Maintenance management as an important part of corporate strategy and a profession did not always exist in the form we see it today. It is a concept that has evolved worldwide, especially within the last 50 years with even more glaring advancements happening during the last decade or so.
What started as the sole responsibility of engineers and technicians has now grown to become a backbone of business operations as organizations realize the impact maintenance can have on their efficiency and bottom line.
The early days of maintenance
Maintenance management has its origins in the manufacturing industry. The ability to harness steam for energy, train transportation, and the invention of basic communication (telephones and radio) signaled the beginning of the First Industrial Revolution (18th century) and the gradual shift from human labor to machine production.
The factories handled their machines in a simple manner: Use it until it breaks and repair only when it can no longer run. The focus was on corrective maintenance and there was no planned maintenance of any kind. Downtime then was not as critical as it is today so running assets on breakdown maintenance was not seen as a big problem.
However, with the Second Industrial Revolution (mid-to-late 19th century) came electricity-driven machines which created a need for more sophisticated maintenance. Plant engineers gradually became more proactive in caring for them. They identified and established a pattern of frequency-based maintenance, i.e. replacing parts like belts at specific intervals.
Unfortunately, this was quite wasteful as they would typically change the parts following a strict schedule whether that was needed or not.
Turning point in maintenance management
By the 1950s, the industry was undergoing rapid reconstruction to recover from the aftereffects of the Second World War, especially in Germany and Japan. Manufacturing space became increasingly competitive and tolerance for downtime in the industry nosedived.
Japanese engineers started a new trend that involved following the manufacturer’s instructions about the care of each machine during operation. That trend gave birth to what we know as “preventive maintenance” today. Gradually, they encouraged technicians and other specialists in charge of machinery to develop schedules for lubricating the equipment, then noting and reporting any observations to help prevent damage to the machines.
Although this significantly reduced downtime, it was still an expensive and inefficient venture. Parts were still being replaced on a strict time-basis even when they could have worked longer.
By the 1960s, the drive for more efficient maintenance strategies received a boost after the arrival of the Boeing 747. The aircraft industry needed improved reliability; a maintenance strategy with a clear structure for doing what and when to do it that could reduce accidents.
Thus, reliability centered maintenance was born. The term was first used in public by United Airlines. Shortly after, the concept was quickly adopted by other industries.
With time, other organizations began to recognize maintenance as a core strategy rather than an add-on. They came to acknowledge its impact on profit.
From that time to date, subsequent generations of maintenance professionals have adopted more and more proactive elements to their maintenance strategy which resulted in development of other maintenance strategies like risk-based maintenance and total productive maintenance.
Introduction and impact of technologies on maintenance
Although much has happened since the start of the industrial revolution over about 200 years ago, it appears the most dramatic changes have occurred within the last 50 years.
Especially from the year 2000 to date, innovations in technology in every area of life are more than they have ever been in human history and maintenance management is not left out.
The impact of these new technologies have affected the following aspects of maintenance management:
From the use of wireless technology to internet-enabled cell phones/tablets and other hand-held devices, technology has completely changed the way maintenance teams work. No longer do they have to meet in person with a supervisor to get work assignments or pass on vital information.
Technicians can communicate with every other member of the team from the most remote locations. They can also record and report any issues with assets in real-time with absolute accuracy by using the camera and video functions on their phones.
With the introduction of different sensors that can relay information about equipment health and potential failure in real time, technicians are no longer tied to outdated practices that were the norm in past decades.
Remote automation is another tech tool that now allows maintenance personnel to monitor and control an organization’s offsite facilities especially when it’s not convenient to have staff stationed there permanently like in underwater installations or very remote and hostile climates.
Software support has become the norm rather than the exception. Thus, the use of sophisticated software like computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) has helped moved from the days of corrective maintenance to more proactive strategies like Risk Based Maintenance and Condition Based Monitoring.
Used together or in isolation, these software will help an enterprise manage critical activities within maintenance management especially inventory control, project management, work order management, and more. Although ERP is not as maintenance-specific as CMMS.
The possible future of maintenance
With the continuous growth of digital transformation, consumers now expect a high level of technological advancement in the environment they work in and from the machines they interact with.
Let’s briefly look at two key areas where digital transformation is expected to impact maintenance management:
The Internet of Things (IoT)
Some industries (e.g. mining and manufacturing) are particularly sensitive to equipment downtime and any failure can lead to considerable losses.
Take the mining industry for example. Operators are constantly under pressure to keep productivity up and downtime to the barest minimum. Imagine a scenario on a mining site where an autonomous truck is being used to haul out iron ore. Some of these trucks are so large and expensive that just a pair of tires cost up to US$100,000 to replace.
Rather than waiting for such a truck to breakdown or waiting for the next scheduled maintenance, proactive mine managers now fit these trucks with smart sensors that track their condition, speed, temperature, location, vibration, etc and send the data back for monitoring.
Using IoT-enabled technology, most of these trucks are now self-driving and can work without constant human interaction. This reduces the need to send humans deep into the mine shaft for safety reasons and it also saves on labor costs.
Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are most common in the aircraft maintenance industry though other organizations can find ways to incorporate them into their maintenance management.
Some areas that they both find application include:
- Training of technicians using simulators when real-life training is not practical, convenient, or carries a lot of risk of damaging expensive equipment.
- Assisting technicians to perform their maintenance tasks. Using VR or AR, technicians can show experts at a remote location what they need help with and these specialists will then guide them to carry out necessary inspections, servicing or repairs.
How does this affect automation professionals?
Maintenance can no longer be separated from new technologies. Improving your operations to become compliant with world-class maintenance practices will require that as an automation professional, you research and understand how to best interact with a machine.
One area that is continuing to see major innovation and is therefore worth serious consideration is predictive maintenance (PdM) especially automated PdM.
Particularly in the manufacturing sector, rather than the previous practice of using PdM to monitor individual machines, companies are now exploring factory-wide deployment of smart sensors.
These “smart factories” have a variety of connected systems with sensors that collect data, exchange it and respond to it for increased productivity and efficiency. You have sensors on workers’ equipment, security cameras, air conditioning…and they all communicate with one another depending on what kind of information the management wants. This entire exchange happens with minimal or zero intervention from human operators.
Known as Factory 4.0, this is the latest trend for automation and data exchange. It is also an indication that going into the future, even though you won’t be able to avoid getting your hands dirty, the focus will shift from hands-on involvement for workers to more of a monitoring/supervisory roles.
About the Author
Bryan Christiansen is founder and CEO at Limble CMMS. Limble is a mobile first, modern computerized maintenance management system application, designed to help managers organize, automate and streamline their maintenance operations.