Predict to prevent: 7 smart maintenance strategies

Customers should use smart predictive maintenance practices as they search for any competitive advantage, particularly as markets see possible rebounds in 2010.

By Jonathan Davis, The ITR Company March 12, 2010

We all know the negative effects of economic downturns, but one healthy outcome is a renewed effort to test conventional wisdom and assess value. We see a new normal, which is that leaner companies are forced to make better use of limited resources. Our customers across all industries, at varying levels within supply chains, are seeking significant cost savings from maintenance activities.

Customers should use smart predictive maintenance practices as they search for any competitive advantage, particularly as markets see possible rebounds in 2010.
Companies are well served by asking themselves three key questions when considering their maintenance plans for the year ahead:

  • Why does our company do this?
  • How much money does this actually cost or save the company?
  • Is there a better way?
    • For the foreseeable future, companies must take on the difficult task of finding the right answers.

      Focus for 2010
      By working closely with its customers and talking to many new, prospective customers, ITR identified seven key steps for PdM program improvement, which can be used by maintenance managers across industries in 2010:
      1. Focus on quantifiable results: Have measurable objectives for maintenance and reliability processes using key performance indicators. Make sure KPIs show bottom line results so maintenance managers can talk to top management. Most importantly – and where many companies fall short – analyze the data, use the information and take action to improve.
      In recent years, many companies have followed the trend and implemented predictive maintenance activities but they do so without fully embracing and understanding their value. However as with any tool, success depends upon implementation and use of the tool.
      Monitoring overall equipment effectiveness and reliability process effectiveness are no longer enough. While important, these measures are only the first step. Companies must also quantify the results to cost savings and increases in revenue capacity. By doing so, reliability managers can quantify efforts in terms top managers understand:

