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A proactive approach to maintenance can deliver long-term benefits

by Tim Wilson

Shop floor maintenance often gets short shrift: when business is good there isn’t time; and when things are slow the money’s too tight.

But whatever the circumstance, taking a proactive approach to maintenance can deliver long-term benefits while also adding to the bottom line. 

“Companies are not generally proactive with maintenance,” says Greg Robbins, a manager at GKR Services in Kitchener, ON, which operates as a division of WIT Manufacturing. “Often all they see is what it costs them: if it is $1,000 to shut down a machine to do maintenance, that work doesn’t appear to have a direct benefit.”

One problem is that maintenance is often not a simple proposition, but instead becomes another layer of bureaucracy. When that happens, it can be frustrating, with employees sometimes cutting corners.

“I have seen maintenance people sign off on paper work just to keep the auditor happy,” says Robbins. “And these are companies with ISO standards who are qualified to supply to the Big Three automakers.” 

In effect, everyone wants to see a decrease in breakages, but no one wants the paperwork and downtime. The key is to make an efficiency argument for maintenance. But that’s not easy.

The price of neglect
Andrew Skoog, president of Hexis, a manufacturers’ representative agency in Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN, argues that a company has to include the potential cost of an emergency situation. If scheduled maintenance is anticipated it can minimize disruption, while also avoiding the very expensive repercussions of a catastrophic failure. 

“Tool life is known; pump life is known,” Skoog says. “It is pretty straightforward to set up regular intervals for changing these things, and to know when a product has reached its maximum efficiency. The problem is that people don’t have a good handle on preventive maintenance, with the general care of equipment done on a daily basis.”

New machines will have OEM requirements. As these machines age, preventive maintenance schedules can become more aggressive, with automated systems for triggering purchase orders. Standardized plans can also be put in place for coolants, with more sophisticated operations able to use sensors and remote monitoring. Benchmarking past performance can then help indicate whether or not your proactive approach is bringing results.  

“Nothing is going to last forever, but you need to get ahead of the problem,” says Robbins from GKR Services. “For example, order a pump as soon as it starts making noise, not when it fails. Then, you can switch it out during scheduled downtime and avoid costly disruption.”

Maintenance’s uneven playing field
Getting a proactive approach together is a possibility for shops of all sizes, though the advantage may lean toward those bigger operations with more resources.

“It depends on the size of the shop and how organized it is,” says Skoog. “As a general rule, smaller shops are spread pretty thin. They may have internal maintenance staff, but they still tend to be reactive.”

One way that smaller shops can level the playing field is to employ shop floor management software. 

“A lot of people are using software, and those who stand by it religiously are probably seeing the benefit,” says Robbins.  “This is the real work. It’s a challenge because customers are saying they want the parts today, and you can’t do that if you’ve shut down a machine.”

As well, shops large and small are working within the same regulatory environment, which means that all equipment has to be working in accordance with safety and environmental codes. 

“There is increased enforcement to comply with discharge regulations,” says Fred Wagner, a project manager at Hydroblaster in Salt Lake City, UT. “But the regulations can differ within jurisdictions, and most people don’t know what they are.”

Nonetheless, shop floors, and the machines that run in them, must be maintained to address the build up of hydrocarbons –specifically oil and grease–as well as other pathogens. Often water is treated with ozone or a chemical base every half hour.

“There are some systems out there that will make operators ill because they are treating water with chemicals and acid,” says Wagner. “If you reuse that as a wash, you are getting an acid mist.”

A large part of the resistance to taking a proactive approach to some of these problems is that they do not deliver any obvious benefit to the bottom line. As long as operators are working in environments driven by short term economic gain, a lot of the structural problems won’t get addressed.

“If some people can save $50 by extending an oil change, they’ll do it,” says Robbins. “I have seen machines that haven’t had a filter changed in five years–they just add oil. That machine should have lasted ten years, and only lasted eight; but during those five years when it was at full bore they were making money.” SMT 

Tim Wilson is a contributing editor. [email protected]


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