Building Management / Process and Operations / Technology

Technology Helps Maintenance Technicians Optimize Asset Use

CMMS dispatch system, condition monitoring tools and parts management are among the tools available to food manufacturers.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

From a bean counter’s perspective, maintenance is a cost, and the less cost, the better.

From a production manager’s vantage point, maintenance technicians are the plant equivalent of ER doctors: If they aren’t on duty, machines are going to die.

Product out the door is manufacturing’s key metric, but maintenance technicians, engineers and other support personnel ensure the heartbeat of the plant. Demand for their services is high, as Food Processing’s 2017 Manufacturing Outlook Survey attests: 38.9 percent of participating food companies are actively recruiting maintenance technicians, and 54.8 percent are expanding in-house technical training, either as part of a total productive maintenance program or to groom the next generation of high-skill maintenance personnel.

The real issue is optimizing performance and investing capital where it will have the biggest impact. Technology has a big role to play. Asked what actions they were taking to optimize plant assets, 17 percent said they were implementing a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) or similar asset management software.

Lakeview Farms began a new CMMS journey three years ago, converting from a paper-based system. CMMS implementation invariably invites pushback because of the behavior changes it requires and the resentment tracking systems engender. But the timing was right: The Delphos, Ohio, maker of dips, sauces and dessert items was in the process of consolidating three far-flung manufacturing facilities into a 770,000-sq.-ft. building in the northwest Ohio town.

ToddParker EngineerLVF“Each facility had its own maintenance staff, its own CMMS program, its own parts inventory system,” recalls plant engineer Todd Parker. More troubling, work orders were paper based, not electronic; when a job was completed, the work order was placed in a manila folder and filed away, making root cause analysis a “frustrating and time consuming” task, he says.

Transplanted workers also brought with them personal relationships that can upend prioritizing jobs based on greatest need. “The old-fashioned way was for techs to go to the line where the manager was a friend and ignore other areas of the plant,” Parker grimaces. Lacking an advocate, plant infrastructure suffered: Inadequate maintenance of compressors and other refrigeration components resulted in bloated operating costs.

Implementation of the CloudDispatch system from Leading2Lean changed that. Instead of lavishing attention on equipment that didn’t need it while starving other assets of preventive maintenance, work orders were handled on the basis of criticality and what delivered the biggest payback. Within six months, downtime shrank 34 percent and overall repair costs fell 15 percent.

“Standard CMMS programs record post-mortem events, with maintenance guys lining up at a computer and entering what they did that day,” maintains Eric Whitley, business development manager at Leading2Lean (, Wellington, Nev. CloudDispatch, in contrast, was modeled on a 911 dispatch system, with real-time capture of who was sent on a call, how long they were on it, what the problem was and what corrective action was taken.

Within two months, enough data are stored in the cloud-based system to begin crunching the numbers and identifying the leading causes of machine failure, ranking machines from best to worst performers, understanding which parts are failing most frequently and other information to begin implementing a true predictive maintenance schedule.

“Based on the historical data, with one, two, three clicks, you’re into Prado charts,” Whitley boasts. “You still do kaisan events, but they are based on empirical data that gets you really close to root cause. The data point to the truth.”

Leaner parts cribs

The earliest returns from Lakeview’s CMMS rollout came from replacement parts. The inventory was worth $4.5 million, and the program flagged $1.7 million that were categorized as “unknown.” Many of them supported obsolete and decommissioned machinery that was not transferred to Delphos in the consolidation move. Cataloguing those parts allowed the company to begin liquidating them in the resale market.

While Lakeview’s inventory was notably bloated, most manufacturers’ parts cribs are filled with redundant and obsolete components. “The best place to start an improvement effort is the parts department,” agrees Eric Martin, director of operations for Peoria, Ill.-based Advanced Technology Services Inc. (

Specialists in maintenance and IT services to manufacturers, ATS lists MRO crib management as one of its core competencies. Poorly organized parts cribs are more the rule than the exception, Martin observes, and for good reason. “You only hear about parts when a machine is down and you don’t have the part to fix it.” Excess inventory is the inevitable consequence.

