Leveraging plant resources to maximize the benefits of sustainability

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that a “flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.”
By Blake Moret and Marcia Walker, Rockwell Automation November 1, 2008

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that a “flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.”

Many companies are drawn toward “building” high-profile, add-on sustainability options such as solar panels or wind-generated energy. Unfortunately, they disregard more basic solutions such as engaging their maintenance personnel in identifying areas to cut down on precious resources and extending the life of the assets they already own. The global push for companies to operate in a socially responsible manner is driving the growth toward green manufacturing. How well companies leverage their maintenance resources and capabilities can make a huge difference in the success or failure of their sustainability efforts.

In short, better maintenance of what you have, versus building new, may reap the most sustainability gains.

Maintenance staff in plants of all shapes and sizes stand to make major contributions to the company’s overall sustainability efforts. As the people with perhaps the highest level of insight into day-to-day plant performance, maintenance personnel are responsible for making changes that keep machinery and its parts running at top efficiency %%MDASSML%% and with the highest levels of sustainability. At one facility in North Carolina, a backup boiler that had been running 24 hours each day for seven years straight was never actually put into use for its intended purpose. No one bothered to ask the maintenance staff where they thought the company could be saving on utilities, and the unnecessary boiler continued to waste resources as a result.

The maintenance factor

Effective maintenance is particularly valuable when it comes to maintaining motors and other rotating equipment. According to the United States Department of Energy, motor systems account for 59% of all electricity consumed by U.S. manufacturers, and when components begin to fail, it takes more power to get the same amount of work out of them. For example, in an automobile, incomplete combustion creates increased emissions, but regular maintenance reduces emissions and ensures that the car will stay on the road for as long as possible. Similarly, better maintenance on industrial machinery yields better efficiency, increased uptime, less waste and longer service life.

In many continuous process operations, companies generally aim for an average uptime of approximately 98%. However, unplanned downtime can lead to a significant waste of resources, energy and raw materials. The maintenance function is crucial in these applications through its use of advanced condition-monitoring technology. These monitoring systems can proactively identify changes in the condition of rotating equipment %%MDASSML%% sometimes weeks or months before problems appear. When applied on a plant-wide basis, such technologies can help companies cut maintenance costs by providing greater foresight of impending machine failures, optimizing resources and minimizing wear on critical equipment.

In highly complex or mission-critical processes, manufacturers can add an extra layer of protection against downtime by augmenting on-site maintenance staff capabilities with off-site monitoring support. Companies can avoid having to dispatch support personnel to distant locations since problems can be diagnosed and resolved remotely, further minimizing energy use and environmental impact.

Another area where maintenance can deliver significant value is in managing the availability of spare parts. According to the Remanufacturing Institute, remanufacturing a component saves about 85% of the energy that would otherwise have been used in producing a brand new part. Through a detailed assessment and evaluation of a plant’s installed base of assets, maintenance can help determine the proper inventory of spares based on the type of equipment, its function and expected mean time between failure %%MDASSML%% ultimately reducing capital investment and saving the raw materials used to manufacture new parts. Taking this one step further, the analysis can be used to build a reliability-centered maintenance strategy, which tracks and identifies the root causes of equipment failure, helping to increase the overall efficiency of on-hand assets.

Maintaining perspective

With all the news being generated these days about the benefits of new “green” technologies, it’s easy for companies to get caught up in the excitement of the potential offered by solar and wind power or the latest bio-fuel. While these technologies have their place in an overall sustainability strategy, it’s important that companies not overlook other high-value, high-return contributions, such as those provided by a well-executed maintenance plan.

Author Information
Blake Moret is vice president, services, for Rockwell Automation. Marcia Walker is the program manager for Rockwell Automation’s Sustainable Production Solutions.