10 steps to prepare your company for the return of business

Mike Fitzgerald, Advanced Technology Services

If you are like many in business today, during the past year it has been a challenge to just survive the “Great Recession.” Many companies have had to focus solely on survival, cutting workforce and other expenses just to survive to fight another day. Now that companies are starting to see some signs of rebounding demand, the question is, “Are you and your assets properly prepared to capitalize on this increased business when the demand arrives?”                                                                                                  

During the downturn, many companies laid off experienced maintenance technicians and production operators, reduced production shifts, idled equipment, and spent the bare minimum, if anything, on maintaining their assets.

These 10 steps offer a cohesive approach to cost-effectively prepare your company’s physical assets and mitigate the risk associated with higher levels of demand for the return of business:

  1. Ensure that you have properly identified your value streams, constraint and critical equipment: As demand for business or products that you used to produce returns and you add additional new business, it is important that you consider the effect that the additional volume will have on your flow and throughput. Unless you chose to outsource a specific portion of your prior process or downsized your capacity through equipment rationalization, you likely had very little or virtually no capacity constraints during the past year. Returning demand from prior products coupled with demand generated by new business can quickly result in capacity constraints. Any additional capacity or improvement to the cycle time of the constraint will result in additional saleable product throughput for the area.
  2. Perform a general inspection of the constraint and critical equipment: Often times, it is necessary to re-instill the discipline to clean specific areas of the equipment, removing chips, debris or fluids that may have built up and started to affect the quality or potential longevity of the process. Depending upon the level of deterioration, you may need or want to accomplish this through a kaizen event focused on cleaning the equipment so that a more thorough inspection can be accomplished. All non-conforming issues should be noted, documented with a specific work order, captured in the CMMS and planned/scheduled for repair at the first convenient, available time.
  3. Utilize predictive maintenance (PdM) technologies to perform a deeper evaluation of the specific condition of the constraint and critical equipment: Utilize ultrasonic equipment to inspect for hard-to-find leaks and an infrared camera to look for hot spots caused by loose or broken connections and bearings or motors that may be getting ready to fail. Utilize vibration equipment to assess the condition of specific bearings, motors, spindles and rotating shafts. Perform an analysis of the fluids to look for abnormal wear or contamination that could drastically reduce the longevity of the equipment or lead to catastrophic failure of the process. Document results and plan/schedule repair work for non-conforming items.  
  4. Consider evaluating total equipment capability (quality and reliability) of constraint and critical equipment: New business/products may stress the capability of your current equipment, so it is important to perform a complete Machine Health Assessment (MHA) to evaluate the capability and reliability of the equipment. The MHA typically results in a detailed report that gives you the raw data and provides recommendations regarding equipment repairs or improvements. The recommendations can be categorized as nuance, important and critical to allow informed decisions to be made as to which performance criteria will be addressed and to plan those activities to minimize cost and disruption to the operation. Making these improvements proactively, before production gets ramped up, can help you avoid producing poor or inconsistent quality products, wasting your effort on expensive rework or having late/missed shipments, all of which will disappoint your customers and could result in lost business.
  5. Re-evaluate the critical spare replacement parts for your constraint and critical equipment: Do you have a comprehensive list of critical spare replacement parts identified for each constraint and critical equipment? If not, it should be a high priority to develop them. Once you have them (making the assumption that you used a robust process to develop them), make sure each of the critical spare parts has a specific parts plan identified and documented. Vendor-managed inventory, consignment, repair vs. replace and other strategies may be appropriate and cost-effective ways to mitigate risk and minimize cost. Many companies and OEMs chose to reduce the inventory levels they maintained during the past year. As a result, parts may have longer lead times or, in some cases, the supplier may have gone out of business all together. Once the plan with appropriate stocking levels has been established, audit the maintenance parts crib and the system to confirm that inventory levels match the plan and the actual physical parts available are properly reflected in the system. This is extremely important if you haven’t maintained the discipline to sustain a proper cycle-counting program during the past year. Prioritize the items that are below planned levels, determine how you will replenish them and proactively procure the items needed to execute your plan. Poor identification, inaccurate information or a poor plan for spare parts can have a devastating effect on your ability to serve your customers.
