Research & Best Practices

Q&A: Maintenance IIoT Technology and the Industrial Skills Gap


On April 2nd, Plant Engineering hosted a webinar, sponsored by Advanced Technology Services (ATS), that focused on the results of a recent survey of manufacturing executives and operations personnel regarding issues and challenges, trends and likely future developments for the manufacturing maintenance function.

To view the results of the recent manufacturing maintenance survey, download the full report here. The survey results represent a snapshot of efforts devoted to achieving best practices in maintenance operations. Key survey findings included the following:

  • Seventy-six percent of manufacturing facilities follow a preventive maintenance strategy; 60% use a run-to-failure method and 52% have a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS).
  • The leading cause of unscheduled downtime within respondents’ facilities remains aging equipment (34%), followed by mechanical failure (20%) and operator error (11%).

The prospect of increased reliability and productivity — and therefore profitability — remains an incentive to optimize maintenance operations. Adoption and implementation of new and emerging strategies, including digital technology tools, while challenging, continues to move forward. The webinar presenters, Senior Director, and Vice President from Advanced Technology Services, answered a series of questions related to technology, the skills gap evident in today’s industrial marketplace and the importance of training. A healthy selection of those questions and the presenter’s answers follow.

How can manufacturers compensate for an aging workforce and what are some ways to transfer knowledge from an older generation to the younger generation?

Presenters: There are several things we are doing and have seen other manufacturing organizations do in this regard:

  1. Start hiring inexperienced people with good aptitude who are willing to learn. Many companies still use tests as part of their hiring criteria, which is fine if you only want experienced people who don’t need training. Organizations need to get comfortable hiring people who need some development.
  2. We find that a mentorship program can work very well. Senior technicians who are either close to retirement or have retired can be great mentors for new employees. You need to spend some time putting the program together and be selective about choosing mentors, but this can be a good way to transfer knowledge, reinforce good work habits and impart sound organizational values.
  3. Use technology to leverage the experience and skills resident across your entire organization. We, and maintenance and repair leaders need to be creative in addressing these problems. Enlist support from human resources and information technology folks or anybody willing to help.
  4. In addition, we transition some of our most experienced, veteran technicians into instructor roles, which greatly extends their working career, as it is less demanding physically, has a more appealing schedule and pace and makes them proud to be mentoring and coaching younger and less experienced technicians. Now, 90% of our instructors are former ATS technicians and 100% are former skilled tradesmen.

My plant seems to have a reactive approach to training. We cover topics with the technicians only after some gap in our readiness has been exposed. How can we make training more predictive?

Presenters: Technical training is essential to a skilled, efficient workforce. An investment in maintenance training is an investment that pays valuable returns in higher output. The consequences of inadequate training can have a material effect on a plant’s bottom line, with 70% — 80% of equipment shutdowns across industries caused by human error as a direct result of rushed, incomplete or nonexistent training. The training gap is real, with 60% of manufacturing facilities recognizing that their companies do not make an adequate investment in employee training, mainly due to cost pressures and turnover rates among employees. At ATS we proactively assess our technicians within 90 days of hire with a statistically validated and EEO compliant technical assessment. This assessment rates our technicians in 57 different technical subjects. The techs are then rated based on five technician levels. From that a career path is created for each technician based on their current role as well as their desired career destination. From a safety training perspective, we are committed to an injury-free workplace through our “Live Safety 24/7” culture — mitigating maintenance and production risks.

How do you feel industry and more specifically the maintenance function will be influenced by the introduction of machine learning technology into software applications? (Note: machine learning allows computer programs to adapt to new data based on pattern recognition and advanced statistical methods.)

Presenters: Technology advocates are saying that machine learning and other forms of artificial intelligence will create the next industrial revolution. Other, more pragmatic folks believe the adoption of technology is going to be a long, protracted evolution due to challenges related to IT security and people in the workplace being resistant to adoption. I believe the advent of AI and machine learning will be good for manufacturing and the economy in general. AI and machine learning will, like other technologies, have applications that grow significantly and help the industry become more flexible and nimbler. But, much like when the first industrial robots came onto the scene, I don’t see this rapidly transforming all our factories and having them run “lights out” in the very near future. AI for maintenance applications has a way to go yet.  First, if you have a robust CMMS with good data there are some really great software analytics packages that can help identify trends.  If you have the budget (and good data) I would consider one of these packages while you wait for the AI solutions available in the market to mature a bit. Technology has created a lot of jobs in our economy in the last 20 years and I believe this will continue. It’s something we need to stay current with because, as for other technologies, the rate of change is increasing, and we will see more advances in the next five years than we have seen in the previous five years. Traditional roles seen in manufacturing today will change and some functions may be combined as technology simplifies work and helps to reduce redundant/low-value tasks.

You discussed employee training to improve retention. What other recommendations do you have to improve the retention of skilled maintenance personnel?

Presenters: That’s a broad question! Let me start by saying that compensation is important, but I don’t believe simply increasing wages will solve this problem entirely. Sure, wages and benefits need to be competitive, but simply paying more than the company across the street does won’t “fix” retention. In my experience people generally don’t leave companies, they leave poor leaders and organizations with poor cultures. People want to be respected and they want a work environment where they are valued and where they see value in their work. Skilled technicians are no different. Our leadership team has spent time working to improve emotional intelligence among our business and site leaders. We have also spent time reinforcing our organization’s culture. I spoke during the webinar that the ATS culture is built on four foundational pillars – Live Safety, Value Employees, Engage Customers, and Drive Results – on which every employee works to build upon through ownership of their personal well-being and professional development. I believe company culture directly impacts retention more than most other things you can do. Work to build a culture of transparency, mutual respect and trust and you will go a long way toward retaining your top talent. In summary, 1) treat people with trust and respect 2) engage people in developing solutions 3) communicate, communicate, communicate. I believe the Covid-19 crisis will bring good leaders to the top. Leadership is key in managing a crisis. Good leaders will rise to the challenge. Given the magnitude of the impact of COVID-19 I don’t believe any organization’s leadership or culture will remain unchanged.

