Spotlight on challenges, risks, and opportunities in RS’ 2023 Maintenance Engineering Report

Posted on 13 Jun 2023 by The Manufacturer

At a time of unprecedented challenges facing maintenance engineers in a turbulent climate, it’s pertinent to get a snapshot of the state of play for the profession - effectively taking the pulse - to find out what are the issues most affecting maintenance engineers across a variety of industries.

The Industry in Motion 2023 Maintenance Engineering Report was compiled by RS Group in conjunction with the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), based on survey responses from almost 700 IMechE members from the UK and Ireland. It has highlighted some top challenges, risks, and opportunities.

The report findings focused on a variety of factors – from the true cost of machine failures to harnessing technology and addressing the skills gap. And, as a result, some interesting insights were gathered that should be of value to those working in maintenance engineering, and help them navigate the minefield of developing effective maintenance strategies.

Getting to the heart of the true cost of downtime

RS’s report highlighted that almost 20 hours each week are spent on unscheduled maintenance in the UK and Ireland, compared with around 18 hours spent each week on scheduled maintenance. The hourly cost of downtime was cited at a range of £1,700 to £7.5k, depending on the size of the business, giving an average of £5,121.81, or £100,371 per week.

Further exploration of this subject conducted by RS among its customer focus groups highlighted this as a complex area. It emerged as a very difficult task to quantify the true cost of downtime, due to a variety of factors including inadequate monitoring of such metrics, lack of a universal approach to what is included in the downtime cost, including price of the components, time spent on a repair or solution and the production impact. Costs can also differ depending on business sector, where an hour of downtime can vary significantly.

Perhaps more remarkable was that RS’s report showed that organisations lack clear oversight of their maintenance spend. Nearly a third of respondents said they had no knowledge of the proportion of their annual operating budget spent on maintenance.

Gaining control over cost, along with monitoring and minimising downtime, is clearly an area that needs to be a real priority focus for maintenance engineers. A key challenge is managing ageing assets and mechanical failures – the biggest drivers of downtime – with limited and declining resources and ever-tightening schedules. But firefighting can no longer be an ongoing strategy.

RS says that in an ideal world, an asset lifecycle plan comprising monitoring and data analysis, combined with ongoing assessment of working processes to aid asset optimisation, and recorded with frequency and accuracy, is a great way to start to combat unscheduled maintenance downtime. But this approach requires engineer buy-in and commitment; it’s not a one-off exercise, but should be a way of life for maintenance engineers, says RS.

The skills gap issue is both concerning and exciting

With an ageing skilled workforce and an age gap to the next engineers coming through, it can present as a worrying picture for the maintenance engineering profession. However, with millennials making up more than half of RS’ survey respondent pool (Engineering UK data shows people aged between 25 and 34 now constitute the largest single age group in engineering roles), and the fact that they are reaching key decision-making positions within organisations, they hold a real opportunity to effect change.

Millennials are thought to be more familiar and at ease with different technologies and the efficiencies they can achieve, so this could only have a positive effect on the industry as a whole. This multi-generational blend should combine expertise and innovation to help organisations achieve success in a fast-paced arena.

There’s no time to rest on laurels though, says RS: there should still be a real industry-wide effort to attract new entrants from diverse backgrounds and routes, and more effectively promote the exciting prospects and apprenticeships available. Data also needs to be a key element to promote, as the role it plays in engineering will only continue to grow. And with gender diversity being a key issue in engineering, the balance still needs to be effectively addressed, which means effective promotion of inspirational role models.

With a skills shortage being a key issue affecting many of the survey respondents, outsourcing has become a viable solution. The Industry in Motion report highlights that more than 60% of respondents are outsourcing some form of maintenance requirement, and cited a skills gap among the reasons for doing so, with other reasons including cost effectiveness, flexibility and overall efficiency.

While outsourcing is helping organisations overcome a specialist skills gap, reduced headcounts or budget issues, the survey respondents didn’t feel it would become a growing trend. Of the 37% not currently outsourcing maintenance, only one in 10 said they would consider doing so in the next six to 12 months.

How prevalent is technology in the maintenance mix?

While it’s widely recognised technology can dramatically improve maintenance engineering, only 16% of respondents to the survey said they use the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), with fewer than one in five respondents saying their company is planning a digital transformation in the next 12 months.

What does this spell for the future of maintenance? RS believes it is probably because terms such as IIoT and digital transformation aren’t operational maintenance ‘speak’ – and not entirely helpful to the cause. When phrases that conjure ideas of major investment, hassle, skills and disruption, it presents an immediate barrier.

The survey illustrated that IIoT is actually being used more widely than was thought, with more than half of respondents stating they employed condition monitoring – which uses IIoT – with the top two technologies employed being vibration measurement and current monitoring. These were being used to help get a better understanding of asset health and better prediction of failures.

According to RS, technology adoption must be seen as more of an evolution than a revolution, and it’s as much about the company mindset as the technology. Getting away from a reactive mindset is key to the successful implementation and use of digital technologies.

With the top three challenges cited by survey respondents as expecting to affect them over the next 12 months being attracting talent, inflation and higher costs, and supply chain disruption, RS believes organisations should be considering collaborative working with suppliers to help them combat these challenges. This will help them take a joint strategic view – a holistic approach – where pain points can really be addressed and solved. A supplier that can help with diagnosis of the problem, not just the solution, is of real value.

The RS and IMechE ‘Industry In Motion’ 2023 Maintenance Engineering Report,’ can be downloaded in full here.