What a bad or non-existent maintenance program costs manufacturers

A maintenance program is only as good as the work put in behind it and the effort going forward. Planned maintenance, rather than reacting to a problem, can save companies enormously in the long term.

By Phillip Rowley and Jake Jakowitz May 11, 2021

New challenges and increased demand, all at the same time, have many corporate leaders under the gun and pushing production to the max in order to keep their pipeline filled. To meet this demand, many are working overtime, plants are reluctant to shut any lines down and smaller maintenance jobs have dropped lower on the priority list.

None of that matters if you’re rushing in the wrong direction. Ignoring maintenance or only fixing things when they fail (a reactive approach), has long-term consequences. The continual deferment of maintenance will ultimately result in failure.

The problems with a reactive approach to maintenance

Ask facility managers to pick one word they associate with maintenance, and more often than not, they’ll say cost. And chances are, those managers are operating in a reactive maintenance environment.

Here’s the thing, though: While proactive maintenance requires more upfront investment, it’s a fraction of the cost of a catastrophic shutdown that may have been preventable.

Traditionally, management may attempt to tighten budget or reduce headcount in an attempt to control costs. This is counterproductive because it reduces costs in the short term by deferring required maintenance. Kicking that can down the road can result in additional defects in the system, thereby increasing costs even more in the long run.

Four ways reactive maintenance can cost you indirectly

Relying on a reactive maintenance approach can cost your business in more ways than one:

1. Added, unplanned costs – Unexpected equipment failures are expensive. Consider the costs of emergency repairs, travel time, labor, parts and rush deliveries. In the end, you’re paying a premium to fix a problem that could’ve been addressed earlier at less cost and potentially no loss of production.

2. Shorter equipment lifespan – Ignoring maintenance issues, even those that may seem minor, could require replacing equipment earlier than expected. Running equipment in less-than-optimal condition or to the point of failure can reduce the life of that asset.

3. Triggering future failures – Like anything else, slapping a temporary bandage on a major problem will only get you so far. While performing unplanned maintenance can get your equipment up and running, it won’t address the root cause of the problem. As a result, you will more than likely suffer the same, or additional, failures in the future.

4. Safety risks – By nature, emergency maintenance is often conducted under pressure and in a hurry. This can sometimes result in mistakes and unwarranted risks. Is saving a few thousand dollars really worth the risk of a potentially fatal ammonia leak?

When you start adding up the cost of lost product, wasted time, missed business opportunities and damage to your brand’s reputation, it becomes clear why putting off maintenance is simply not worth the risk.

A case in point: Texas freeze of 2021

It’s easy to write off such words of warning by assuming “it couldn’t happen to me.” You may have even received some form of that response when making a case to corporate leadership. Even if you’re on top of other aspects of your facility’s operations, it doesn’t preclude you from a fluke incident that could turn things upside down overnight. In fact, it happened just a few months ago.

In February 2021, a polar vortex brought unseasonably freezing temperatures and a major power crisis to the state of Texas. One manufacturer in particular lost most of their industrial refrigeration system after a pipe froze and burst at the Texas plant – and, of course, it happened after they had been putting off maintenance for the system’s piping.

In the meantime, that manufacturer has had to limp along until a certain part could be replaced. And given the ongoing ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global supply chain, lead times have gone up 20% to 40% for many parts and components. It’s just one example of how deferring regular maintenance can make a curveball debilitating.

Three ways to shift to a planned maintenance approach

So, what can you do right now to step up your maintenance game and defuse the potential “ticking time bomb” of a reactive maintenance program?

  • Keep critical spare parts on hand – You probably already know the usual problem areas of your facility’s infrastructure and equipment. Don’t wait to get caught with your pants down by not having that spare part on the shelf when you need it most. After all, a $20 seal or gasket can easily be the first tipped domino in a cascading multimillion-dollar nightmare.
  • Restore or add redundancy where possible – Let’s say a facility has a compressor or two out of service, but management decides the maintenance can wait because they don’t need that capacity to meet current processing needs. In reality, these units present an opportunity for a safety net in case of an emergency. By taking the time to repair that downed compressor, even when your facility is running at full capacity without it, you’ll gain wiggle room if and when there’s an unexpected failure.
  • Conduct an operational audit – Partnering with an experienced firm to perform an operational audit will give you a baseline analysis of the status quo and may identify warning signs of trouble to come.

Many businesses were blindsided by 2020. Will you be ready for what lies ahead this year?

This article originally appeared on Stellar’s Food For Thought BlogStellar is a CFE Media content partner.

Original content can be found at stellarfoodforthought.net.