Choosing to give your heat processing equipment regular maintenance and tuneups is not a win-lose decision. It’s time we rewrote it to reflect the real world.



I’ve been beating this drum for years, but a lot of people haven’t heard the music, so here we go again.

Choosing to give your heat processing equipment regular maintenance and tuneups is not a win-lose decision. Many managers seem to think maintenance avoided equals labor cost avoided, which equals more profitability. It’s the same old equation that’s bounced around the manufacturing world for years. It’s time we rewrote it to reflect the real world.

If Energy Saved > (Cost of Maintenance Labor + Lost Production Time during Maintenance)

It’s OK to do it.

Tuneups will reduce your energy consumption -- few people question that. Where this ran into trouble was that for a long time, energy costs were low. The left side of the equation wasn’t greater than the right side, or if it was, the difference was so low that other tasks with a higher benefit-to-cost ratio took priority. So, people made what seemed to be the responsible decision and put off maintenance.

Today, the situation is different. Energy costs have jumped in the last few years, and the left side of the equation is getting fatter day by day. Just the same, this is a very limited view of the real situation. To really describe the maintenance relationship, we have to expand the equation to this:

If (Energy Saved + Avoided Unscheduled Downtime + Rejects Due to Poor Processing + Higher Insurance Costs, Legal Fees, Lost Production Time and Regulatory Hassles Due To Accidents) > (Cost of Maintenance Labor + Lost Production Time during Maintenance)

Then do the maintenance.

I’ll examine these new factors in more detail.

Avoided Unscheduled Downtime. If any piece of equipment breaks down, you’re without it for however long it takes to fix. What’s the cost of that lost production time? What really stings is, that in the end, you haven’t avoided the cost of maintenance. In fact, emergency maintenance costs much more than routine work, even when you have the tools and parts on hand to do the job. And if you don’t, you’re facing added lost time and costs as you chase around for the stuff you need.

Rejects Due to Poor Processing. This is often a tough thing to quantify because quality problems can stem from so many factors. Suffice to say, though, that if heat processing is a key step in producing the finished product, it will have an impact on quality -- or at least consistency of quality. Over the years, plenty of scrap and rework has been caused by heating processes that were not properly or consistently maintained.

Higher Insurance Costs, Legal Fees, Lost Production Time and Regulatory Hassles Due to Accidents. People don’t like to think about this because it suggests an unsafe working environment. Let’s face it -- often, the only difference between an unsafe shop and a safe one is the care and attention given to the processing equipment. Let me give an example. I’ve changed some non-essential details to preserve everyone’s anonymity, but basic facts of this accident are real.

It was an explosion in a mold-drying oven, killing its operator. The oven was old, poorly maintained and couldn’t keep up with production needs. There were a lot of reasons -- slipping fan belts, dirt, and general wear and tear -- but someone decided a quick fix would be to open up a burner orifice to get more gas into the oven. They succeeded, but with the fan not up to snuff, the oven atmosphere went gas-rich and exploded. The owner of this oven had avoided performing proper maintenance on this oven for years, allowing unqualified employees to jury-rig it to keep it going. The owner paid the penalty of lost production, a destroyed piece of equipment, OSHA inspections and penalties, and increased workers’ compensation premiums -- but they’re a drop in the bucket compared to the loss of a life and the tragedy it brought to the operator’s family.

The costs don’t stop there -- equipment manufacturers frequently have to defend themselves in product liability suits resulting from these accidents. The dirty truth is that in most jurisdictions, unless criminal negligence or malice can be proved on the part of the equipment owner, his liability, even for a death, is limited by what the workers’ compensation laws allow. So, the injured workers or their bereaved families go after the equipment manufacturers, alleging design defects, inadequate safety warnings or some other flaw. This costs big money -- attorney’s fees, expert witnesses, trial costs -- and regardless of the outcome, the manufacturer’s insurance companies usually shell out a lot of cash. These losses are recouped by higher premiums to the manufacturers, which are then passed on through higher prices to -- guess who?

For those managers or plant owners who are still skeptical, one more consideration: If your plant’s environment is so unsafe that people are at serious risk of being injured or killed, what message does that send to your workforce? Do you think they’ll go the extra yard in meeting a production deadline when they fear it can hurt them?



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