We have a very well-known CMMS in our facility that has been in place for some time. We struggle every year to get funding to approved to make improvements/upgrades. Do you have any suggestions for other things we can do to improve with a very limited technology budget?

Presenters: We see this in plants using CMMS packages deployed many years ago. We occasionally see some in use that are no longer supported or updated by the developer. There are also companies who have done a stellar job of developing, launching and fully utilizing their EAM/CMMS systems. However, most systems we see are under-utilized for all kinds of reasons. For example, if spare parts and materials are maintained and managed in a separate system this can limit how effectively teams can use CMMS. Using CMMS data (including bill of materials) and maintenance planning to prepare material kits for jobs can significantly improve performance. Also, having technicians provide input to those kits to add items that may be missing will help improve planning accuracy and technician utilization. Maintenance job plans should not be static. We regularly see big gaps in work execution management. This can create gaps in how maintenance jobs get done and impact the quality of work, especially regarding precision maintenance tasks. Having these job plans detailed and standard work clearly identified (and illustrated if possible) can really help. Most older CMMS systems do have these capabilities. I would evaluate how fully you are using the current system and find ways to take full advantage of the current capabilities. I’d do this while also working to frame a business case that supports an upgrade or replacement.

What is your opinion regarding integrated predictive maintenance?

Presenters: Few breakdowns happen without warning. The challenge is spotting the signs early enough to plan and schedule repairs! Predictive maintenance services (PdM) provide that insight and should be a part of any maintenance strategy.  The technology available today provides ample options to reduce the cost and complexity of implementing a PdM program. Predictive maintenance technologies include thermographic testing, vibration and oil analysis, and ultrasonic leak detection. Before there’s any obvious sign of impending failure, replacement parts can be put on order and the work can be scheduled for a time that minimizes production losses. A predictive maintenance program can supplement a preventive maintenance program. However, industrial machine predictive maintenance represents a more advanced approach with several differences from preventive maintenance. Most importantly, preventive maintenance occurs on a set schedule — whether or not issues with equipment are present. Although there are learning and personnel curves involved in implementing a predictive maintenance plan, the efficiencies of a more targeted, more effective maintenance practice prove themselves worthy of the investment. A predictive maintenance program reduces unplanned production downtime by allowing better maintenance scheduling. It improves equipment safety and product quality through early identification of changes in operating conditions. Capacity increases when less time is spent on reactive maintenance and costs go down because there’s less need for overtime and rush orders. PdM can also help improve safety by reducing the technician’s exposure to hazardous tasks.  Safety can be an easily overlooked application for PdM technology.

What are the most critical types of data looked at for indications of good machinery health and what technologies are you using the acquire it?

Presenters: This is very dependent on the plant or process supported and the physical environment. The first consideration would be the use of remote sensing technology to limit exposure to hazardous areas, whether defined by heat, cold, loud noise, elevated heights or some other parameter. I would then look at critical assets and monitor common or highly critical failure modes based on your specific assets and environment. In some applications, vibration analysis can provide indications of premature wear or alignment issues. There are also options to help measure/monitor current draw on motors that can also be an indicator of problems before a catastrophic failure.  The advancements being made with high-speed image capture can be very revealing in identifying vibration and other dynamic forces applied to equipment during normal operations. Temperature sensors have various applications and varying technologies available. With the variety of options on the market my suggestion would be to implement the simplest, easiest and lowest cost to begin demonstrating the value of the technology. Increase this investment in technology as your team becomes better able to manage the complexities of more advanced systems.

How do you support your customers remotely? What system do you use?

Presenters: During this unpredictable time in our economy, it is important to provide our customers with a rapid response and remote maintenance support. This is powered by three key areas. First is our maintenance forum that allows remote connectivity to a network of ATS Subject Matter Experts. This modern and integrated approach to leveraging talent allows us to rapidly solve problems and deploy repeatable and reliable solutions. Second, our subject matter expert network rapidly connects customers to an expert that has proven competencies to troubleshoot and repair most manufacturing applications. Networked collaboration, coordinated through our Technology Center, provides a platform for effective troubleshooting, decreased downtime, reactive labor and increased productivity. Third, our proprietary technician hub acts as a troubleshooting search engine and is at the fingertips of our remote support technicians. By giving them the ability to search our database of digital equipment prints, OEM manuals and equipment-specific best practices, it provides real-time access to critical asset documentation on the factory floor and remote collaboration. ATS also specializes in industrial parts repair and availability. From electronic and mechanical part repairs to root cause analysis, our industrial services are focused on providing optimal efficiency through best practices in asset productivity and uptime. Through ATS’ strategic channel partners and leveraged supply chain network, we have the breadth and depth to deliver any part needed to get a customer’s equipment up and running fast. This includes expedited electronic and mechanical parts repair for over 1,000 OEM brands at our state-of-the-art, ISO 9001 and ISO 17025 accredited facilities. Our skilled repair technicians have the experience and technical knowledge to perform every repair with the highest quality and turnaround, all at significant cost savings.

Advanced Technology Services (ATS) is a leading global solutions provider with over three decades of proven experience in reliability-centered industrial maintenance and MRO services. Through our technically skilled workforce, standardized processes and smart technologies, ATS delivers reduced downtime, greater productivity and measurable results for many Fortune 500 process and discrete manufacturers across various industries. For more information about our service offerings, contact us today.

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