Effective Preventative Maintenance Plans Begin With 'Where Are We Now?'

Before starting the planning for preventive maintenance, it helps to determine what the end goal is and work back from that point to the present.

Manufacturing plants are busy places with many variables in terms of machinery, infrastructure, process, and schedule. Plant managers are often pulled in multiple directions and have competing priorities they have to navigate. When machines are in good condition and running continuously, maintenance will often be understandably shuffled to the bottom of the priority list. Why fix what isn’t broken? However, if a pivotal machine does break down, it can stop production, which can become an immediate crisis. To avoid such a situation, regular preventive maintenance can be performed on machines according to a schedule. Manufacturers provide recommendations for preventive maintenance, but proactively coordinating maintenance schedules for all the machines and systems within the plant requires a comprehensive plan.

Before starting the planning for preventive maintenance, it helps to determine what the end goal is and work back from that point to the present.  It can be difficult to understand all the elements of the process, or to provide a quick turnaround on the project, and therefore hard to accurately assess how long it will take. Talking to people who perform the work every day and gathering insights about how long each task will take improves accurate predictions for the duration of tasks.

Common Challenges

Expertise is key to understanding when there is an issue that needs attention, and to successful planning and implementation. For example, when adjusting voltage on a transformer in the field, a technician who understands tap settings and when to adjust them can avoid guesswork and unnecessary rework. Some plants will adjust the tap settings as a matter of course whenever they don’t hear the transformer hum, or if a feeder fails and the voltage drop increases, which decreases end voltage carried to the equipment. Adjusting the transformer tap settings is a commonly used quick fix to normalize the end voltage, but it doesn’t always solve the root problem, and may end up costing much more if it causes a failure in other equipment. The real solution is in preventive maintenance: performing the calculations to understand what is needed to keep the equipment running smoothly, and avoid problems altogether.

In another example, a project owner requested minimal changes and sought to have a majority of the problems in their 50-year-old building examined under one project. The timeline for this proposal was very challenging. The decision makers wanted alternatives for different pricing options, which can take weeks or months to gather, but they requested the information as soon as possible.  One week was enough to provide the base information needed to get up and running, but not provide a comprehensive plan.  Therefore, it is key to explain these processes and timelines to project decision makers, especially at initial project stages.

For instance, if there is an old piece of equipment that is very challenging to replace or get parts for, a project stakeholder may insist on keeping it in the face of a major renovation and process upgrade. They may spend $20 million investing in updates, bring in a new, expensive piece of equipment that will run 24/7, but keep an old, unreliable machine that could quit anytime, bringing down the entire process, disrupting the schedule, and resulting in a loss of revenue. Sometimes, making the investment in new equipment ultimately saves money by avoiding lost production later. It can be challenging to navigate this give and take as project leaders study their bottom line.

Industry leaders who are scheduling large projects that require production shutdowns want to be as efficient as possible, so they often try to multi-task, which can result in scope creep. Proper planning ensures that each maintenance activity gets covered and there is adequate time allotted for it. There are some inefficiencies that may come up. 

In one case, original drawings for the project had all the lighting feeding from the same bus duct that fed process, plant, and motors. Because of this inefficient overburdening of the electrical system, lights flickered throughout the plant when a machine started up, creating a hazardous environment for someone climbing stairs or carrying something large or heavy. In addition to the flickering light, the single transformer that fed the lighting systems was humming, which indicated a phase imbalance or harmonic distortion. This can cause power quality issues when apparent power is induced back onto a power system, causing it to decrease, and there are penalties to the light and power utility.

Situations like this arise when decision makers understandably try to reuse everything they possibly can to avoid spending money on infrastructure, thus funneling all available funds toward new equipment and improvements. If an issue related to underperforming infrastructure comes up during the project, they may try to include it, without adjusting the schedule or budget. Careful planning can counteract that by troubleshooting the proposed plan in advance to ensure that every detail is accommodated. 

Keys To Success

Good communication and relationships with engineers and field personnel provide a foundation of trust that will lead them to share information when they have it.  Expertise is critical because even when project stakeholders think they are doing the right thing with their maintenance plans, there may be considerations that only an outside perspective could offer.

In one example, lead pots used in battery production were in danger of cracking from wear and tear. This was a typical, bustling production facility and the plant engineer was too busy addressing urgent issues to address the concerns of the operators who had taken readings and calibrations.  Because of the lost time that would result from a scheduled maintenance shutdown, the repairs were continually delayed and, inevitably, the pots cracked. When that happened, production stopped and staff had to work around the clock for several days to fix the problem and get up and running again. Making time for proper preventive maintenance would have been a minor inconvenience, but the failure to do so resulted in a major disruption to the production schedule. A comprehensive schedule ensures that maintenance is performed on time and reduces time-consuming production stoppages.

A maintenance schedule is part of a healthy program that asks, “Where are we now?” Evaluating the current state regularly is a good way to keep tabs on all the equipment and the status of maintenance and repairs, so that nothing slips through the cracks. During regular evaluations of each piece of equipment, ask how long it has been in operation and when to expect repairs or replacement. Companies who have the resources and ability to schedule and perform preventive maintenance will save themselves time, money, and trouble in the future. It is far better to plan than react. Planners put themselves in the driver’s seat by asking what the end goal is and laying out a means to achieve that goal. A comprehensive schedule takes some time up front but the reward is worry-free maintenance at regular intervals, fewer production delays, and more peace of mind.

Corey Zachel, PE, LEED AP BD+C is a Section Manager and Senior Associate at SSOE Group, a global project delivery firm for architecture, engineering, and construction management. He is an electrical engineer with over 18 years of experience and brings extensive knowledge to SSOE’s automotive manufacturing facilities group.

More in Maintenance