COVID-19

The current state of the maintenance function

Urgent issues face the manufacturing industries amidst resurgence.

By Plant Engineering June 16, 2021
Courtesy: CFE Media and Technology

The results of the maintenance survey detailed in the preceding pages profiles the current state of one of the most essential functions in the manufacturing enterprise. It does so at a moment of inflection with manufacturing resurgent in the wake of COVID, yet facing production and supply chain constraints. Moreover, to fully recover, the industry must address a number of longer-term issues, most notably a shortage of skilled labor.

Plant Engineering recently spoke with Jim Freaner, senior director at Advanced Technology Services (ATS), a provider of outsourced industrial maintenance and MRO asset management, to learn how it sees manufacturing enterprises addressing both short-term and long-term issues involved.

Q: Please talk about the growing use of managed services, for industrial-equipment maintenance, but more generally as well.  

Jim Freaner: In the world that ATS lives in, manufacturers need to be sure that mission-critical production equipment runs at high levels of performance and reliability. The traditional world of outsourcing services, and that includes things like production equipment maintenance, facilities maintenance, or other kinds of services in a manufacturing plant, is changing. Traditionally, it has been very much a labor-based model about the outsourcing of people and staff.

The change is technology-driven, but most service providers still have that labor-based mindset, ignoring the fact that for production equipment reliability, there’s been a great surge of innovation. Solutions are available in the market that weren’t there five years ago. Manufacturers need a partner that delivers the right combination of supplemental labor services and technologies to fit their facility.

Q: What are some of the relevant technologies? 

Freaner: First, the enterprise asset management (EAM) system or computerized maintenance management system (CMMS). Most plants have one today, but so many of them are under-utilized, either because they are antiquated, no longer supported or no longer adequately reflect work-process changes.

Another area of advancement is analytics, based on data derived from the CMMS or production data. Devices and intelligent software applications are used to find insights that improve effectiveness and the advantages are well proven.

On the hardware side, what’s exciting is the ability to tie into actual real-time machine performance to determine when and how maintenance should be conducted on that asset. Most companies do maintenance on a calendar-based schedule, while perhaps adjusting it based on production volumes or production schedules.

It can be challenging to make the shift from calendar-based to true condition-based maintenance. But available sensing technology enables companies to optimize maintenance activities for a true condition-based maintenance strategy. For some time now, ATS has been deploying sensors in our customers’ plants, where we maintain mission-critical assets for them.

We maintain more than 100 plants and have 36 years of experience solving these kinds of problems. It’s going to be interesting to see where that goes in the next 12 months.

Q: How complex do relationships become in this new data-driven environment, between the equipment user, the equipment supplier and a services provider? 

Freaner: Historically, we’ve had clear delineation between what the operators do for equipment in the plant and what our maintenance personnel do when there’s an issue on the machine, and what the OEM or the equipment manufacturer might do. Those lines are starting to blur. Over the next few years, traditional roles and job descriptions in manufacturing plants are going to change.

We are already stepping out of traditional roles. We help clients optimize processes by looking at equipment setup procedures, machine diagnostics and data that isn’t necessarily a result of a failure, but relevant to throughput or quality. We can solve problems before a machine failure occurs.

Due to increasing complexity, it’s critical to have good communications between production and maintenance personnel and support functions at OEMs, integrators and automation suppliers. At ATS, technology is also assisting with this.

Q: CFE Media surveys of our readers indicate plants execute a combination of preventive, reactive and predictive maintenance. Is that your sense of where the industry is? 

Freaner: Every plant uses different strategies to maintain mission-critical assets, whether it’s preventive maintenance, predictive maintenance and in some cases, even run to failure, based on the needs of that particular asset and how it fits within the production system. Manufacturers invest in preventive and predictive maintenance programs because of the high cost of downtime.

Most PM strategies, ours included, probably lean on the side of spending time, effort and resources making sure the machine doesn’t fail, as opposed to optimizing its activity. It’s a tradeoff, do I take the machine down for maintenance or keep it running? As predictive maintenance and machine sensing evolve, we will get better at optimization as well.

The cost to implement predictive maintenance is falling and the technology enables connectivity to scarce, highly skilled individuals who can interpret results.

Q: If you look at small to midsize manufacturers, how is their approach to enterprise asset management different than the largest enterprises? 

Freaner: Small- to medium-sized manufacturers might have as many as five plants and still that’s relatively small. The secret is not in the software. The key is optimizing the processes the software is meant to automate. Make sure you have the right work execution management procedures behind it.

