Collaborative maintenance: A strategy to help manufacturers become lean, mean, and agile

Increased globalization, greater competition, price pressures, and erosion of margins are placing enormous pressure on manufacturers to re-evaluate how they produce products and generate profits. Today's successful companies are not necessarily among those with the best manufacturing capabilities, but rather the best manufacturing processes.

By Mike Laszkiewicz, Vice President and General Manager, Asset Management, Rockwell Automation September 10, 2003

Increased globalization, greater competition, price pressures, and erosion of margins are placing enormous pressure on manufacturers to re-evaluate how they produce products and generate profits.

Today’s successful companies are not necessarily among those with the best manufacturing capabilities , but rather the best manufacturing processes . The mantra of being “smarter and leaner” reverberates throughout plants around the globe, but rings loudest within engineering and maintenance departments. Like a high-performance race car, manufacturers need a top-notch support team to become the lean, mean, and agile facility required to stay competitive today.

Ask NASCAR fans, and they’ll tell you that it isn’t the driver who wins the race; it is the equipment and the team behind the driver that makes the difference between victory lane and second place. Just as NASCAR emphasizes the importance of teamwork, manufacturers are placing new emphasis on the value of collaboration between internal and external resources. Collaboration creates a winning strategy for increasing operational efficiency without adding resources and capital investment.

Throughout the manufacturing sector, collaboration is gaining momentum. This is especially true in plant engineering and maintenance departments, where internal and external collaboration can often play a central role in resolving production issues.

Current state of manufacturing

Not far from the site of the Indianapolis 500 is a manufacturing plant where the value brought by plant engineering is measured by how it impacts the company’s core competency — making engines. Here, the maintenance component of the equation is simple: If equipment is not available due to a breakdown, the company can’t produce engines, and opportunity for profit is missed. In this sense, maintaining uptime has become the fundamental value proposition of the maintenance department. That’s because unplanned downtime often impacts the business performance in the form of reduced revenue, ongoing recovery costs, and increased maintenance and capital costs.

Many companies operate their business and hinge their success on a simple principle: Deliver high-quality products at affordable prices. To meet this goal, every facet and supporting element of a company’s manufacturing process have to be as lean as possible. With a maintenance approach that focuses on reducing expenses, improving production uptime, and optimizing manufacturing processes, manufacturers are able to parlay this strategy into more affordable products, higher profits, and a distinct competitive advantage.

Collaboration in the manufacturing environment

There are few organizations with the necessary expertise or financial resources to aggressively tackle downtime and process optimization on their own. According to the ” 2002 Maintenance and Reliability Survey ,” co-funded by Rockwell Automation, manufacturers point to limited manpower (53%) and budgetary restraints (47%) as the two most common barriers that keep plant engineering departments from implementing more comprehensive asset management programs.

In the past, manufacturers were typically self-sufficient and able to perform most functions inhouse, including research and development, engineering, maintenance, and distribution. For many companies today, the financial and manpower resources available restrict the scope of the activities that can be performed using internal resources. More and more companies are turning to collaborative arrangements to meet their production and efficiency goals.

By engaging in collaborative partnerships to support noncore functions, manufacturers can more effectively maximize their production assets and are better positioned to adapt quickly to changing business environments. Moreover, whether applied across an enterprise or focused solely on maintenance, a collaborative strategy is preferable to continuous “firefighting” and reactive “quick fixes.”

Genesis of collaborative maintenance

Collaborative manufacturing, as defined by ARC Advisory Group, is “the practice of managing for best performance by controlling key boundary-spanning business and manufacturing processes.” The focus of collaborative manufacturing is on “business-process synchronization,” which is key to integrating internal manufacturing operations with external partners.

Subsequently, collaborative maintenance strategies bring the principles of collaborative manufacturing to the maintenance level. They are grounded in practices that are designed to increase asset utilization by optimizing uptime levels and streamlining processes.

In practice, a collaborative maintenance strategy can manifest itself in a wide variety of ways, such as online condition-based or realtime manufacturing process control monitoring, direct access to technical assistance, organization or procedural changes, customized employee training, storeroom management, onsite support, or enterprise asset-management integration tools. However it’s implemented, the strategy is designed to isolate performance inhibitors and identify the main factors that are vital to productivity performance — for equipment, processes, or employees.

