Plants get help in boosting reliability

More and more companies are placing greater emphasis on maintenance and seeking help from vendors to boost the effectiveness of their efforts, as some recent major investment decisions demonstrate. Many automation companies now are benefiting by building up asset management services alongside process control capabilities.

By Mike Spear, editor at large

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Honeywell’s asset management solutions operate through its Experion PKS process control system via a series of software and monitoring products and a single control and maintenance user interface. Products such as Turbo Suite (for rotating machinery), Loop Scout (for control loops) and Field Device Manager are said to take full advantage of the benefits provided by smart field devices in terms of diagnostics and increased reliability. Through its IntelaTrac PKS mobile handheld devices Honeywell also is taking advantage of wireless technology to deliver field data to its Asset Manager system.

The promise of wireless

Most automation vendors appear convinced that wireless is the way forward for better integration between plant CM and the operations side of the business (see "Where is wireless going?"). “There is a tier of assets that operators would like to have information from more frequently, but to date they haven’t been able to justify an online system. Wireless technology is increasingly of interest for those assets. We feel that wireless will open up the potential for additional diagnostics or condition monitoring,” Emerson’s Harris says.

Similarly, Hesh Kagan, IPS’ director of technology for services applications, believes wireless technology will bring “a whole new world of model-based predictive maintenance based on low-end condition monitoring.” Josef Guth, head of the instrumentation business unit of ABB Management Services, agrees: “Increased use of wireless networks will play a key role in the coming years.”

The quality of asset management clearly depends on the quality of the data delivered to the system from the field. However, the quantity also can be an issue. Indeed, sometimes you can have too much of a good thing, warns Jim Henry, Houston-based specialist with SKF, Kulpsville, Pa. “More than a lack of information, companies these days are dealing with an overload of information. They are looking for someone to turn it into knowledge and action.”

Explaining how SKF is transforming itself “from a bearings commodity company to a solutions, knowledge-based engineering one,” Henry says its knowledge of rotating machinery gives the company “a foundation of expertise” in handling those data (Figure 4).

Figure 3. Worker inputs into handheld device as part of reliability improvement program.

Figure 4. Worker inputs into handheld device as part of reliability improvement program.

“It drives some of the things we’ve built into the [CM] tools we use. We’re focused more on all those assets that aren’t currently covered by a DCS or aren’t online. We help define what is the appropriate level of condition monitoring to be done — from none to something that can be quite extensive — and then help develop the maintenance strategy.”

A limiting factor in extending CM to those assets not equipped with continuous online monitoring is obviously finding, and funding, the staff to collect and analyze performance data. That most assuredly is one area of maintenance that, over the years, has suffered from lack of investment.

Staffing challenges

“It’s a major issue,” says Henry. “Some of the bigger … clients I’ve talked to recently are looking at something like 50%-to-70% staff turnover in the next five years.” Torbjörn Idhammar, partner and vice-president of maintenance management consultant IDCON, Raleigh, N.C., paints a similar picture: “Our surveys show that over three years, the maintenance manager, plant manager and operations manager [of a typical plant] all change — on average, every year one of those three people changes. That’s at the plant level, it’s even more so at the corporate level where there is less understanding of the importance of a maintenance budget.”

The average tenure of a typical plant manager might be only three years but even that short a period can leave a devastating legacy, warns Sue Steele, vice-president of manufacturing and life sciences at contractor CH2M Hill, Spartanburg, S.C. “Someone can run a plant into the ground in that time — squeezing products out by running the plant wide open and ignoring the reliability issue — and still look like a hero, but if they’re not doing any maintenance the new guy has a shambles on his hands and has to spend on equipment improvements.”

Henry acknowledges the pressure on plants to maximize throughput but notes that companies are tackling this by “putting their remaining senior people to work on debottlenecking and throughput improvements — that really require plant-level knowledge and experience — and then backfilling some of the day-to-day asset management work such as CM and vibration analyses — that require more equipment- than plant-specific knowledge — with service contracts from companies like SKF. That’s how some companies are starting to deal with this brain-drain.”

Good vibrations

SKF, in turn, is building its expertise by actively acquiring companies such as Preventive Maintenance Co. Inc. (PMCI), Elk Grove Village, Ill., a firm specializing in vibration data collection and analysis, balancing and alignment, ultrasonics and thermography. “Everybody wants to outsource more and more. A reliability program is huge on the bottom line if done right, but it’s not their core competency,” explains Jim Miller, formerly PMCI president and now SKF’s vice-president of business development, reliability services division. Henry says this was one of the main drivers behind the January acquisition: “What we got was 75 skilled people actively involved in condition monitoring services.”

In a similar move, Emerson recently entered into an alliance with rotating machinery experts RoMaDyn, Minden, Nev., to expand its vibration monitoring service. In addition, the two companies have jointly created a new turbomachinery-diagnostics training course that Emerson is introducing this year.

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