Strengthening Your Maintenance Infrastructure

EP Editorial Staff | October 25, 2012


Technology is making it easier than ever for operations to document and organize critical technical information.

When a major facility operator closed a deal to operate utility plants for several years at multiple locations, the deal called for it to turn the plants over to a local authority when the initial service period ended. Near the end of that period, all maintenance plans and procedures were to be conveyed to the local management. But as this time approached, a problem became evident: There was no maintenance plan in place and no documented procedures. All that existed were piles of repair tickets that listed the scheduled and unscheduled work that had been done over the past several years––along with the combined knowledge of the maintenance staff, which was filed in the eight-inch space between their ears. 

With outside help, the operator was able to analyze the repair tickets and build the required documentation needed to complete their contractual requirements. This time-consuming reconstruction process could have been avoided if plant operators had developed and implemented operational strategies from the beginning that would mitigate (or eliminate) the effects of unplanned maintenance events. 

An ongoing quest
Achieving the correct balance of scheduled and unscheduled maintenance is an ongoing quest that evolves as equipment wears and economic conditions merit. Organizing technical information (typically procedures and schematics) in a way that is easy for the field technician to comprehend and utilize, regardless of the specific machinery being maintained, is critical to the success of the operation.  

As simple as it sounds, finding the information required to repair machinery is the critical first step toward fixing it. Unfortunately, there are no universally adopted standards as to how technical information is organized in most industries. In the example above, the operator tasked with building documentation structured the plants’ technical information using procedures similar to those used by the commercial air-transport industry (Kinnison, 2004). This process divides information for top-level assembly into major components that are then divided into subassemblies. 


Click to enlarge.

For example, as Fig. 1 shows, a gearbox cooler may be a component of the gearbox. Subassemblies can be further divided into components (gearbox fan, gearbox motor, gearbox radiator, etc.). The process is repeated until the lowest repairable unit is reached. At that level, specific information can be provided that is applicable to that unit. This may include description information, inspection tasks, repair tasks and servicing tasks. The organization of information is relevant for any type of equipment, regardless of manufacturer or design. This allows the maintenance staff to locate the correct information quickly, and enables the staff responsible for updating technical information to know exactly where the revised information belongs.

Keep it simple 
Once critical information is organized, it needs to be written in a manner that makes it easy to use and maintain. Simplified Technical English (STE) is one way to do this that helps improve the readability and portability of information.

The objective of STE is to produce clear, unambiguous writing. Developed primarily for non-native English speakers, STE is also known to improve the readability of maintenance text for native speakers. STE does not attempt to define English grammar or prescribe correct English. It is a unique writing standard, also known as a controlled language, because it restricts grammar, style and vocabulary to a subset of the English language. The main characteristics of STE are:

  • Simplified grammar and style rules
  • A limited set of approved vocabulary where one word has only one meaning
  • A thesaurus of frequently used terms, technical nouns, verbs and suggested alternatives
  • Guidelines for adding new technical words to the approved vocabulary 

STE attempts to limit the range of English, and many of its rules are recommendations found in technical-writing textbooks. For example, STE requires writers to use the active voice, use articles wherever possible, use simple verb tenses, use language consistently, avoid lengthy compound words and use relatively short sentences. Companies in several industries—manufacturing, mining, oil exploration and software development, for example—have produced their own controlled-language writing standards (Works, 2005). The following boxes are a comparison of non-STE and STE-revised text:

1012coverfeat3Non-STE original…
Place the water heater in a clean, dry location as near as practical to the area of greatest heated water demand. Long un-insulated hot water lines can waste energy and water. Clearance for accessibility to permit inspection and servicing, such as removing heating elements or checking controls, must be provided. 

STE-revised text… 
Put the water heater in a clean, dry location near the area where you use the most hot water. If the hot water lines are long and are not insulated, you will use too much energy and water. For inspection and servicing, make sure that you have access to the heating elements and controls.

Besides improved readability, STE offers a business advantage when creating documentation that will be translated into other languages. As the text volume is typically reduced by at least 20% and the remaining text becomes more repetitive, the use of STE normally results in 30-40% less translation cost. With the ever-increasing number of languages that companies need to deal with, these savings add up. In addition, STE will reduce the number of unique terms and improve translation quality and consistency. Some STE text may not even require translation. The graph in Fig. 2 shows typical results of rewriting Standard English into STE.

Striking a maintenance balance
For most organizations, unscheduled maintenance is a bad event—but it can be managed. It’s well understood, for example, that industrial engineering concepts allow plant operators to evaluate items such as costs and the likelihood of downtime, and the cost of purchasing parts with higher reliability or having spare sub-assemblies available (which, in turn, have a cost on the shelf). Careful use of preventive and condition-based maintenance programs can help workers know when to replace or repair parts before they cause system failure.

