Maintaining industrial productivity can be costly without a good roadmap

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A few years back, I worked for a small automation company as an applications engineer. It was late on a summer Friday afternoon as I headed out to our annual barbeque the phone rang. On the other end was the plant manager of a large factory whose manufacturing line was down.  They needed help and wanted an engineer immediately, and by answering the phone I drew the short straw.

I was in the process of telling the plant manager that I’d be there as soon as possible when he demanded I leave now and get to the closest airport. Upon arrival, two pilots and a business jet were waiting to fly me to a small airport in suburban St. Louis. After we arrived, the pilots stood on each side of me while a helicopter arrived to take me to the plant (silly me, I was thinking of renting a car). As we arrived at the facility, I was met by two electricians in a golf cart who supportively told me (and I paraphrase) that unless I worked a miracle, I’d be walking home. Thankfully, I was able to get their equipment back up and running and was able to fly home, commercially of course.

I recount this story not only because it is pretty hard to forget but because it amazed me that a large manufacturer would go to such incredible lengths to get their line back up and running. My trip across the Mid-west probably cost tens of thousands of dollars; but once everything was fixed, it was clear that the customer felt this was a small price to pay to avoid the cost of lost production.

Some Facts

According to an ARC study, the average cost impact of unplanned downtime in U.S. process industries is $20B or almost 5% of production output. The same study stated that the value of legacy automation systems reaching the end of their useful life is $65B implying there are significant opportunities for capital equipment productivity gains.

 Pro-active versus Reactive Approach

Reacting to downtime or productivity pressures rather than developing a pro-active plan to improve always proves more costly and stressful. Industrial facilities today make extensive use of automation and there are some things companies can do to stay ahead of the competitive curve, for example:

  • Make sure you have the right spare parts on hand
  • Ensure your automation system’s technologies are still readily available
  • Look at the skills of your staff. Can they support and maintain your equipment?
  • Make sure your automation systems are serving your needs in terms of data transparency – remember automation can give you valuable data which can further improve processes if displayed and used correctly
  • Upgrade your systems if needed to provide clear, usable diagnostics to help you fix downtime events
  • Select a reliable repair service capable of fixing all your electronics and helping you to address the root causes of failures

Some of the items above may seem expensive but I know process lines where 30 seconds of downtime can cost as much as $10,000 US in lost profits. Planning ahead and being proactive can pay off very quickly. It is very important that industrial companies understand where their automation system risks are and develop a road map to address them.

What is your proactive plan to ensure minimal downtime and increased productivity?

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  • Rich Weekly

    10 years ago

    Great advice John! I have been in this business over 30 years and been in the same position with several customers. It always amazes me how much is lost by leaving out the proactive planning. I would add to the list make sure your plant line diagrams are up to date, and that your staff knows how to read them and keep them up to date.

    • John Boville

      10 years ago

      Rich, thanks for taking the time to comment. You make a very good point. Always a good idea to make sure the drawings are up to date so when you need them for trouble shooting they point you in the right direction. Do you think proactive planning is tough for companies to do because they are so short staffed these days?

  • That as well Mr. Boville, but having a clear understanding of how to implement such a pro-active planning is often misunderstood or often ignored. Unqualified personnel are often the issue.

    • John Boville

      10 years ago

      Adam, Good points. Addressing the qualifications needed to maintain the plant must be a key part of any plan. Any plant assessment should include a comparison of the equipment installed with the skills of plant staff and the development of a training plan to address any gaps.

  • Hey there, You have performed an incredible job. I’ll definitely digg it and in my view recommend to my friends. I’m sure they will be benefited from this website.

    • John Boville

      10 years ago

      Thank you!
      It would have been much better to make sure that the right automation spare parts were on hand. It takes time to take inventory and make a list of the spares required then money to buy those parts. Usually though these are small expenses compared with an hour of lost production!

  • Nice stuff! Great tips for maintaining Industrail productivity.

    • John Boville

      9 years ago

      Hello David!,
      Thanks for the comment! The old adage about ‘an ounce of prevention’ being ‘worth a pound of cure’ rings very true here.

  • Hmm.. It is better to avoid one of course. But in case as this might probably happened, we need to prepare for worst case scenario right? An anticipation is needed. Ohh and look at those numbers. A 5%? That is huge.

    • John Boville

      9 years ago

      Hello David and many thanks for taking the time to comment! This problem was due to the failure of a simple PLC counter card costing about $900US. There were no spares in the plant. As you say it is important to plan and prepare for the worst. The costs are small compared with cost of downtime (I estimate hundreds of thousands of dollars in this case)!

      It was cool to ride in a biz jet and helicopter though!

  • I like your tip to have a maintenance and repair schedule for you equipment. Heavy construction equipment can start to have safety and efficiency issues if it gets worn down. Performing simple maintenance tasks and making repairs when needed can make your equipment last longer. Thanks for the tips.

    • John Boville

      8 years ago

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I agree with you that regular maintenance is a good investment. It is much easier to plan to avoid safety issues and keep equipment running at peak efficiency than deal with the costly alternatives!

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