Author: John Coleman BSc (Hons), MEng, MIEI, MIAM, MI Ref Eng, maintenance facilitator, Aughinish Alumina
The upcoming Meeta National Maintenance Conference on ‘Risk and confidence in asset management’ will take place in Engineers Ireland, 22 Clyde Road, Dublin 4 on 21 and 22 November 2013. Click here for more details.
Reliability is the probability that a component or system will perform a required function for a given time when used under stated operating conditions. Reliability is very important not only because it is related to safety, but also because it has significant financial impacts. For many applications, reliability problems will not usually lead to catastrophic failures. So it may not seem crucial and may be ignored by some asset managers.
To many, the subjects of reliability and maintainability are vague terms that relate to equipment functionality. In particular, many managers either do not understand the two requirements, or consider them to be nitty-gritty details of design to which they need not give much attention.
Often, they willingly sacrifice reliability and maintainability for the sake of cost or schedule. Although such trade-offs may be necessary, they should be made only after fully understanding the effect on safety, production success, availability and operating costs. Unfortunately, they are often made without a full understanding and appreciation of the consequences.
Maintenance people no longer maintain the status quo. To ensure the business survives, they must strive to ensure the assets' capacity by constantly optimising equipment availability and reliability. People work hard to make sure that machines produce quality product to a defined schedule. To ensure this is done at optimal cost while complying with all statutory, safety and environmental requirements, it is necessary to challenge long-established limits within the business environment.
Improving the reliability and availability of equipment is increasingly more important. For businesses to remain competitive, it is becoming more necessary to increase uptime while simultaneously reducing downtime. To achieve this step change, considerable importance must be placed on the quality of maintenance that, for the growing complexity of devices, requires very specific skills, which are frequently multidisciplinary.
To cope with all these issues requires a management-led strategy that is applicable to the business needs, well communicated, efficient and effective. Reliability can impact on several aspects of any business, such as safety, cost, profitability and customer satisfaction, to mention but a few.
Customers are a big factor for most companies and dissatisfied customers can have a far-reaching, negative effect on business. A low customer rating could affect sales which, in turn, could result in a long-term financial loss. Customer satisfaction is important and this is evident in many industries. While cheap products can win the market share temporarily, if the quality and reliability do not meet expectations, customers will quickly change to another supplier.
Reliability programmes are standard business practice in most companies that rely on their equipment to deliver a high quality product on time and at economic cost. However, in the lean economy of today, companies have fewer resources than ever to manage and maintain these assets. Management must face the challenge of identifying new and cost-effective ways to ensure the assets are performing reliably with minimal risk.
Production equipment reliability and uptime is directly linked to the risks taken. This, in turn, must be linked to the economic cost of eliminating the risk – and, more importantly, the cost consequence of poor reliability. If we take, for instance, automatic teller machines, the financial consequence of a machines such as these being unreliable would be very significant, not to mention the reputational cost to the bank involved. Hence, the cost of reliability is worth it. However, it would be uneconomical to put the same resources into maintaining, say, a water pump on a non-critical service.
There are great benefits available to businesses that reduce their risk of equipment failure. If the chance of a failure is reduced so that it happens less often, it saves a significant amount of expenditure over time because there are fewer events on which to spend. The maintenance activities that pay off the most are those that reduce frequency of a failure event. A reduction failure frequency gives a direct improvement in equipment reliability.
Industries using machines require them to run reliably, with high availability and high utilisation all of their working life. All these requirements must be considered when the machines are being purchased. As mentioned previously, reliability has a cost – and none more so than if a poor decision is made at this point because of the capital cost. No amount of maintenance or re-engineering will make a machine that is inherently unreliable into a reliable production unit.
The key is to purchase quality equipment when coupled with correct operating practices, and a well-defined maintenance programme together deliver the necessary controlled conditions that produce high reliability. Downtime is greatly reduced if the equipment design is suitable for the service and it is operated accurately.
Highly reliable production should be normal and natural, with plant and equipment working at a sustainable capacity. If equipment is being operated within its design parameters and is not delivering on performance, then something is amiss. If the machine design is considered adequate, the problem most often is with the business processes. The business process can be a whole range of issues, from operational practices or quality of training to cost cutting or even the sales strategy being employed by the business. The challenge is to identify the management failures that impact on the reliability and prevent equipment from delivering design performance, and then to act firmly to rectify the situation.
Man-made equipment and machinery will only perform well for a long time when they are maintained at the correct level of precision. Precision requires that the specific standards needed for high reliability are set and continually achieved during design, manufacture, assembly, operation and maintenance.
By engaging the entire production organisation in improving reliability, it is possible to achieve substantial results with less inherent risk and in a shorter time frame than the traditional approaches to reliability improvement. A traditional approach to reliability improvement can require large investments in information systems, data gathering, planning systems, mechanic skills, scheduling systems and reorganisations. While this approach has produced substantial results at some companies, it takes a sustained effort to deliver on an ongoing basis.
Many industrial companies have begun traditional efforts at improving reliability, only to see them fade out over time. Reliability is not something that can be improved today and it will remain for ever. It requires a sustained effort and ‘culture’ within the whole organisation to constantly deliver.
Keeping the momentum going takes hard work and a clear management vision. Keep pushing out the boundary and never be satisfied with the status-quo. Yesterday’s performance is not good enough today, and today’s performance will not be good enough tomorrow.
Unfortunately, many companies invest in maintenance and reliability improvement initiatives without putting in place the programme to sustain the reliability drive. This usually indicates a lack of true understanding of what is required and very quickly the plant will return to the same conditions which originally motivated the improvement initiative. To maintain the initiative, it is imperative to deploy the necessary key performance indicators that measure compliance with the new business practices.
The old adage ‘what gets measured gets done’ is never more relevant than in the area of changing practices. This is particularly relevant in an organisation responsible for operating and maintaining assets required to profitably produce a company’s product.
History tells us that if we do not have a complete measurement system in place, performance will quickly degrade to previous levels. The key to achieving this world-class performance is engaging the entire organisation in eliminating the defects in the system. This takes sustained effort, when one considers that it is just as important for the finance manager to understand the importance of reliability as it is for the maintenance manager.
Once the programme has begun it is essential to publicise anything that helps demonstrate the potential value of improved reliability. Promote reliability at every opportunity. Encourage the organisation to make the necessary changes, creates a common vision of the ‘right ideas’. Reliability is the route to a safe job – something that is desired by all.
John Coleman BSc (Hons), MEng, MIEI, MIAM, MI Ref Eng is maintenance facilitator in the Rusal’s Aughinish Alumina Central Workshop. He is chair of Engineers Ireland Thomond and of MEETA, the Irish Maintenance Society, from 2008-2011. He is a member of the Institute of Refractories Engineers and of the Institute of Asset Managers.
Coleman worked for several years in the construction contract sector as a fitter and supervisor installing and maintaining mechanical equipment. He worked on the construction of Aughinish Alumina Ltd, the largest construction site in Europe at the time (1978-1983). He was subsequently employed by Aughinish Alumina Ltd on completion of construction as a fitter in the maintenance workshop prior to being promoted to a staff engineering role. Coleman regularly speaks on maintenance at conferences in Ireland and abroad.