Accurate parts management is necessary to strike the proper maintenance balance between being prepared for unscheduled jobs and performing the routine actions that are necessary to prevent unscheduled jobs. A complete maintenance-part inventory includes all standard replacement parts for machines and tools, as well as for company-supplied finite-use employee equipment such as safety glasses and consumable items for cleaning and safety. It does not include items used in manufacturing, such as washers or bolts. Maintenance storeroom management has three major goals:

  • To have the item needed
  • To supply that item when it’s needed
  • To control the cost of keeping items in stock

For example, consider an oil pump that is typically replaced twice a year, but only when it fails, rather than on a pre-emptive maintenance schedule. When the pump does fail, production on that line will stop until the unit is replaced. If a replacement pump is listed in inventory, but misplaced, there will be a delay. If the pump is out of stock, there will be a longer delay. 

Suppose the response to this scenario is to purchase a dozen pumps, and store some of them near the machine and the rest in the storeroom. That expense represents a six-year supply. But if some of those pumps are misplaced in the ensuing years, a certain amount of production time will still be lost. And if the missing pumps are never found, a portion of the pump investment is lost.

One way to avoid situations like this is to implement a computerized inventory management system for maintenance supplies. This should integrate the purchasing, storage and stock-release functions so the system tracks pending orders, expense authorizations, item storage locations and to whom the items are released. For scheduled maintenance, the demand for repair parts will be known in advance. Also, storeroom workers receive sufficient notice of the maintenance schedule so they can pick the items and prepare maintenance “shopping carts” for each line. This streamlines the workload for the storeroom staff, and leads to fewer errors (Olofsson, 2011).

Implementing technology 
Perhaps the hardest part of a maintenance program is knowing when to invest in your maintenance staff through training—and when to invest in tools through technology. Most organizations realize that training is required when implementing new concepts. What few organizations do well, however, is monitor mistakes to better understand when training would have improved staff efficiency. If the same types of mistakes are being repeated across the staff, training classes can reinforce best practices or clarify information.

This is where technology can help with training. For example, some electronic technical manuals have a functionality that allows end-users to add comments about technical information, typically a task or procedure. In many cases the task can be improved by leveraging the knowledge of the people doing the task in a field environment, and this functionality allows that feedback. Even misguided suggestions can shed new light on issues. In one case, an employee suggested using a broomstick to rotate a delicate compressor assembly to assist in its inspection. What the employee overlooked was that the broomstick could introduce nicks and dents to the compressor blades. Two results emerged from his well-meaning feedback: A warning was added to the inspection procedure to not use foreign objects (like a broomstick) to rotate the compressor; and a training session was conducted to alert the maintenance staff as to why this was not an approved maintenance method. As this example turned out, the employee who made the suggestion was rewarded for making it––not because it was a good idea, but because he used the system to leverage his experience.

One way to get the most from a training budget is to record videos of any processes that warrant it (i.e., the difficult ones or a single process that is common to a number of operations.) Like some electronic technical manuals that contain a “knowledge manager” to provide for field feedback, there is also the capability to embed training videos and 3D model browsers into technical documentation.

Although most maintenance staff will try to memorize procedures, it can be difficult to memorize the part numbers that are associated with ascheduled maintenance task—and impossible for those associated with unscheduled tasks. This is what makes the “Illustrated Parts Catalog” (IPC) a critical piece of technical information. Yet even with an updated IPC, parts identification and ordering can be troublesome. Some estimates place the percentage of wrong part delivery at 30%, whether as a result of misidentified part numbers, incorrect part-number entry or vendor error. 

This is where an electronic parts catalog can simplify your life. Its point-and-click functionality allows for part numbers to be automatically inserted into a shopping cart. Implementers of this technology say that creating a parts list via an electronic shopping cart is 35% faster than manual entry into a form—and ordering errors are reduced by more than 20%.

In summary
Though some organizations see documentation as a “necessary evil,” the reality is that documentation can be the foundation of an efficient maintenance program: one that boosts uptime and reliability and also strengthens the organization. By implementing consistent organization and structure in an operation’s technical information,  management can give staff a head-start at finding the information they need consistently, regardless of the equipment that they are to maintain.

Implementing STE allows even the most inexperienced maintainers to more easily understand a complex task. Building a maintenance plan that factors scheduled and unscheduled maintenance with organizational needs can save money by avoiding unnecessary maintenance. 

And determining which spare parts to stock and where to store them will help make parts inventory lean and efficient. Likewise, knowing when and how to leverage technology will keep a workforce on the cutting edge. MT

Don Bridges is Manager at JANA, Inc. Telephone: (210) 616-0083; or email: dbridges@janacorp.com. 





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