Outsourced Condition-Monitoring Services Help Boost

by Tom Bennett & Mike Kmetz
Posted 9/22/2003

A lean work force, tight profit margins and increased competitive pressures have manufacturers seeking new ways to produce more goods at lower costs. In the area of maintenance, leading-edge MRO departments are expanding programs like asset management and reliability-centered maintenance and are using condition-based monitoring tools to monitor equipment health to reduce unexpected downtime. This is especially true in continuous-flow and process applications in which each hour of unplanned downtime can be extremely costly.

As part of a larger maintenance strategy, outsourcing the diagnostics and monitoring of critical machinery can be an effective tool in the battle to maximize asset availability and plant efficiency. In situations in which machine performance is critical but in-house analysis is not practical because of limited resources, outsourcing offers a cost-effective solution.

An ounce of prevention

To achieve maximum service life for rotating equipment such as pumps, motors, compressors and mixers, the focus must be on the components that make up the equipment. Avoiding premature equipment failure begins with analyzing the environment and conditions in which the equipment must operate.

The goal of condition monitoring is to trend and analyze the equipment operating data in sufficient time to minimize failures and prevent unplanned downtime. In addition, the data obtained can be used to predict future machine performance. For example, instead of routinely changing oil on a piece of equipment based on the calendar or hours run, advanced monitoring and diagnostic technology is capable of predicting when the oil is breaking down (which might be later than initially thought). When these predictive techniques are incorporated on a plant-wide basis, companies can cut maintenance costs dramatically while increasing equipment availability.

This strategy represents a significant shift in philosophy and resource allocation and deviates from traditional maintenance approaches. That is, an investment and commitment need to be made not only to fix a problem, but also to ferret out the root cause. For example, rather than simply knowing a bearing in a motor needs replacement, one must determine the cause of the failure.

Among the commonly used techniques for condition monitoring are vibration, lubrication and temperature analysis. These techniques can identify gradual changes in machine condition – sometimes weeks or months before problems become visibly apparent. For example, in applications in which a pump is not performing to expectations, it often can be traced to a seal problem. But a seal failure is often a symptom of something else such as misalignment, overpressure or high temperature.

A pound of cure

Today’s outsourced condition-monitoring services take on many forms. First, an audit of existing maintenance strategies and their successes or failures is required. This audit can be performed to help companies define the most critical metrics, most unreliable equipment, employee skills sets and maintenance costs. These factors then can be benchmarked against similar companies.

Using new Web-based predictive technologies, manufacturers can obtain in-depth information about the operating condition of their capital equipment, without the costs associated with a full-time staff trained in condition-based monitoring and analysis.

Machine-condition data is gathered locally (in intervals predetermined by the service provider) using handheld data collectors or through permanently mounted acquisition devices. The data then is imported into a database where it is transferred via the Internet to a team of outside consultants. These experts analyze the data to identify machine condition. The recommendation given by the service provider then could be used to drive the appropriate maintenance activity in a planned fashion.

Although each application is different, condition-monitoring experts can advise companies of commonalties they see in similar applications that can be applied proactively to a customer’s situation. Likewise, a manufacturer with facilities in different parts of the world but with similar production equipment can gather information from each plant and identify cross-organizational trends.

Machine-condition data gathered using handheld data collectors can be sent to a team of outside consultants for analysis and machine-condition identification.

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Machine-condition data gathered using handheld data collectors can be sent to a team of outside consultants for analysis and machine-condition identification.

Measuring the return

For many manufacturers, it might be highly impractical to implement an effective on-site monitoring program, particularly in applications with a small number of critical machines, or where production occurs in isolated locations. An offshore oilrig is an excellent example. The isolated nature of an offshore oilrig not only lends itself to remote analysis, but it also could be an excellent use of online condition monitoring. Disruption of drilling is extremely expensive, with unplanned downtime potentially costing thousands of dollars per minute in lost revenue. Remote monitoring allows machinery performance data to be analyzed on-shore, where experts can identify any abnormalities and then alert maintenance personnel who are able to perform recommended actions on the equipment.

Remote monitoring and diagnostic services can be tailored to virtually any application, whether a manufacturer needs periodic surveillance or constant evaluation of critical machinery. Moreover, cost of ownership is lower because there’s no need for companies to purchase and maintain software on site. The outside service provider can host the data remotely and provide secure Web site access to those who need it.

Bottom line: Cutting edge manufacturers are maximizing their investment returns by focusing on their core business. They realize they can improve production efficiency by being more strategic with their resources and more effectively leveraging available technology and outside resources.

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