Age concern23 October 2014

A sharp focus on maintenance can result in significant improvements in factory operations, but too many managers struggle to take seriously the upkeep of their plant and equipment, says Ian Vallely

The word 'maintenance' implies keeping things as they are, retaining the status quo, preserving the current state of affairs, continuing along similar lines, more of the same.

The inference is that maintenance is a fixed pursuit that offers no room for improvement. This is wrong on two levels. First, it's always possible to boost the performance of a maintenance regime. Indeed, it should be seen as a crucial element in every factory's continuous improvement cycle. Secondly, rationalising the maintenance operation can lead to big improvements in the production process.

Which is why it's disappointing to discover that three fifths (60%) of respondents to the latest Works Management Maintenance Survey anticipate no change in their maintenance team over the coming year and almost a quarter (24%) have no formal maintenance strategy in place.

The main reason (or should that be excuse?) for failing to adopt a prescribed maintenance strategy is lack of time – two-fifths (39.3%) offered this as an explanation. A further fifth (21.4%) cited a lack of expertise. But, most depressingly, 14% said they didn't see the benefits of a formal strategy.

This lack of urgency points to the indifference – or even outright hostility – of many factory managers to the upkeep of their plant and equipment. It suggests they are failing to recognise just how critical maintenance is to the smooth running of a factory.

Although excuses for failing to adopt a formal strategy abound – "the equipment is only used periodically… previous management didn't consider it important… absence of senior management support… a lack of resources", and so on – the case for an effective strategy for equipment maintenance is overwhelming.

The cost of a sound maintenance programme is absurdly low compared with the cost of dealing with, say, a catastrophic CNC machine failure or conveyor line breakdown. As well as preventing line-side production disasters, effective maintenance can also make a significant contribution to the bottom line by ensuring that plant is energy-efficient and therefore produces lower power bills and higher environmental performance.

But the most compelling argument in favour of a properly implemented maintenance strategy is that it guarantees reliability. And, as Andrew Fraser, managing director of Reliable Manufacturing, pointed out at Works Management's recent Factory Health and Maintenance Conference: "Reliability is magic. Just about every indicator I can think about – safety, environmental performance, morale, retention, customer service – gets better if we establish reliability as a core value of our organisation."

The trouble is, the older the machinery, the less reliable it becomes. And there is plenty of plant and equipment that should be drawing a pension on the UK's factory floors. Indeed, sustaining ageing plant is by far the most serious issue facing the maintenance operation; more than half (53%) of the respondents to our survey identify it as their biggest challenge.

But it's not just the machinery that's getting old – 10% of those polled in our survey said an ageing workforce was their biggest maintenance problem. The clear implication is that there is a pressing need for succession planning in the maintenance department which, in turn, suggests a requirement for plenty of well-focused training. Sadly, more than half of our respondents (55%) operate no formal maintenance training programme for their workforce and significantly fewer than half (43%) have increased their training investment in the last year.

Formal training is the only way to address the maintenance skills shortage. The problem is serious – skills are highlighted as the biggest maintenance challenge by 13% of our survey respondents and a further 12% admit that they find it difficult to find suitable maintenance engineers.

More encouragingly, a large proportion of maintenance is being devolved to the shopfloor. Almost three quarters (73%) of our respondents confirm that people outside the maintenance team carry out basic daily maintenance tasks.

Operator involvement in simple maintenance such as oiling, clean-downs and health checks on bearings etc clearly makes sense because it means that potential problems get picked up before they get too serious and waiting times for straightforward repairs are reduced or even eliminated.

However, the manner in which many shopfloor employees are prepared for performing maintenance tasks is more questionable. An overwhelming four-fifths (82%) get ad hoc/on the job training with just a quarter (24%) of factories offering a formal NVQ-linked qualification and a paltry 23% associating it with an apprenticeship.

On top of this, just under a third (29%) of the sites we polled call in third party training providers to run maintenance courses. The figure surely needs to be far higher if we are to ensure effective factory-wide maintenance practices.

There is a fairly even split between those managers who link maintenance activities to employees' personal objectives (48%) and those that don't (52%). The former convey the implicit message that they take maintenance seriously, but the latter give the impression (however mistaken they might argue it is) that they consider maintenance a secondary activity.

Just under half of our survey respondents (48%) perform maintenance activity as part of the shopfloor's daily regime and 22% do it during a weekly, monthly or annual shutdown. Of more concern, however, is the fact that around a fifth of respondents (22%) conduct their maintenance on an informal basis. Given that the primary objective of plant maintenance is to minimise breakdowns and keep the plant in good working condition at the lowest possible cost, this half-baked approach is self-evidently inadequate.

It is especially alarming in light of the fact that over two-fifths (43%) of those we polled report that more than 40% of their facilities are mission critical. In other words, their failure would result, at best, in the failure of business operations and, at worst, closure of the entire plant.

Despite some surprisingly unsatisfactory results in this year's survey, there are also rays of light. For example, the cost of unplanned downtime has fallen in the past five years for 39% of those polled. This suggests that some, at least, are getting their maintenance right. However, downtime has grown for just over a third (34%) of those polled and they clearly need to address the problem urgently.

