the adoption curve where things are picking up significantly. AI appears to be somewhat behind IoT, likely not for long.  I believe AI is going to come up quick and make a refreshing impact on information access, knowledge capture and completely disrupt how we do training.

Shon Isenhour – I think robots and automation, you pretty much have to do that now, especially because we can’t hire enough people with the right skills. I think 5G has become more important, because now it’s a way to get information and data out of the system, even if I can’t get it through the traditional IT route. 5G also is becoming more and more critical to separate the internal network from the data that you don’t necessarily need on the internal network. Especially with a lot of hacking and similar attacks recently, people aren’t nearly as interested in putting more things on their internal networks.

Having more information and being able to run analytics on it is going to continue to be a game changer as we go forward. I’m not suggesting that everybody’s doing it right, and I’m not suggesting everyone is using their data. I think as more and more organizations figure out how to interface with that data, whether it’s AI or analytics, or whatever they choose to use, I think having the data is going to become more and more important.

Jeff Shiver – Cybersecurity is table stakes too, because of all the connected technologies. How do we make sure that we’re managing cybersecurity in a way, especially on the automation side? Some plants I know have been hacked, or had ransomware installed on their machines. They have been ransomed and had to pay or they would see their SAP system down for eight months or more. This is probably one of the more important table stakes as we continue to combine more and more things.

4. Which industry verticals, if any, tend to be quick to embrace newer technologies like IoT or AI? (this can include public utilities)

Shon Isenhour – This was a fun question to think about, because when I think about who is progressive in certain areas, if we talk about AR and VR, as an example, which arguably is part of Industry 4.0, as well, that has been embraced more so by aerospace. Also, if you want to talk about robotics, automotive has always been very progressive in the use of robotics. You go into one of their plants, and very quickly you see a robot count that’s much higher than what you would see in most facilities.
As I think about who truly embraced Industry 4.0 early it is power generation. That sector has had connected sensors embedded all over their units for more than 20 years, it’s not new for them at all. I can think back to working in a power plant, helping them implement reliability in probably the late 2000s, and they were already fully instrumented and connected. You knew what was going on in every part of that facility.

Jeff Shiver – Companies like automotive, aerospace have been quick to adopt some of these technologies. Energy, some of the public utilities are also relying more and more on some of this tech. There’s a lot of emphasis with some ports these days to get into the digital transformation world, for example with the cranes that load the ships, but again, it depends on the port and it depends on the leadership. For one of the ports we work with, the CEO has overall responsibility for maintenance of the cranes. He’s the one who’s driving that, and because of that, he’s spending the money and contractor resources and doing things like that, and some of his people are getting those assignments to go do it. But it’s driven by that upper level.

Luke Clark – If I were to say any industries 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.

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. 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.

Chris Pepin – Among our clients, we’ve found early adoption is driven more by management culture and niche application maturity than industry vertical. So you're generally going to have individual champions, a specialized use case, or you're going to have a culture of innovation and each must be underpinned by the temperament to work through adoption and into optimization.

5. In your opinion, what are one or two things that would make an impact in alleviating the hiring challenges currently associated with the M&R job market?

Chris Pepin – Number one, despite all the data, despite all the challenges, despite all the stories, there are and will continue to be companies that are incredible at hiring. If hiring is a priority, you can win. If hiring is one of your top three priorities, you can win. It may be useful to consider a saying we use in setting our goals here: if you have more than three priorities, you have none.

The next thing is, you must use every option, often at scale. If you want to do the process you’ve been doing for eight years, you’re going to find that you’re only getting maybe 20% of what you used to get back then. However, if you’re willing to adopt the full set of talent tools and tactics, then not will you get better, you become a magnetic organization in the process. If you rise with real value, even a little bit, you’ll get outsized returns because of how powerful digital networks have become.

Finally, the biggest talent secret that I can share is that 70% of great hires come from internal referrals. When you have great people, they attract great referrals. When you have mediocre people, they attract mediocre referrals. Make sure you’re working for and rewarding the referrals you want. Be relentless about it. We want to see great teams doing the right things so they can get the best people.

Shon Isenhour – First is the planning of work with precision maintenance techniques included. If I know that we are going to do a job multiple times this year, then taking the time to plan that job effectively, taking the time to break it down into both a checklist and a step description for each of those elements is key. If I’m new here, I can learn from the job plan. If I’m an experienced individual, I can grab the little morsels from the checklist that I need in order to do it correctly.

My second point on this question is AI with human interaction. My experience is that AI produces a job plan that is somewhere between 30 and 60% accurate, and it’s easier to edit a job plan than it is to create it from scratch. If AI helps me edit or create job plans, and I edit them, and instead of only 2-5% of the organizations planning, I can get 50% of the organizations out there beginning to plan, then that’s going to allow them to be more efficient and more effective. They’re going to have less reoccurring downtime and reoccurring failures, therefore needing less people to do the same work, which helps them with their hiring issues.

Also, if I train somebody and they leave, I lose everything. If I train somebody and I build a really good procedure or job plan at the same time to do that work, even if I lose them, I don’t lose the procedure. It’s there in the CMMS, it’s in the job plan library, it can continue to be used over and over providing value even after the people are gone.

Jeff Shiver – One of the things we have to do too, and this is really key, is how do we change the perception of maintenance as a career path? And how do we manage the outreach into the high schools and similar places?

Inside the plant, apprenticeship and mentorship programs are one piece missing, along with continuous upskilling and learning opportunities within the facility. Another is collaboration with educational institutions. Some companies, for example, like ArcelorMittal with Nippon Steel and their partnership in Calvert, AL, they have state funded trainees and they have a training center on-site, and they do a tremendous job there. If we go to Nissan, in Smyrna, TN, they have a training center on-site that does a lot and is state funded, with a curriculum was set up specifically for that plant.

Luke Clark – Oftentimes what keeps employees in this business 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: it’s going to get your people trained, and 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.

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.

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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