New research on maintenance driving sustainability in manufacturing

Posted on 25 Apr 2022 by The Manufacturer

With sustainability becoming central to strategies and performance goals for manufacturers, maintenance, as a key function for better asset and resources utilisation, conservation, and useful life extension, would be expected to be a central area of inquiry in sustainability initiatives. However, this is not often the case, and many aspects of maintenance contribution to sustainability remain unexplored and untapped. Thus, motivating this research work.

This work took the initiative to investigate the practice, impact, and contribution of nine maintenance functions from various manufacturers across sectors to a triple-bottom-line perspective of sustainability. The findings uncovered that advanced practice in maintenance, i.e., well-managed and well-performed maintenance, contributes to the sustainability as well as the companies’ goals and strategic priorities from multiple fronts.

Environmental sustainability

Maintenance has a manifold influence on environmental aspects of production processes, assets, and facilities. Performing maintenance interventions promptly, keeping machinery in optimal working conditions, and following a systematic intervention protocol can reduce scrap generation and resources and utilities consumption, avoid rework and wasting input materials, and can also have a positive impact on land, biodiversity, and natural habitat conservation when interventions are performed outdoors.

Moreover, involving maintenance along the whole lifecycle of production assets and other plant facilities to leverage relevant maintenance information and knowledge can ensure their preservation, integrity, and lifetime extension, e.g. seeking opportunities for reuse and recovery of components and creating a pool for intra-organisational sharing of equipment.

All observed maintenance functions connect with energy management in their production plants with different levels of intensity and integration. They were four types of relations ranging from informal collaborations to direct integration of both functions, described briefly herein.

  • Maintenance with no formal responsibilities on energy management but engaging in dialogue and collaboration with energy management, e.g., by providing ideas for energy savings and supporting energy management decisions;
  • Maintenance acting as a support function for energy management, e.g., by monitoring energy consumption and inefficiencies and intervening to prevent or correct energy losses;
  • Maintenance with direct responsibilities for energy management, as a secondary activity, including energy analysis of facilities, defining corrective and improvement plans, providing operator training, and using failure analysis techniques for energy inefficiencies;
  • Maintenance with direct responsibilities for energy management, as a primary activity. In these cases, the maintenance managers are acting as energy managers for the production plant, one of them pointing out that “Here, maintenance-energy is a strengthened and innate synergy”.

Economic sustainability

The maintenance function positively influenced the financial health and profitability of these manufacturers through cost reduction, productivity improvements, higher asset, and process reliability (leading to improved quality and delivery punctuality) and specific contributions to product competitiveness in a few instances. The latter shows an unusual link between maintenance and the final product performance in the market that we have not observed elsewhere.

While most manufacturers are experiencing difficulties in measuring the hidden economic value of maintenance, e.g., actual cost of maintenance interventions vs performance losses, one of them made progress to give higher visibility to the value of maintenance. This particular manufacturer have successfully implemented a system to categorise maintenance budget entries based on the outcome obtained from the intervention, e.g., safety improvement, resource savings, product quality. This is a good practice that could be replicated by others.

In some of these manufacturers, we also observed a higher status of the maintenance function within the plant organisational hierarchy, e.g., the maintenance manager being part of the plant top management team, which gives them higher autonomy and responsibility in managing a dedicated budget making investment decisions regarding maintenance resources.

Social sustainability

The findings related to the social dimension concern the collaborative environment in which maintenance operates in most of these manufacturers, characterised by instances of good relation and joint works with other plant functions, e.g., HR, R&D, quality, production, and technical office. We additionally found instances of maintenance interacting and positively contributing to compliance and expectations from external stakeholders of the business, e.g., good understanding and engagement with certification bodies, equipment and spare parts suppliers, and the local community.

Initiatives with direct benefits for maintenance staff include career development opportunities, investing in novel resources to support higher work accuracy, improving the motivation of maintenance staff, and training on new plant technologies. This collaborative environment leads to more fluent communication across functions, having a consensual understanding of maintenance schedules, timelines, and importance, which in return reduces pressure in the working environment especially for the maintenance staff.

Recommendations for action

These findings bring important implications for manufacturers interested in leveraging maintenance capabilities in their businesses to enhance their sustainability performance. Particularly, the results help  reinterpreting their approach to maintenance interventions and discover ways to achieve higher value through preventive and improvement maintenance to a wide range of business areas. We suggest the following steps to support such an initiative:

  1. To identify the key areas in which maintenance function influences the various sustainability aspects of the production system;
  2. To form a cross-functional team with the inclusion of maintenance staff for defining possible solutions and improvements in the areas identified in the first step;
  3. To adopt a proactive approach to maintenance interventions based on preventive and improvement maintenance methods and techniques;
  4. To leverage maintenance data, insights, and knowledge that can support the implementation of those sustainability-oriented solutions and improvements identified in the second step;
  5. To establish a collaborative working environment that focuses on identifying more holistic solutions rather than each plant function tackling issues in isolation.

Building on the above-mentioned steps and identified initiatives and actions, manufacturers can bring their maintenance functions onboard and give them a more central role in addressing sustainability and achieving their performance goals.

If you are interested in knowing more, please contact Dr Maria Holgado.

More details about this work are available in this journal article: Holgado, M., Macchi, M., & Evans, S. (2020). Exploring the impacts and contributions of maintenance function for sustainable manufacturing. International Journal of Production Research58(23), 7292-7310. Available here.

About the author

Maria Holgado picture

Dr Maria Holgado is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) at the University of Sussex and course director of the MSc Global Supply Chain and Logistics Management. Her research concerns innovations in manufacturing operations, supply chains, and business models that aim at developing solutions for more sustainable, resilient and better performing processes, machinery, products and services.