Facing the uptime imperative – why preventative maintenance is crucial for uncertain times

Anurag Garg Profile picture for user Anurag Garg May 14, 2020
At a time when uptime is even more precious than ever, businesses must get serious about preventative maintenance, writes Anurag Garg of Plex Systems

Welding in progress - Photo by Rob Lambert on Unsplash
(Photo by Rob Lambert on Unsplash)

Bear with me. I know much has already been written about predictive and preventative maintenance for manufacturers, and by maintenance professionals who have spent their entire careers in this field. But times have changed. This isn't just another blog on maintenance best practices. This is an exploration of how maintenance professionals themselves can keep up with the manufacturing transformation happening around them – in the midst of uniquely challenging circumstances.

Right now, pricing pressures are forcing manufacturers to continue to look for efficiencies, even while demand fluctuates and safe social distancing on shop floors changes output abilities. Now more than ever, supply chains demand agility and transparency. Labor markets are in flux, with manufacturers needing to strike the right balance between on-site talent and increased automation. At the same time (as if that first list wasn't enough), if manufacturers can't keep up with the rapidly evolving technology and digitization trends, it's going to be almost impossible to work efficiently now – given the limitations on human workforces.

Of the hundreds of interviews we've conducted with manufacturing professionals over the last several years, there was one consistent truth: The one area of the business that doesn't receive the kind of attention it deserves is equipment maintenance! That's a concern, because right now, if equipment goes down, the specialists who can fix it are harder to get on site than ever. Yes, augmented reality for virtual repair guidance is taking hold, but many shop floors are not equipped with these capabilities yet. So we need to keep this essential equipment up and running right now.

'Uptime' is one persistent metric that can cap a facility's output —a lesson that Plex's founders learned early. Early in his career at a forging company, Plex Systems co-founder and CTO Jerry Foster was given a stern warning by the organization's CEO, who said: “Jerry, I don't care what you do, but you better not bring down that press. If it's not going up and down, if we're not making parts, we'll go out of business.”

Maintenance professionals today are faced with challenging uptime expectations of an aging infrastructure – infrastructure that is hard to maintain remotely. I've often heard things like, “How do I scale my maintenance program without scaling my team?” and, “The maintenance tooling project got defunded. We bought a new robot instead.” Now we can add to that list: “How do I fix my machines remotely, when I can’t get an expert technician on site?”

Sound familiar?

So, what does the world of a maintenance professional look like 10 years from now? What is the ideal end state and how does one get there? Outlined below are five things to keep in mind.

1. Change the narrative about maintenance

One of the first things manufacturers need to do is to change their perception of the role 'maintenance' plays in their business. Too often, maintenance programs are viewed as expense items on a P&L, when in fact, machine uptime is directly correlated with capacity, top-line revenue, and growth potential of a manufacturing operation.

As a maintenance leader looking to secure (and keep) funding for your initiatives, do you know the impact your programs have on the business top line? Are you intimately aware of the uptime/downtime metrics of each individual asset (including non-production/support assets that could bring a facility down)? If data-driven maintenance initiatives empirically show a 49% reduction in unplanned downtime, could you justify a meaningful ROI? Would that ROI (and the capacity unlocked by the increase in uptime) be greater than the ROI associated with the purchase of that new robot (that you'll also have to maintain)?

2. Begin by automating manual processes

Take a look at what you do manually today and automate where you can. Start with route-based data collection on equipment usage and health; paper-based recording and analysis of data; stakeholder notification; maintenance ticket tracking and analysis. These are just a few of the things your maintenance staff currently does that can be automated with the selection of the right technology solution and oftentimes, at a fraction of the cost of additional headcount.

These automation efforts often empower the maintenance team with the data they need to do their jobs better and frees up their time to focus on things that they do best.

3. Focus on cross-functional visibility

As manufacturing environments continue to get more and more complex, so do the interdependencies between various processes. Mapping and catering to these not only help with addressing immediate needs, but also with scaling the overall manufacturing operation despite the staffing challenges.

For example, equipment and process reliability also impacts overall part quality. The same data collected for maintenance and quality can impact traceability, genealogy, and supply chain transparency initiatives. Better data, insights, and technology can help with the upskilling of the workforce with the necessary skills to lead the next decade of growth.

4. Make careful technology choices

There is no shortage of options out there when considering technology investments in manufacturing, particularly around digitization and Industry 4.0; and many boast maintenance use cases with empirical evidence of clear ROI. Whether it be systems that enable data collection and early notification of impending failures, complex analytics tools to create a ‘digital twin’ of the facility / equipment to identify hidden patterns in data, or remote assistance / augmented reality tools to simplify access to off-site experts - each of these technology choices offer an ability for maintenance professionals to be more proactive and less reactive when it comes to facility uptime.

What is key to remember is not to think too small when making their technology choices. Think about how your decisions must enable cross-functional success while maintaining a single source of truth for all your manufacturing data. Ask yourself if your technology choices allow for easy integration into newer tools, help automate workflows, and provide contextual insights and decision-making support for the entire enterprise, and don't solely serve maintenance requirements.

5. Remember the people

Finally, what is unfortunately most overlooked in the manufacturing transformation initiatives I've seen so far is the “people” part. It might not be intuitive, but to achieve this level of control on your shop floor requires not only the ability to collect and contextualize the data, but also necessitates your team trust in the data, and what it is telling them. I've personally seen what happens when a company takes all the right steps to integrate the right technology, gives the right people access, but forgets the change management processes that need to follow. This kind of implementation assumes all operators will trust the data and accompanying recommendations from the new systems, even if it disagrees with their personal experience and intuition. In fact, I've written a whole blog post on the power of habits and their relationship to the successful adoption of disruptive technology.

If all of this goes well, maintenance professionals will not only be able to drive success within their own facilities, but have a blueprint to replicate and scale maintenance across multiple facilities within their enterprise (and yes, without proportionally scaling headcount). Unification of programs and processes not only simplifies training, but also unlocks cross-facility insights without each facility being stuck in pilot purgatory.

Imagine knowing what happened, what is happening, and what is going to happen across all assets across your global enterprise, and having the confidence that all cross-department teams are operating from the same source of truth after being empowered with the data and analytics to make timely decisions. That sounds like the kind of adaptive system we need in times like these.

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