Leveraging existing resources

Collaborative maintenance is not a technology or a software solution; rather, it is a customized business strategy — unique to each situation. It recognizes that many manufacturers already have a maintenance foundation in place, but with proper collaboration and commitment, that foundation can be expanded in scope and effectiveness. Specifically, the collaborative maintenance strategy addresses and prioritizes areas where organizations can leverage existing technology or personnel to realize the highest levels of return on their investment.

Outsourcing, although a component of collaborative maintenance, does not encompass the full breadth of the strategy. Outsourcing often carries with it fears of layoffs and downsizing, whereas a collaborative strategy is intended to help maintenance departments better utilize the internal resources they already have — without losing employees.

Decisive element

According to many manufacturing managers, “understanding the business, the production process, and the unique issues” they face sets effective collaborative maintenance partners apart from average suppliers who try to solve a problem with a packaged solution. Maintenance partners have learned that it is critical for a supplier to understand and feel the “pressures and the pain” of their customers. Ultimately, the success of a collaborative engagement is directly linked to the relationship between the internal and external resources — the inhouse maintenance department and the supplier.

Central to collaborative maintenance is the concept that all participants must be committed to contributing for the betterment of the whole, growing the relationship, and achieving the business goals of the organization. For example, a full-time asset management professional may be placed at the manufacturer’s site. While not an employee of the manufacturer, this individual has a singular goal in mind — helping the customer achieve its goals.

Collaboration in practice

Achieving better efficiency can be a daunting task, particularly because manufacturers can’t stop producing product during the time it takes to assess and identify areas of improvement. This is especially true in continuous flow and process applications, where unplanned downtime can have a devastating effect.

For example, Finch, Pruyn & Co. Inc., a leading manufacturer of fine uncoated papers, developed two production-improvement objectives: first, minimize or eliminate costly troubleshooting delays; second, shift the company’s maintenance strategy to a more proactive, preventive approach. To accomplish these objectives, Finch, Pruyn contracted to use a proactive, realtime remote monitoring and diagnostics service.

The service involves offsite process engineers who continuously monitor the control system on Finch, Pruyn’s bonded specialty paper production line, specifically looking for signs of trouble that could lead to unplanned downtime. If a fault is identified, the offsite process engineers notify Finch, Pruyn’s plant floor engineers — often before the paper producer itself realizes a problem — and then begin troubleshooting activities to diagnose the cause and determine correct actions. Once corrective measures have been determined, the offsite engineers collaborate with the plant maintenance staff to execute needed actions and restore normal operations. In the first six months of the engagement, numerous potential unplanned downtime events have been prevented, improving uptime and increasing overall profitability of the paper line.

Implementing a collaborative maintenance strategy

Because each manufacturer has different needs, capabilities and goals, there aren’t any predetermined solutions or established boundaries that define what an effective collaborative maintenance program should look like. But when deciding how to best implement such a program, manufacturers should evaluate three general areas: Inventory management, repair management, and maintenance management.

Manufacturers considering a collaborative maintenance program should start by making a thorough assessment of the entire maintenance operation — everything from tool-crib management and inventory tracking, to condition-based monitoring, to data administration, and the personnel who support each area. The results of an assessment can help managers see which areas are running efficiently and which need assistance.

This is an important process for both management and the external partner because, working together, they can determine where they need to focus their attention — or, more specifically, which areas might provide the greatest return for their investment.

After assessing capabilities and needs, manufacturers should work with their external partner to develop a plan that bolsters areas that need improvement and determines which internal and external resources to engage. The objectives of the collaborative arrangement are agreed upon, as well as the establishment of requirements, responsibilities, and methods that will be used to meet predetermined objectives.

Ongoing evaluation and refinement are key elements of the collaboration process.

Collaborative maintenance is a cost-effective strategy for companies looking to remain competitive during lean economic times. Because of its adaptability to the size of any organization, large companies and small companies alike can benefit from a level of collaboration tailored to their needs.

Author Information
Mike Laszkiewicz joined Rockwell Automation in 1988. During his tenure, he has held management positions in several different areas of the company, including manufacturing, product planning, customer service, and repair services. He can be reached at (414) 382-3736 or .