Using information technology to optimize maintenance operations

Many companies are striving to become more competitive by cutting costs and increasing productivity through the improvement of work processes. Many of these improvements are centered on changing the way that people work, how they communicate, how decisions are made, and examining the daily activities of employees.


Many companies are striving to become more competitive by cutting costs and increasing productivity through the improvement of work processes. Many of these improvements are centered on changing the way that people work, how they communicate, how decisions are made, and examining the daily activities of employees. Improved information technology can lead to higher worker productivity, maximum machinery uptime, and, in some cases, improve the working environment through better communications and worker effectiveness.

This article examines how information technology (IT) impacts maintenance decision making and can ultimately be optimized to strike a balance between cost and reliability. A second article, which will appear later this year, will show the keys to understanding where and how a reliability analysis program can be implemented to optimize maintenance operations.

Preparing for improvement

Companies investing in advanced information systems look at existing work practices to help understand how these activities will be impacted by IT utilization. While some changes are obvious, others are subtler.

With additional computer capability and information availability, new, more efficient ways of grouping data for analysis become increasingly important. Examination of all data may not be practical, or even necessary, in every situation.

Data storage and retrieval will become major issues, requiring special resources. It is important to determine how the data will be used, and then establish a hierarchy for the various condition analysis parameters. Advanced data warehousing techniques and integration systems need to be developed based on how the information is used.

Emphasis needs to be put on results, not activities. To truly leverage the investment in IT requires the automation of analysis with expert rule-based systems. Neural networks must be developed to do much of the prescreening necessary for decision making. Software programs, called "intelligent agents," sort through the huge volume of data so workers do not get bogged down by all the information.

Reliability programs examine maintenance functions, tasks, and activities to achieve maximum plant availability and capacity at minimum cost. Reliability examines equipment failure data, preventive tasks, predictive technologies, and proactive techniques for maintenance; and integrates all technical, financial, and process data into the decision-making processes. Reliability improves the work environment through enhanced operation, safety, environmental performance, and automation of information systems.

Information technologies, in the context of this article, include all computer systems and networks, plant automation systems such as distributed control systems and programmable logic controllers, design drawing databases, procedure databases, and all diagnostic and monitoring systems. Advanced information technology is critical for maintenance optimization because it relies on the ability of the plant personnel to bring all data together in a coherent fashion for analysis and decision making.

Another key aspect of maintenance optimization is uniformity in the content and methodology of decision making. Uniformity is necessary so that a single, optimum response is triggered for a particular system or set of symptoms. This uniformity can only occur when information technologies are used efficiently and effectively for condition monitoring, reliability analysis, and prognostic evaluation of data for advanced decision making.

Advanced IT sets the stage for improved communication among plant workers and outside experts, and provides the vehicle for sharing information, knowledge, experience, and wisdom. Advanced communication supports the team approach to problem solving, even though vast distances often separate members. Teams often make the best decisions when compared with the same people working independently.

Industrial plants around the world are under more pressure than ever to produce predictably and reliably. Predictability has become the newest virtue, and is a clear indicator of management's ability to control plant production. This factor is the reason why many companies have concerned themselves with improving the reliability of production equipment, and why the latest technologies have focused on early prediction of equipment failure.

Unpredictability affects company performance because equipment failures directly affect production costs. In many industries, these expenses are the dominant cost category that controls a company's competitive position in the marketplace. Management's ability to control these costs relies upon accurate data properly interpreted and acted upon.

Linking business objectives to information systems helps plants understand and improve equipment reliability. The link is not defined by how much data are collected and stored, but in how efficient and effective employees are at using the information to make decisions that affect reliability. Many companies have found that the barrier is in accessing the data that has been collected, and combining it with information gathered from other parts of the organization. Companies that have made significant investments in new information technologies need to emphasize the use of the data in order to realize the benefits.

Improvements in worker productivity by better information technology are centered on change. If workers continue to conduct "business as usual" without any concern for, or commitment to, using the information to modify practices, the investment in the new technology is wasted.

In an industrial plant environment, new information technologies not only change the way people work (activities), but how they interact (communicate) and make decisions. Unfortunately, change does not come easily. New technology systems need to enable workers to become more efficient by streamlining current business practices. If the new technology system does not accomplish this goal, then it does not lead to an improvement and ultimately goes unused.

Improved information technology systems lead the way to maximum productivity and equipment uptime. Productivity improvements come from making tasks simpler, with a higher level of automation. Uptime improvements come from a deeper understanding of the causes and impacts of unreliability. Secondary benefits include an improved working environment, better communication, and higher worker effectiveness.

Many companies today are trying to establish a team environment for more effective information sharing and problem solving. This "team" approach enhances personnel skills through increased technology usage. Individuals often tend to shy away from advanced technologies and automation because of either a lack of training or lack of understanding of results. Team members are often separated by distance or time, frequently working in scattered locations or on different shifts. The team approach requires the use of advanced communication technologies integrated with information systems for remote problem solving.

The application of advanced communication methods and systems causes changes in the way workers solve problems and conduct business. Experts no longer need to be on the site to add valuable input to the resolution of problems, which allows teams of experts to work together on problems to find the best solutions. Studies have shown repeatedly that teams make the best decisions.

Existing operational and maintenance practices

Existing practices are often ineffective at identifying and correcting equipment problems that result in unreliability. The reason for this fact goes back to the lack of emphasis on data collection. Existing information systems do not provide sufficient analysis capability, or even provide adequate access to data necessary to understand equipment reliability.

In order to begin to take reliability issues into account when making maintenance decisions, the daily workflow needs to be redesigned. Operators, maintenance supervisors, or engineers should consult reliability information before and after repairs are conducted.

An optimized approach for maintenance includes a review of diagnostic information once repairs are complete. In most cases, this analysis is not done because of a lack of emphasis on maintenance issues.

There are several reasons for not performing this review.

  • Lack of tools. Equipment that does not have permanently installed instrumentation needs manual data collection. This action presents a barrier to regular data collection because dedicated workers are often needed to install temporary instrumentation to gather the information. Operators are reluctant to call upon these resources unless conditions are extreme.

  • Lack of procedures. Adherence to standard data collection procedures ensures that post-overhaul tests are conducted. Standard procedures also give rise to a higher degree of belief in the results.

  • Lack of communication. Critical communication between workers is the key to understanding reliability problems. Barriers to effective communication are as simple as time or distance, or as complex as differences in understanding or belief systems.

    • Understanding the link between maintenance activities, costs, and reliability is critical for reaching the goal of optimized maintenance.

      The author continues this discussion next month when he looks at maintenance optimization, the role of information technology, and value-based asset management. Robert L. Matusheski works as a senior consultant helping clients in the petrochemical and chemical process industries conduct equipment reliability analysis and statistical process control. Mr. Matusheski has developed a process of maintenance program assessment and improvement that has helped over 50 companies reduce costs, and improve component and overall plant reliability. He has authored numerous papers and articles in these areas.Mr. Matusheski is willing to answer technical questions concerning this presentation. He can be reached by telephone at 540-344-9205, or by e-mail at bmatusheski@meridium. com .

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