When a team member goes to work on a particular asset, do they have the technical information they need? Do they have the parts they need? Do they have the tools they need? Those fundamental things make them effective when they go to do that work. A CMMS ensures the maintenance workforce is effective, productive and not spending time running back and forth to a storeroom or looking for information from the engineering department.

In addition, the CMMS is a repository of data and information, but it should also be a set of metrics to support team and leadership decisions. Older or less comprehensive CMMS systems may lack that business intelligence aspect, like that which is included in our cloud-based system.

Q: What categories of labor are most in demand today? 

Freaner: I would almost say “What types of labor are NOT in demand in manufacturing right now?” It’s also about how companies want to contract for that labor. Amidst COVID restrictions, most manufacturers took a short-term perspective on how to fill gaps in their organization. They find a hole and they plug it short-term. That has accelerated the growth for what we call surge support.

As the pandemic subsides, things will be less unpredictable, and we’ll be taking a longer-term view and address what is, for manufacturers, a severe lack of skilled labor.

Our clients need a highly skilled workforce that understands how to troubleshoot, diagnose and identify root causes of failure. We see organizations swapping parts out but never learning the root cause. That’s not sustainable over the long term.

Q: What are some of the most effective ways to decrease that unscheduled downtime?  

Freaner: To reduce unplanned downtime, you need to look at the fundamentals. We talked about the CMMS. We talked about having a good PM plan and good work execution management procedures around how that work gets done. You have to have a very robust MRO and spare parts process to make sure you know what you have and if you can get it when you need it.

Too often an issue is only recognized so late in the failure process it requires a complete component change out, which requires more time, is more expensive and can involve collateral damage as a result of that failure. If we can catch those indications of impending failure earlier, we can address the issue before it impedes production.

Q: Coming out of the pandemic, there’s been much discussion about enabling remote operations. 

Freaner: As a service provider, we saw a pretty significant increase in requests for remote maintenance and short-term support. It forced us and forced manufacturers to rethink service models.

We expect continued investment in capabilities to make maintenance less of an onsite activity and more readily adaptable to support from offsite. Maintenance is always going to be a people-centric activity, but the ability to leverage technology and tap into remote resources will be where the biggest transformation happens.

Q: It’s almost the restructuring of the industry so as to allow more efficient sharing of scarce resources. 

Freaner: Very much so. We have a couple of pressures bearing down on the industry. We talked about the manufacturing index being on the rise. And pre-COVID we were dealing with 40- or 50-year historical unemployment levels. Now what we see is a resurgence in manufacturing coupled with demographics indicative of a retiring workforce. Manufacturers will continue to face these challenges as we move forward.

Our Reliability 360™ Technology Center provides a solution for manufacturers – continuously monitoring the health of their critical assets and providing prescriptive actions to eliminate unplanned downtime. Historically, if a maintenance person on site couldn’t resolve an issue and there was no one else onsite with the knowledge needed, they’d go to an OEM. That was the next logical step in getting support. Now what we’re doing is engaging the entire enterprise, the whole organization of people we have across one hundred plants, to find the expert who knows that particular asset or that particular problem and can resolve the problem before going to an OEM.

The OEMs are in the same boat. They’re dealing with the same scarcity of skilled labor. Most OEMs are finding it more difficult than ever to respond to customers’ maintenance needs.

Q: What areas of training are your clients most interested in providing their people? 

Freaner: When you look at training, specifically for skilled trades in the market segments we operate in today, it is applied using the peanut butter strategy. I say that tongue in cheek, obviously. Maintenance training is spread around evenly, and eventually everybody gets their share.

Unfortunately, a one size fits all strategy seldom works. You have to frame your training regimen around the technology and the assets in the plant that you’re supporting. You have to understand the current technical skill sets and aptitude of the team. If you don’t have both of those elements, it’s tough to put together a training plan.

We lean heavily on a tool we use to assess the aptitude of the technical team we have onsite at customers’ plants. We use that coupled with the information we have on the assets in the plant to build an individual-based training plan for the technicians that support the business.

Unfortunately, most manufacturers use an asset-specific or OEM-specific training solution as opposed to looking at the fundamentals of troubleshooting, whether it’s hydraulics, pneumatics or mechanical systems.

To have that training really stick and for it to be sustainable, your people need those fundamentals. We go into plants all the time where an individual knows an asset well but can’t support the rest of the facility because they’ve become a specialist.

It’s difficult for most manufacturing entities to take on the asset management system, the technology strategy, the training, the hiring and the leadership of those teams, and do it all successfully.  That’s where the support and expertise ATS provides is valuable to our customers so they can focus on their core business.


Plant Engineering