On the horizon

Evidence is growing that the role of the plant engineering function is headed up. Asset management, reliability, availability, and maintenance are being more and more recognized as essential to the success of the business plan. And from the plant level to the board level, the value of well-managed plant assets is taking on new meaning.
By Richard L. Dunn Editor October 15, 2002

Evidence is growing that the role of the plant engineering function is headed up. Asset management, reliability, availability, and maintenance are being more and more recognized as essential to the success of the business plan. And from the plant level to the board level, the value of well-managed plant assets is taking on new meaning.

Executives are increasingly interested in mining the “hidden plant”; that is, the under-utilized assets that can contribute to productivity and profitability. And mining those assets requires a shift in thinking away from the old philosophy that plant engineering and maintenance are strictly cost centers. The new thinking demands that they become integral to achieving the enterprise business goals.

While plant engineers have always known and believed in these values, their requests for commitments from management usually fell on deaf (or, at least, hard of hearing) ears. When it came to maintenance and reliability, for example, the mantra always seemed to be: cut costs, don’t invest.

Now that many of the old philosophies about how to run a plant have changed, the real value of the plant infrastructure is better understood. As maintenance consultant Christer Idhammar says, “Equipment doesn’t cost money when it operates properly. It costs money when it breaks down.”

Technology is helping the cause. Through such technology-enabled programs as predictive maintenance, reliability-centered maintenance, and CMMS/EAM, the dream of nearly eliminating unscheduled downtime is becoming a reality. And the opportunity to relate plant engineering and maintenance to the business objectives is better than ever.

There are still substantial hurdles to overcome, of course. One is the question of who is going to make the dream a reality? The need for well-trained, highly skilled technicians is higher than ever — and growing. At this juncture, no one is quite sure where these technicians are going to come from or who is going to train them.

Equally important is the need for plant engineers to move beyond their traditional engineering role into the business environment. If plant engineers are not seen as having the financial and business management savvy to take on these new responsibilities, they will have lost the opportunity for the influence and authority they have longed for.

Excuse the cliche, but a new day is dawning. And the sun is about to shine brighter than ever on plant engineering.