Conspiracy theory debunked – Maintenance leads to reliability

If you believe that reliable operations will result if you just follow your maintenance program, then you might also believe a few falsehoods about reliability and maintenance. First is the falsehood that maintenance is all you need to achieve reliability. Maintenance is about sustaining the asset’s operating conditions, not just fixing it when it breaks. Indeed, you do need to follow your maintenance program but it is not all there is to do, and it had better be the right program.

The right program will be proactive and deal with the failures that are most likely to occur in your operation. Many maintenance programs are little more than a blind following of manufacturer recommendations and then fixing things when they break. Manufacturer recommendations have severe limitations. The manufacturer has no idea what your operating environment and conditions are, nor how you actually use the equipment you bought from them. Their recommendations are generic at best. The onus is on you, the asset owner, to tailor those or develop an alternative to their maintenance program.

Smart asset owners do the latter.

Manufacturer recommendations tend to be heavy on overhaul and “inspect then repair as required” instructions. Any good maintainer who does an inspection and sees a flaw will want to fix it, even if it is having no impact on asset operation and functioning. The result is over-maintaining and an increased risk of infant mortality failure simply because you are messing with the asset too often. Those same recommendations are also very good for part sales.

Manufacturer recommendations are only applicable to the asset you bought from the supplier. They will not cover the assets (e.g.: wiring, piping, pipe hangers, structural support, foundations, etc.) that are associated with those assets. In operations where manufacturer recommendations are the basis for the maintenance program, there is usually a large portion of the asset that is completely ignored (missed).

You still need to develop your own custom maintenance program for all that stuff that the manufacturers miss.

Warranty coverage is often cited as the reason for blindly following what the manufacturer recommends. It’s the #1 protest I hear when recommending that my customers do not follow those programs. Consider that a warranty is a form of insurance. Like all insurance, you only win (get a payout) when you “lose” (suffer the failure). Warranty only covers the repair or replacement costs – what about the loss of production or other damage that was created? The warranty also runs out – it doesn’t last forever. Why follow a program needed to maintain a warranty that is no longer valid?

Warranty won’t cover your mistakes. If you make a mistake in your maintenance efforts, the warranty will be invalidated. Maintenance activities tend to be heavily error-prone. Human error can be relied upon to account for upwards of 68% of the failure modes you will encounter. Even with great care in maintenance, mistakes happen, and then the restart afterward is done by operators who may also make mistakes. Is their training as extensive as you’d like it to be? Are the procedures they have actually followed faithfully? Are those procedures correct? It’s a wonder that any manufacturer would actually ever make good on a warranty claim. Many don’t ever need to, but they like you, need to spend a fair amount to manage the whole warranty process.

The biggest costs associated with any failure of your assets (production loss, fines you might pay, penalties you might suffer, safety incidents that could arise) aren’t even covered. You can only protect against those by doing the right maintenance, not by doing what some supplier that doesn’t even understand your operation might have recommended.

The warranty also has a cost – typically 2 to 3% of the capital cost of the asset. The manufacturers don’t tell you that, but it’s there and built right into their overheads where even they probably struggle to identify it accurately. Why not negotiate it out at the time of purchase and use that money to develop a decent maintenance program?

Beyond maintenance, you have two other major players involved in asset reliability – engineers and operators.

Engineers designed your asset installation in the first place. Did they provide you with a system that is inherently reliable? Ultimately you want reliability and maintainability. Both are factors that junior engineers are not particularly good at because they often lack the field experience needed to truly understand both topics thoroughly. If your systems were designed by an engineering firm (as is usually the case), remember that they are in the business of designing plants, not necessarily your plant, and they are NOT in the business of maintaining it. They had a budget and it was probably a bit light because they had to bid on winning your work. Reliability and maintainability both cost a little bit more to provide if indeed they know how to provide them. Many don’t. Just ask your favorite consulting engineering firm to name their reliability engineer and, if they can, ask to see his credentials.

They may have 3-D modeling software as part of their CAD systems, but are they using it to look for operability, accessibility, and maintainability problem areas? The software is quite good, but are its users good at looking for those particular problems?

Your reliability engineers and maintainers need to be involved in the design process. Without them, you will get what you paid for and all the headaches that will come with it for years to come.

Operators will not typically get involved until commissioning, and then for a long time thereafter. Are they trained in the new systems? Are the procedures they are trained to follow complete and accurate? Do they cover the installed systems or just the equipment that your manufacturers provided? Like tailoring a maintenance program, there is a need to tailor your operating instructions, procedures, and practices prior to commissioning. Without that, your operators will be guessing at how best to operate this new system they are being asked to use.

They also need to be trained. Operators and having them around for training before commissioning is not cheap. You’ll need to hire them, indoctrinate them to your company and operations, and then train them on the new systems and all before you are producing anything with them. Understandably you want to bring them in at the last minute and get them through that training as quickly as you can. The result is often less than ideal. First of all, few of us remember much of our training for long unless we can put it into practice right away. They can’t do that without the system to operate. So, training them on the new system as it becomes operational is likely the best option. Expect mistakes. Expect that there will be breakdowns and other problems due to very natural human and learning curve errors.

Did your manufacturer-recommended maintenance consider those? Of course not. But your tailored maintenance program (if you produced one) can.

Changes can really screw things up for maintenance and for operations. Let’s say your equipment keeps failing, a root cause for the failure is identified, and some sort of mitigating steps are taken. A new maintenance procedure or task may be added – let’s hope it makes its way into your maintenance documentation. A change to design may occur – likely to be installed by maintainers at the next opportunity (i.e.: next repair). Let’s hope the new parts are identified in future work plans. Let’s hope that any needed changes to maintenance to sustain that change are also produced and added to your maintenance program.

In operations, the impact of changes can be substantial. Often a change to an asset will require a change to operational procedures and possibly to operator training. I’ve often seen where well-intentioned changes and improvements, scoped and executed by maintenance, are undocumented and where their impacts on operational practices are not even considered.

In one case recently, an in-line filter was replaced with a design that required operators to turn a handle to keep it clean. No one told them, the handle was never turned, and for a few years the system operation would be disrupted, clogged filter diagnosed, and maintainers would change it out, like for like. No one thought to instruct the operators on how to use it. Someone’s good idea was actually installed but it didn’t work through no fault of its own.

Does maintenance lead to reliability? No, not on its own and not without some thoughtful consideration to maintenance and operational programs, training, input to designs, and management of changes. Yes, that will all cost more than the practices that many of you are probably following today. It will also ensure long sustainable, reliable operation producing more and earning more revenues.

Experience, Insight, Honest Advice