Maintaining productivity

Ruari McCallion finds out what’s hot and what’s not in maintenance, and what the ongoing issues are

The frock’s still in the shop window, the mice are still mice and the pumpkin is in danger of rotting in the field. Maintenance – the Cinderella service – is still waiting for its Fairy Godmother to arrive, wave her magic wand and get the attention of the handsome prince – who may be the finance director but is certainly sitting somewhere in the boardroom.

“Cinderella still hasn’t got to the ball yet,” said Peter Quayle of Productivity Europe. “Production will still say ‘you can’t have that machine [for maintenance] because we need it’ and if something goes out of schedule then it never gets back in. But we have customers who may take a line out for as much as a week, a month, and they really get the benefit. Breakdowns go down, productivity goes up and up and they’re able to operate standard run times.” Many a production director will react with shock at the suggestion that a line could or should be taken out for one week in four – it’s a hard sell, as Quayle readily concedes, but he maintains that it’s high time for a deep rethink, and for maintenance to be recognised as something that contributes to profitability, rather than as a cost.

“People still think in the short term,” he said. “We can have the crazy situation where it’s the end of the month and people want to push on with production. Not because of customer orders, but because they want to get the figures up.” Oh, dear. One would have thought that the widespread acceptance of the value of lean manufacturing, build to order and reducing stock to free up working capital, would have consigned that sort of attitude to the dustbin of history. But there is light on the horizon. “I am seeing more companies understanding the value of Taichi Ohno’s advice to ‘stop making things’. Senior management is getting it: the struggle is at a lower level.”

It’s a paradox: companies won’t release machinery for maintenance because they reckon they need it, but lack of maintenance leads to breakdowns and inefficiency – which represent added costs, possibly including fines from customers for stopping their lines.

“There’s not enough analysis of breakdowns, not enough root cause analysis and too much variability in process, and consistent standards in maintenance are few and far between,” he said. Effective production – lean manufacturing – relies on standardised work, and maintenance is no different; Quayle calls it ‘centre-lining’. “We are seeing more understanding of the impact of variability. Centre-lining limits the adjustments that people can do. If you have, for example, three settings with eight variable machines, you’re looking at massive variabilities. If different shifts set up differently, you will get a dip in performance. When you see that in practice, you understand where variation in production comes from.” CMMS (computer maintenance management system) has been touted as the means to ensure maintenance is done properly, but it doesn’t always work that way.

“I think CMMS can be a useful tool but it can also be a monster,” said Keith Fisher, associate with maintenance consultants Suiko. “People believe a computer system is going to give them everything they want, but it’s only as good as the data going in – and only as good as what people want out of it. A lot of people put a CMMS in and then try to figure out what they want from it, rather than doing things the other way round.” He believes that the CMMS may have been over-publicised and, as a result, too much has been expected of it.

“People put in things because they think they’re the answer to their problems. More effective, more planned maintenance is more important than the systems that drive it,” he said. In other words, a system-led protocol is putting the cart before the horse. Not that computer support doesn’t have a place. “I’m a very strong believer in computerised systems, but I often put in paper-based procedures. You only want to get into computers to plan maintenance if you have a very large process, or you’re running on very complicated frequencies or run time.” Maintenance can’t be automated; it needs engineers and operators working together. And there has to be a wide understanding of issues, as well as depth.

“I ask people sometimes whether they’d rather be treated by a doctor or a mortician,” said Fisher. “In the past, I managed a team of several hundred engineers, with 80-odd on night shift and a team on day shift. I started to rotate them, getting breakdown engineers to do planned maintenance, because they’d seen how the machines had broken down and maybe had a better feel for them. If you only see the machine when it’s dead, that’s like being a mortician. Attending equipment while it’s running is more like a doctor looking after you.” Fisher is a believer in TPM – it’s what took him away from heavy reliance on CMMS. “Back in the 1990s I used a very good system, called Comac, and I was beginning to develop a thing called defect analysis. With breakdowns, fault codes, defect codes and repair costs, I got the computer telling me what was going wrong. Then I got into TPM, which got engineers and operators working together. We went down that road, rather than waiting three to six months for the computer to analyse trends. TPM engages the operator to tell you what’s wrong and help work to the root cause. That’s better than collecting reams of data.”

But there’s no doubt that IT systems have their place, whether in collecting data for longer-term trend analysis or in facilitating remote support. ABB has taken advantage of the opportunities presented by the internet and mobile communications to provide its robotics customers with greatly enhanced warranty, maintenance and support packages.

“Robots are increasingly looked upon as commodities,” said David Pownall, lifecycle services manager with ABB Robotics. “We recently released a document entitled ‘10 Reasons for Robotics’ and it included an interesting statistic. Average wages in the UK are about £25,000 a year, or roughly £10.51 an hour. You can buy a new six-axis robot for a cost of about £5 an hour. Average wages increased 74 per cent between 1990 and 2005; six-axis industrial robots halved in price over the same period.” It’s a truth that people – and companies – tend to value possessions more, the more they pay for them. If robots are cheap then the tender loving care that was lavished on them when they first appeared won’t be as forthcoming now. If a company doesn’t want to commit to the perceived cost of permanent in-house maintenance teams but it still wants its equipment to run then it is faced with a quandary. ABB isn’t the only company offering outsourced and specialist maintenance but it believes it has something a bit more special than the norm.

“The remote service offer comes with a response package, which you can think of as a bit like a ‘black box’ in an aircraft,” said Pownall. “It contains a GPRS recorder that goes into each robot included in the package. That provides real-time data to our guys in the office but also gives visibility to the customer of trends, ambient operating temperatures, operational speed of fans in the cooling system, battery voltages, the current the motors are drawing, I/O curves, motor speeds and so on and so forth. Periodic backups – weekly or monthly – are taken and stored online at our myrobot site so that, in the event of catastrophic failure, backup data is available. And it enables us to work with our customer to either talk through the problem or to determine that a site visit is necessary.”

If there’s something any company will hate more than spending money on something that doesn’t seem to give immediate return – ie, maintenance – then it’s having to pay customers because of failure to supply components in time to keep the line running. ABB uses its remote sensor pack to avoid that happening.

“GPRS provides us with early warning of potential problems, through monitoring things like oil temperature, vibration and a range of other indicators. If things start to deteriorate – even something like battery life – the unit will send either an SMS or email alert to us and our customer. We can phone them, advise the problem and offer alternatives,” he said. “If a fan stops working the robot will keep going until it gets too hot – then it will stop. If we know about it we can alert the customer, offer a new fan or a visit and give them room to plan effectively, rather than dealing with the consequences of failure.”

With remote service offers like ABB’s and the wealth of experience in effective preventive, planned and scheduled service and support, maintenance really shouldn’t be viewed as a high-rent activity. It’s time for Cinderella to join the guests in the main hall.