MRO Q&A: Why Do Good Plants Go Down?

MRO Q&A is a Food Processing series addressing maintenance, repair and operational issues in food plants.

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Q. What are the top reasons for a plant to go down? What are the biggest downtime concerns for a maintenance manager?

A. From a macro perspective the top three major shutdown threats for a food plant could be summarized as: a catastrophic event, a facility's internal operational failure or a facility's external operational failure.

Over the past several years, some have argued that catastrophic events are occurring with more frequency. Others have countered that our growing population density and our aging infrastructure have left us more vulnerable to natural disasters.

In relation to food plant operations, however, we need to remember that several decades ago we chose to improve our productivity by improving on our asset utilization. This in turn has reduced the number of plants and locations producing our products. Today, while we realize the financial benefit from this decision, a natural disaster can have a significant negative impact on our product delivery. History has shown us that tragedies come in various forms. Performing regular updates to your disaster recovery plan is very important for effectively dealing with misfortune when it does arrive.

The second major threat is the failure of the facility's internal operation. This threat constitutes a major breakdown of the internal plant operation. Food safety and sanitation always have had a high priority within operations. As a result, consumers have had a high level of trust that food manufacturing plants are conforming to a well-established set of standards of food safety and sanitation. When the consumer feels this trust is being compromised, the response in today's world of instant communication can be very quick and harmful to the entire food industry.

Given the investment in technology that has greatly improved food plant performance over the years, many food manufacturers today recognize the value technology can play in clearly explaining operational information to the consumer. Technology properly applied can provide the timely response required to deal with this issue.

The third major threat is the failure of the facility's external operational support systems. The primary management strategy of the past several years focused on controlling the core functions of food manufacturing. As an example, for many years food manufacturers provided their own internal supply of water and power.

Today most food plants are dependent on public utilities for these commodities. As utilities struggle to meet the ever increasing demand for their products, manufacturing facilities are exposed to outages that could shut down their operations for significant periods of time.

Given the global financial situation and the general reduction in vertical integration, plants also are more vulnerable to worldwide suppliers who may not be as reliable as domestic ones in the past, both in terms of the delivery and the quality of their products and services. This problem affects both primary and secondary suppliers of products and services and places major stress on the quality control responsibility within supply chain management.

From a downtime perspective, the concerns remain people and materials. Given the increasing level of outsourcing for engineering and maintenance responsibilities and the expansion of the role of the operational team members to include more "adjustments" and "limited maintenance activities," this decentralization of skills has resulted in a problem of staffing operations with team members who can perform all the required tasks. Recent survey data suggest this is the cause for the increase in "operator error" comments on downtime reports.

With the increase in output rates and the associated higher levels of automation and technology, material handling has become a major area of focus for many plants. Better monitoring of the storage and movement of raw and packaging material and the general environmental control of these materials can greatly improve their performance and contribute to a reduction in the downtime attributed to these items.

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