    • How much does this hardware, software, and training truly saving me?
    • Is outsourcing or managing a program in-house a better solution?
    • How much improvement is possible?
      • The cement industry was hit as hard as any industry this past year. One cement company maintenance manager was asked by senior management to justify the entire proactive maintenance budget. The typical measures of equipment availability, overall equipment effectiveness and reliability process effectiveness were of less concern to top management. What they now wanted to see was discrete and tangible ROI. Consequently, the maintenance manager developed new measures more resembling a profit and loss and balance sheet than traditional reliability KPIs.
        2. Focus on assets instead of PdM technology: Use a risk-based approach, start with asset failure modes, not PdM technology. Execute a sound reliability strategy taking into account technology, frequency, competency, and variable vs. fixed cost. They all must be considered together in the context of a system.
        Most companies still talk in terms of implementing a technology, such as oil analysis, instead of improving reliability. Start with studying the asset to determine how it can fail and the repercussions of those failures. Though it requires more work up front, efficiencies in PdM implementation pay for the extra time quickly. Many reliability companies provide these services for minimal or no fees. In an effort to apply the latest trends, companies sometimes lose sight of why they are implementing PdM in the first place.
        In 2009, a major steel producer had implemented vibration analysis and ultrasonic testing as separate programs across several plants. The programs were managed by different individuals. After looking at the asset instead of the technology, they realized vibration analysis was far more effective on many electro-mechanical assets and having redundant programs was wasteful. The ultrasonic program instead refocused on electrical systems and air and gas studies, areas delivering better ROI.
        3. Redefine the customer-supplier relationship: Buy a result, not a promise. A supplier should be a true partner by offering a complete, customized solution based on your business. Avoid partners that sell hardware and software, and then let you "go it alone."
        Off-the-shelf solutions are designed by companies interested in selling volume. One size fits all solutions are rarely the best solution for companies. Before buying hardware or software or signing a service contract, ask whether your fees are tied to the results. If the company says no, find a supplier that is invested in your results as much as you are.
        A large, regional power company has invested millions of dollars in people, hardware and software over the past 10 years, particularly supporting their vibration and IR thermography programs. Despite expensive service agreements and promises, the internal programs delivered less than expected. The company, with their newly acquired knowledge, now knows that results derived directly from the tools are not as meaningful as measures about the process and system for doing their work. Consequently, the company is looking to suppliers in 2010 that offer a results-based solution instead of off-the-shelf hardware and software packages.
        4. Better understand monitoring vs. analysis: Monitoring is just part of the process. The reliability team must communicate the differences and importance of each to top management. There should be better integration of remote monitoring and human analytics.
        Despite all of the improvements in reliability engineering and predictive technologies, this simple concept is still poorly understood across industries. Large capital expenditures are made to support monitoring, but far less attention is paid to the analysis of the data acquired through process monitoring.
        Competent individuals analyze data to convert data to information. Often, this is accomplished manually, but it may be automated by experts establishing rule sets and comparing the data to these rule sets. Process monitoring is only as effective as the related analysis. Companies must ensure the people performing analysis are competent, adequately resourced, and have the necessary controls within their processes to accomplish the established objectives.
        Several industries, including steel, industrial gases, oil and gas and power, have a renewed focus on continual online vibration monitoring. Unfortunately, some of the mistakes made over the past 20 years are being repeated and the systems on the market are heavy on monitoring and light on analysis. "Gadgets" are peddled with unattainable promises. For industries with complex systems experiencing variable loads and speeds, focusing on both monitoring and analysis will be necessary to avoid repeating previous mistakes.
        5. Design the PdM process for continuity: Why design production processes for reliability, but not the reliability process? Address problems before they occur, such as turnover, limited budgets and technology advances. Build a robust process independent of key individuals.
        Turnover and technology are the largest hurdles. Developing a competent team takes time. Learning curves are expected and planned. Over time however, the most talented individuals often move on through promotion or greater challenges, causing managers to continually search for replacement personnel. Technology is core to reliability and PdM, and what is the best today is old news tomorrow.
        Given the pricing structures of many hardware and software providers, companies are forced to pay exorbitant fees that do not cover the cost of new models and software packages.
        The challenge for reliability and maintenance managers is to design a reliability process that stands the test of time at minimal cost. Programs built around a few key individuals or a closed technology are doomed to eventual failure.
        More companies are turning to flexible solution providers that enable companies to develop hybrid in-house and outsourced programs. Hybrid programs enable managers to build a robust process that does not depend upon any one individual, company, or technology. Open systems allow easy data exchange and less reliance on any one particular technology.
        6. Apply a process and system-focused approach to reliability and PdM: Ensure PdM processes are aligned with a reliability-centered maintenance framework. Partner with hardware, software and service providers who can integrate solutions within an existing system.
        Surprisingly, reliability and maintenance departments have been slow to embrace process management and recognition of their management systems. Most reliability professionals know an RCM framework requires using risk-based methods to apply preventive, predictive and proactive maintenance, but often overlooked is the focus on process itself.
        Converting data to information, and information into action, is also a process requiring design, monitoring and improvement.
        Traditional PdM practices often take process for granted. Methods for acquiring data, analyzing data, reporting information and managing the information are rarely reconsidered as opportunities for improvement. However, the new economic environment is forcing everyone to reconsider conventional wisdom and accepted truths.
        7. Reliability is a green initiative: With possible changes to laws and regulations, reliable operations will be paramount and costs of unplanned variation in production will be greater. Give credit where credit is due: reliability is about doing more with less and should be considered a green collar profession.
        Doing more with less is good practice. The downturn of 2009 has made this more like a forced practice, as resources are increasingly limited. The future is always uncertain, but companies at some point can expect changes in emission regulations.
        No matter the final rules and system implemented, reliability of operations will become even more important because no company will be able to afford emissions when production is halted. Reliability professionals will be called upon to control process variation to the full extent possible.
        Additionally, it is about time that reliability and maintenance professionals receive the credit they deserve. Predictive maintenance allows us to perform condition-based maintenance instead of time-based maintenance. CBM results in less energy consumption, better use of spare parts and smaller inventories, longer asset life, and fewer catastrophic failures resulting in adverse environmental or safety impacts.
        Simply, reliability and maintenance professionals are part of the green collar workforce and should receive the credit they deserve.
        There is no question that routine and accepted practices should be challenged. Limited staffs and budgets force creativity. Breakthroughs in PdM will be achieved by means previously never considered, and we will all be better for it.

        Jonathan Davis is CEO of Bethlehem, PA-based ITR, which serves hundreds of customers in 40 U.S. states, 16 countries and on five continents. ITR’s experience crosses most manufacturing and service industries. For more information, visit or call (610) 867-0101.