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    Sustainability and Equipment Maintenance

    A (Boring) Money Making Secret in the Food Business: Problems Avoided are a lot more profitable than Problems Solved.


    It’s exciting to ride in to town as the Lone Ranger to remedy the most recent crisis. Unfortunately, it’s not very profitable – especially over time. Sustainability has come to mean many things in the various functions involved in the food manufacturing business. In the arena of equipment maintenance I view sustainability to mean having processes and procedures established that provide the targeted equipment uptime and capability. This definition means that the plant equipment is ready when needed to produce the expected quality and quantity of product on an ongoing basis. The Maintenance function is generally charged with this responsibility. Some organizations are meeting this standard, but many are plagued with unexpected equipment downtime, high costs, and equipment driven waste and quality issues. This article offers the later plants a path forward to correct these issues.


    Maintenance As A Cost Center

    The traditional top management view of the maintenance function is as a cost to the operation. Another way of stating this is as a “necessary evil”. This viewpoint comes from a lack of understanding of the contribution to the operation, and from managers’ lack of “selling” the contribution to top management.

    The effects of being viewed as a cost center have been demonstrated repeatedly in many organizations over the last twenty years;

    • Mandated cost control- given the cost constraints and pricing squeeze during the last two decades, any department or function that is viewed as only a cost to the operation has been downsized and had its’ budget slashed. The effect of these cost control measures has been to cripple the ability of the maintenance function to maintain the equipment in any mode other than a reactive one, and to delay needed repairs. This puts the maintenance function in a classic “downward spiral” that results in the condition of the equipment deteriorating over time, and having reduced resources to deal with the ever increasing problems.


    • Lack of commitment to Preventive and Predictive strategies- the heart of proactive maintenance strategies are preventive and predictive routines. These activities are the set of tasks, with a defined frequency of performance, which detail the care necessary to keep an asset functioning at the expected level. It is of paramount performance that once these tasks are defined that they be executed when planned. This may mean that equipment will need to be shut down routinely at some frequency. It is somewhat counter-intuitive that shutting equipment down can lead to improved equipment uptime and performance. The result of this lack of understanding is that “run to failure” is the most common strategy that is actually executed in many plants.


    • Training budget reduction- one of the first budget cuts to occur is often the training budget. In a modern food manufacturing plant, the level of sophistication of much of the equipment is much higher than it was even just a few years ago. The technical skills required to maintain this modern equipment is far higher than in the past. The lack of the skills needed to keep the equipment operating at capacity is demonstrated by high downtime, high costs, and the increased use of outside resources in the plant.


    Moving to a Proactive Maintenance Environment

    The path forward fairly easy to describe, but can be difficult to achieve. The primary issue is that the maintenance group that is in a reactive mode is fully occupied in trying to keep the facility in operation because of the continuous flood of repair work required to keep a plant operating in the “run to failure” mode. Moving to a proactive state requires that the repair work continue, and that additional development and planning work be accomplished at the same time. This stress on resources is the reason that having the desire to become more proactive is usually not sufficient to accomplish the change. It is normal that additional technical resources have to be brought in on a temporary basis to get the change process started.

    The steps in creating this new mode of operation are:

    1. Identify and catalog the plant equipment and understand what the most critical assets are.

    2. Establish predictive and preventive equipment care strategies that address the needs of the equipment based upon its’ criticality.

    3. Establish the tasks and frequencies to accomplish the proper level of equipment care.

    4. Identify and accomplish the remediation needs of the equipment to return it to its’ desired state of repair.

    5. Establish maintenance planning and scheduling processes that address the need to plan asset care work several weeks into the future.

    6. Integrate the maintenance, sanitation, and production needs of the plant to produce a long-range plant-wide plan.

    7. Organize to accomplish the planned work.

    8. Accumulate equipment history as the work is accomplished.

    9. Measure the performance of the asset care function to demonstrate improvement.

    10. Establish continuous improvement processes that utilize performance and history data to improve the function.


    Contributions of Sustainable Maintenance

    When the maintenance function is viewed as contributing to the production process, a whole different set of expectations can be established. The most visible of these is a stable operating environment where equipment failures are the exception rather than the norm. In this environment, plant output is more predictable and established order schedules are routinely met.

    Another benefit is the creation of a partnership between the maintenance and production functions. When this is established, goals are shared, and the success of each group is based upon the success of the other. Learning about equipment set-ups, operation, and preventive care are shared and re-enforced.

     The results of a proactive maintenance function in an organization are well documented. They include:

    • Improved equipment uptime- as a result of identifying and performing the asset care needs, the total equipment downtime from planned and unplanned causes is reduced. This improvement in uptime is often in excess of 15%. This means the capacity of the plant is increased without capital funding.

    • Lower maintenance costs- because equipment failures are reduced, maintenance spending is more predictable and less subject to high repair costs resulting from equipment failures. Very often, the reduction occurs first in reduced spending on repair costs, followed by a reduction in overtime costs. This reduction generally exceeds 20%.

    • Lower unit production costs- as a result of better uptime, the production group uses less labor per unit manufactured. This coupled with the reduced maintenance costs yields a lower unit volume cost.

    • Higher order fulfillment- when the equipment is more reliable, the rate of production is less variable. This reduction in variability translates into a more predictable production rate and allows production planners to better estimate the operating time required for order manufacture. This contributes to meeting the needs of the customer on a routine basis.

    • Reduced waste and product quality issues- when the equipment is more reliable and predictable, waste and quality defects caused by equipment malfunction are reduced.


    Establishing a sustainable asset care process yields benefits across the organization. Reduced costs and satisfied customers provide the foundation for a successful and growing business. Once the link is made between proactive asset care and these results, the forward looking food manufacturer can create a vision for the successful manufacturing plant well into the future.

    Dave Liddle  is a partner with 3sixty solution - an engineering company that helps the North American food industry improve overall profitability and sustain growth by providing the capabilities for development of new products and by improved productivity of existing capacity.

    Dave can be reached by email dliddle@3sixty or phone at 612-216-1629