  6. Re-evaluate the preventive maintenance (PM) tasks for your constraint and critical equipment: Did you reduce, ignore, turn off or quit executing PMs for your constraint and critical equipment during the past year? What may have been or seemed like an adequate level during the past year probably isn’t well suited to sustain optimum performance as demand increases and capacity becomes constrained. Review the prior PM plans and evaluate how predictive maintenance (PdM) technologies might be revised or expanded to help mitigate risk and reduce unplanned breakdowns. A robust, well-executed PM plan can help reduce that risk and increase uptime.
  7. Consider integrating your production operators into the maintenance plan for constraint and critical equipment: Operators that are properly trained and engaged in autonomous maintenance tasks to maintain the equipment can make a tremendous impact on reducing breakdowns and increasing productive uptime. The level of engagement will vary from company to company, but if the company is conducive to engaging the operators and the leadership has the discipline to implement the accountability required to sustain the process, you can positively affect machine performance, operator attitudes and free up valuable maintenance resources to concentrate on more complex, higher-value activities to drive additional performance enhancements throughout the operation. While it takes some time to identify, set up and train operators to properly perform the appropriate cleaning, inspection and lubrication tasks, the payback can be quite valuable. Do not assume that the operator knows or should know what they need to do. Invest the time to do it right and get the buy-in of the operators and their direct supervisor.
  8. Ensure maintenance technicians have the proper skills and training to maintain, troubleshoot, and repair your constraint and critical equipment: Do your current maintenance technicians have the knowledge and skills to properly maintain, troubleshoot and repair your equipment? During the past year, many companies lost or laid off experienced maintenance technicians. Even if your company didn’t downsize your maintenance staff, you likely minimized or eliminated much of your training program or expenses. Now may be the right time to reinvest in training your current staff to ensure they can effectively handle issues that will arise as you increase your production throughput and stress the plant’s capacity. Review the controls, programmable logic controller (PLCs) and systems associated with your constraint and critical equipment. Create a skills matrix of your maintenance personnel. This matrix can be developed in a highly scientific method utilizing tests and proof-of-performance demonstrations or you can simply develop this matrix utilizing input from maintenance peers, maintenance leadership and internal operational customers of prior maintenance support. Develop specific training plans for each of the technicians that target the skills and abilities required to support the specific controls, PLC and systems that make up the constraint and critical equipment. You should also ensure that each is properly trained and capable to perform problem-solving and root cause analysis. Proper utilization of these tools will help transform the maintenance effort from constant firefighting to one where the root cause is determined and mitigated or eliminated from reoccurring in the future.    
  9. Review, establish and align metrics to monitor progress for constraint and critical equipment: It is not uncommon for maintenance personnel to use broad, general, high-level information or data to assess their overall effectiveness or performance. Wherever possible, get the maintenance data to a level of granularity that it can be aligned with operational performance data and reconcile the maintenance data or metrics against the operation performance metrics on a frequent basis. Remember, maintenance is a support service with the goals of maximizing operational performance, equipment availability, equipment performance and equipment longevity in a cost-effective manner. Routinely reviewing specific operational performance in conjunction with the maintenance metrics for specific operational areas creates an effective partnership between your maintenance and operational personnel. 
  10. Expand the approach to encompass the appropriate non-constraint and non-critical equipment: Once you have completed the nine steps above with a focus on the constraint and critical equipment, review the list of remaining assets or equipment, prioritize them into groups or subsequent phases and systematically implement the process on each group. You will need to determine whether it merits implementing this approach on every piece of your equipment or just to a certain level. Make sure you look for common groups of the same type of equipment within or between multiple plants. Take advantage of the effort spent on developing the comprehensive maintenance approach on one piece of equipment and implement it on all of them that you have within your enterprise.

Done poorly, maintenance can lead to unreliable assets breaking down at inopportune times. Done well, maintenance can be an enabler of a productive, quality-oriented profitable business. By investing in the people, the process and deploying the appropriate approach now, you can prepare and position your company to take advantage of the opportunities that materialize as the economy rebounds. There are no short cuts; you really do get out of it what you put into it.

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About the Author

Mike Fitzgerald is the director of lean and reliability services at Advanced Technology Services. ATS improves the productivity and profitability for many of the world`s most respected manufactu...