PREVENTING THE SKILLS DRAIN FROM UNDERMINING MAINTENANCE
Difficult economic conditions are forcing many industries to cut costs, leading to the loss of valuable maintenance-related skills. But there are still ways to keep maintenance on track, according to Craig Smorenburg, projects and engineering services executive at Marthinusen & Coutts, a division of ACTOM.
“It is true that maintenance is taking a back seat in many sectors, as production is prioritised to meet demanding revenue targets,” says Smorenburg. “If this trend is allowed to continue unchecked, it could result in catastrophic failures at plant level.”
The answer, he says, lies in conducting planned maintenance activities that will save the high cost of unplanned downtime and more serious repairs. Where the in-house skills are lacking, an outside maintenance specialist can be engaged, but the correct approach is key.
“The first step for a maintenance specialist in this process is to secure the necessary buy-in from the customer and the engineering team, as well as partnering with the equipment provider and original equipment manufacturer,” he says. “Everyone needs to understand and support the importance of a structured maintenance programme.”
There needs to be agreement on what comprises the most critical equipment in the customer’s facility. These are the assets that must be closely managed, as these have the most fundamental impact on the running of the operation. Based on which critical items of equipment are identified, a further study is then conducted to ascertain which elements within each item are critical to maintain. This includes alignment with the OEM maintenance guidelines.
To this end, Marthinusen & Coutts has developed a comprehensive level based maintenance programme. This is with the objective of reducing the mean time between failures, improve plant availability, prevent unplanned catastrophic failures and minimise subsequent production losses.
The programme ensures maintenance activities are completed as required by equipment OEMs. A suitable plan, developed in conjunction with the customer, ensures that maintenance activities consider all aspects of machine operation. Monthly, six monthly and annual maintenance interventions are completed by both specialists and plant personnel ensuring that every critical machine and its components’ condition are known.
“In some cases, customers outsource maintenance functions when, in fact, they could perform it themselves,” he says. “With the absence of in-house skills, there is sometimes also a lack of understanding of what is required for regular internal maintenance.”
Indeed, Smorenburg considers it unwise for customers to employ outside specialists to deal with weekly or monthly maintenance.
“This can lead to the customer losing touch with their equipment, and they lose the necessary skill completely,” he says. “Rather, the intervention from a specialist should be at six monthly or annual intervals.”
Smorenburg highlights the value of condition monitoring activities in this maintenance process. Condition monitoring tests provide useful information that can be analysed over a period of time, helping to improve the quality of engineering decisions such as when equipment needs specific maintenance or when it should be removed for repairs.
“The maintenance plan which we help customers develop provides them with detailed information on what needs to be done as a planned intervention to prevent future equipment failure,” he says. “This is really the core purpose of our service.”
To further focus their technical capability, Marthinusen & Coutts has developed its own level based maintenance schedule. This incorporates OEM guidelines, taking the best of each, resulting in a maintenance schedule suitable for all makes of equipment.
“The next important element is ensuring the maintenance programme is correctly implemented following the reporting stage,” he says. “Having conducted our intervention, it is vital that the information reaches the correct people in the customer engineering team, and that the corrective action is taken.”
He says that what often happens in this type of service arrangement is that the technician plan activities, do the work, write a report and send it off, with no further involvement. This often leads to steps being missed in completing the typical Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle.
“We believe there needs to be further engagement and meetings are proposed after each shutdown,” says Smorenburg. “Here, we discuss, in detail, the recommendations that need to be addressed, depending on the severity, by the next intervention, or as soon as possible. It is also necessary to check if those recommendations from the previous intervention have been carried out.”
He emphasises the skills transfer and field training that occurs when Marthinusen & Coutts technicians are on site with a customer’s maintenance staff.
“We strongly suggest that the customer involves their own teams in the maintenance activities that we conduct, so there is a skills transfer and training from the specialist,” he says. “In effect, they are getting hands-on training on how the maintenance should be done without any additional cost.”
The ongoing skills-sharing input pays dividends due to high staff rotation at relatively junior levels of maintenance work, as customer employees develop skills and move on to other roles in the organisation. This makes it necessary to conduct training quite regularly, and the six month inspection becomes an important opportunity at which to do this.
Smorenburg says Marthinusen & Coutts has applied this approach on a number of sites around Africa, and has noticed a significant improvement in machine condition when they go back to conduct the six month inspections.
“While doing these inspections, we can also identify the level of skill on the workshop floor, and include this in the report and follow-up action,” says Smorenburg. “We can then provide input on what we see as the customer’s skill limitations, and suggest the necessary training from suitably qualified engineers, or even develop fit-for-purpose training programmes on their behalf.”