Another bright spot is the accident rate related to maintenance. Just two of the 119 respondents to our survey report that an employee had been involved in an accident because of plant maintenance failures in the last year. Even these were minor – one involved an operator slipping on liquid that leaked from a poorly sealed tank. In the other, an employee twisted his ankle on studs in the floor that should have been behind a safety barrier that went missing.

The low accident rate is particularly encouraging given that, according to HSE statistics, almost a third of manufacturing fatalities occur during maintenance activities. Judith Hackitt, chair of the Health and Safety Executive, told our Factory Health and Maintenance Conference that a 'production at all costs' attitude was to blame for many casualties. "Maintenance operations are not seen as part of the routine or part of the business," she said, adding: "Maintenance doesn't stop production – it's an integral part of building and retaining production integrity."

A wide range of maintenance techniques are adopted in the UK's factories. The most popular among respondents to our survey was total productive maintenance, or TPM (a preventive maintenance technique designed to engender a sense of joint responsibility between supervisors, operators and maintenance workers); two thirds (64%) use TPM. This is hardly surprising given the success of TPM over the years and the advantages it offers in terms of a blurring of the lines between maintenance and production.

TPM was followed in the maintenance technique popularity stakes by root cause analysis (a problem solving method that tries to identify the root causes of faults or problems) at 54%.

Other techniques such as reliability centred maintenance, total quality management, hoshin planning and Kepner Trego where less popular, ranging between 15 and 3%.

A central characteristic of all these maintenance techniques is that they measure outcomes. It is a truism that what you don't measure you can't manage so it is disturbing that almost a third of respondents to our poll (30.3%) don't know how much downtime costs their businesses in terms of lost sales, productivity or overheads. And, ominously, just over a third (33.9%) report that the cost of unplanned downtime has grown over the last five years. Some of this could be down to a lack of maintenance resources.

To plug that gap, the vast majority of those polled in our survey have turned to outsourcing; an overwhelming 94% of them preferring to do this to a greater or lesser extent (although none outsource it all). Most – 69.8% – outsource between 1 and 25% of their maintenance needs. A further 19.4% use a third party for 26 to 75% of their maintenance, and 5% subcontract between 76 and 99%.

The main constraint to further outsourcing is, unsurprisingly, a belief within the company that it can do a better job itself. Around a third of respondents (34.9%) are put off by the cost. However, the surprise result is that 4.8% cite a lack of understanding as the reason. Surely, the natural response to not knowing is to find out?

So, overall, our survey reveals a mixed picture of UK factory managers' maintenance management. On the one hand, a lack of safety doesn't appear to be a big problem, but, on the other, there is a crushing sense of complacency over the way maintenance is perceived, planned and organised.

Who joined in?
Of 119 respondents, 35% have direct involvement in maintenance, 29.4% in production operations and 5% are MDs or CEOs. Interestingly, 8% are involved in health & safety and environmental functions, perhaps reflecting an increasing focus in the UK's factories on preventing accidents during maintenance operations.

Fewer than 9% work in small plants (employing 1 to 49 people); the majority (just over 75%) work in sites of 50-500 people, although around 16% are from plants employing more than 500.

Industries represented include general mechanical engineering, chemicals/pharmaceutical, food/drink/tobacco, electrical/electronic, plastics and rubber, paper and board, medical, automotive, aerospace and defence, energy, textiles, and bricks, glass and cement.

Maintenance by numbers
24% of respondents have no formal maintenance strategy
55% have no recognised maintenance training
53% say that sustaining ageing plant is their biggest maintenance challenge
61% assess maintenance effectiveness by measuring downtime or OEE
30% don't know how much downtime costs their business

How would you describe the maintenance activity on your site?
Day-to-day maintenance is operator/section-led. There is no formal strategy, but services and inspections by ball bar etc are carried out regularly.
Martin Beer, technical manager, PTG Precision Engineers

What are the biggest maintenance challenges you face and how are you tackling them?
Maintaining an ever ageing set of complicated machinery, the introduction of maintenance software and a planned preventative maintenance programme, plus we are seriously considering replacing machines to introduce latest technology to further enhance our product offering.
Martin Hatcher, operations manager, Sigma 3 Kitchens

How do you measure the effectiveness of your maintenance and how is it going?
Safety is the primary measure, in terms of the number of incidents each month. However, we also measure uptime availability of the plant against the target... We measure planned preventative maintenance completed and backlog. We measure cost at an individual business level, minor and major revenue against budgets. Also, we have a service-level agreement in place with our customers to measure when they release assets, how long it takes our team to complete the work and hand it back, and how good the experience was. We measure calibration of items. We measure our performance in support of new investments, inputs and support.
Jon Waburton, head of maintenance strategy & transformation, BAE Systems

How important is maintenance training on your site and why?
Maintenance training is of vital importance, mainly for apprentices, using the buddy system principle with hands-on practical involvement with a skilled maintenance mentor. Full training and familiarity with equipment ensures quality of work and reduces response times (not having to wait for a service engineer) which, in turn, reduces downtime.
Pete Cross, continuous improvement/process manager, DavyMarkham

Ian Vallely

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