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Smart Maintenance Increases Uptime

EP Editorial Staff | June 6, 2022

Even if your maintenance strategy is optimized, you can likely still gain efficiencies by eliminating paper-based work orders and repair manuals, increasing diagnostic information used to aid troubleshooting, and implementing systems that make it easier to communicate with remote experts.

Digital technologies allow teams to take an informed approach to asset maintenance.

By Brian Taylor, Rockwell Automation

Nine of ten manufacturers now say digital transformation is important to their organization’s success. While digitalization can improve virtually any aspect of your operations—from throughput to quality to sustainability—perhaps no area has more potential for improvement than maintenance. 

Maintenance activities remain inherently inefficient in today’s plants. Many manufacturers, for example, still operate with a “run to fail” mentality. That approach is literally downtime waiting to happen. A calendar-based approach to maintenance is generally not a good alternative. It can involve servicing machines or replacing parts earlier than necessary.

Even if you’re confident that your maintenance strategy is optimized, you can likely still gain efficiencies within it. For example, your maintenance teams may be using paper-based work orders and repair manuals that are time consuming to access and use. Your teams also may have limited diagnostic information to aid troubleshooting. Or they may spend considerable time on phone calls trying to explain and diagnose problems to remote experts. 

Technology advances, such as data-enabled smart devices, cloud-based maintenance systems, and augmented reality (AR), can greatly speed up these activities.

The skills gap is another reason you want a smarter, more data-driven approach to maintenance. Today, 36% of U.S. manufacturers say finding the right talent is more difficult now than it was in 2018. Some 77% anticipate they will have ongoing difficulties attracting and retaining workers.

Using a smart approach, your teams can more efficiently and proactively perform maintenance across your organization. This can help reduce unplanned downtime and get the most from a stretched workforce.

The right technology

One challenge in any digital-transformation initiative is knowing which technology to invest in and how to use it to solve your specific business needs. An important first step is simply understanding the enabling technologies and how they can transform maintenance in your organization. Then, you can build a business case that helps you address your needs and realize fast ROI from your investment. Sometimes, it can be helpful to have an experienced digital-transformation partner by your side to help navigate the ins and outs of implementation. When it comes to technologies that enable smart maintenance, there are three solution categories that offer the most potential.

Smart devices

Several connected, data-enabled smart devices are now available to provide a detailed view of what’s happening—or what went wrong—on a plant floor. For instance, smart sensors can track almost any production parameter. This can help maintenance teams protect uptime by having constant access to a comprehensive and real-time view of individual assets, processes, or even an entire plant.

Smart sensors can also provide access to asset health and communication status. This can help maintenance teams identify and quickly address issues—from dust build-up on a sensor to mechanical damage—possibly before they cause downtime.

Smart sensors can also facilitate flexible manufacturing with shorter changeover times. Multiple smart-sensor profiles can be stored in a control system and downloaded when it’s time to change a SKU on a line.

Smart safety devices can also provide valuable insights and help reduce downtime. The traditional approach of hardwiring safety devices in a series not only involves more wiring than smart safety devices, but it can also make device failures difficult to pinpoint. Smart safety devices that deliver safety and diagnostic data over Ethernet/IP can help technicians quickly identify the specific devices that are having issues.

Additionally, the ability to track and log a smart safety device’s operation can help a technician identify when the device needs to be replaced before it causes a failure. In fact, the technician can be automatically notified when a device is coming to the end of its operating life.

Smart motor-controls present a third way to optimize maintenance with smart devices. For instance, a smart electronic overload relay can provide real-time motor diagnostic information to proactively indicate when a motor is having a problem. Similarly, smart servo drives, with built-in predictive models, can calculate the remaining lifespan of components so technicians can replace them before they fail and cause downtime.

Smart-motor controls can be used to optimize maintenance by proactively indicating when a motor is having a problem.


Managing maintenance activities and work orders can be overwhelming when everything is handled manually. A small team responsible for managing water-treatment and distribution facilities for a city in Canada knew this all too well. The team often found itself in reactive mode and, at times, struggled to stay on top of maintenance activities that were tracked by hand on a large whiteboard. The team decided it needed a better approach when one of its senior operators was retiring and they were trying to capture his knowledge before he left. 

They evaluated different tools and ultimately selected a cloud-based, AI-powered computerized maintenance-management system (CMMS). It’s a solution that allows you to manage all of your maintenance—including thousands of assets, work orders, and parts—all in one place, with just a few clicks.

Your technicians may already be struggling to keep up with maintenance needs if you’re short staffed. They shouldn’t have to endure the additional challenge of working with outdated and inefficient maintenance systems. With a cloud-based CMMS, a technician can log into the system from anywhere using a mobile app instead of walking to a workstation where the CMMS is installed. They can also use the app to review an asset’s history and factors such as the location of spare parts. Easy access to this kind of system information makes is possible to rapidly respond to issues.

A cloud-based CMMS can also analyze work orders and create a short-list of those that are causing equipment failures, production delays, and other issues. This can help maintenance teams prioritize their efforts on the most critical maintenance needs.

Augmented reality

Reimagining maintenance with AR (augmented reality) technology and experiences can speed up repair times and improve maintenance-team collaboration. In an AR experience, for example, digital work instructions can replace paper-based maintenance manuals. The instructions can provide instant access to step-by-step guidance—including 3D animations—for specific maintenance activities. This can help technicians work more efficiently and accurately.

When troubleshooting issues such as machine failures, technicians also can be joined by remote support engineers in an AR experience. Everyone in the AR experience can see the same thing, meaning technicians no longer need to talk through and explain what they’re looking at over the phone. A remote support engineer can even make 3D notations in the AR experience, such as to identify a specific component that needs to be replaced.

An AR-based approach to remote support can save significant downtime costs, especially when maintenance teams would otherwise need to fly a remote support engineer to a site to assist with an issue.

Whether you’re facing a personnel shortage on your maintenance team or just trying to improve uptime, now may be the time to consider adopting a smart maintenance approach. It can help you uncover new efficiencies and create a more connected, better utilized, and more knowledge-driven maintenance staff. It  can also strengthen resiliency to future crises and challenges. EP

Brian Taylor, Business Director for Rockwell Automation’s Machine Safety and Sensing business, Milwaukee (, has more than 30 years of experience with Rockwell Automation.


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