“The basic problem we see is around organization,” he says. “It has to be organized and clean. If things are disheveled, start with 5S and then come up with standardized names for parts.” It’s not unusual to find an identical motor with multiple names in parts inventories.
“The first half of the battle is organizing the crib,” says Martin. “Then it’s standardizing the names of parts.”

The next logical step is to begin analyzing available data to begin shaping parts-procurement practices. Can some noncritical components be accessed on a consignment basis from off-site locations? Do support services that include staff training justify a higher price from a supplier? Should slow-turning parts remain in inventory because of long lead times to restock?

“Parts often are afterthoughts,” Martin reflects. “People sometimes think of them as a necessary evil, as insurance. If that’s the case, they probably haven’t analyzed the impact if a particular part is not on hand.”

Cloud-based condition monitoring

Power plants and other heavy industries with large, mission-critical assets have used vibration analysis and other condition-monitoring sensors for decades. Similar sensors are incorporated in boilers with advanced controls, but for the most part, food and beverage processors were not able to leverage predictive maintenance technology until recent years.

More economical sensors and controls that interpret the amperage draw and other signs of machine failure are resulting in dramatic change. More than a third — 36.3 percent — of Manufacturing Outlook Survey respondents indicated their facilities are applying condition monitoring to optimize physical assets. The advent of cloud computing and the Industrial Internet of Things is giving the technology a further boost.

Recent generations of thermal sensors and other measurement tools from Fluke Corp. ( have wireless communications capabilities. Building on that, the Everett, Wash., firm created Fluke Connect, a tiered service that integrates data from the devices into asset management software with predictive maintenance capabilities.

Measurement of vibration, temperature and power quality are among the device-level data at the core of Fluke Connect, explains John Neeley, director and chief architect of the service. Relaying the data via a mobile device for analysis in the cloud and the return of trending reports and alarms distinguishes the ala carte services.

“Condition monitoring is a natural extension for the sensors we make,” says Neeley. Ease of use is the key advancement with Fluke Connect. “If you can’t save the technicians’ time, they’re not going to use it,” he maintains. “The goal was to put all the tools on a technician’s belt to simplify data acquisition and generate work orders.”

FlukeConnect SCADAIntegrating capabilities similar to those of Fluke Connect into an existing SCADA system would be cost-prohibitive and would invite pushback from IT professionals, Neeley continues. His system bypasses IT and doesn’t require hardwiring. It also puts to rest data-security concerns. “It’s Fluke software talking to Fluke software,” he assures. “And IT people are starting to trust cloud providers like Amazon, which we use.”

Lubrication is another front in the asset reliability effort. Though some food manufacturers remain out of compliance, most North American companies use H1 rated oils and greases if the possibility of incidental contact with food exists. Most H1 lubricants have a white mineral-oil base, which, thanks to additives, has been greatly improved and sometimes reaches parity with general industrial lubricants.

Synthetics only account for 2.4 percent of the global lubricants market, with the U.S., Canada and Europe accounting for more than 90 percent of syn use, according to tribologist Sib Hamid, who also is vice president and general manager of Toledo operations for Lubriplate Lubricants Co. ( Some OEMs of gearboxes and other equipment used in food production now specify H1 syns, and Hamid expects more will follow.

Are H1 syns worth the price multiples they command? A firm “it depends” is the answer from lubricant suppliers. “You have to play the playground,” points out Sam Hall, technical services manager for Farmingdale, N.J.-based Bel-Ray Co. ( “Mineral products turn into candle wax” in extreme cold and flash off at high temperatures, he notes. On the other hand, hydraulic systems in meat, poultry and other high-pressure washdown environments are prone to moisture contamination and require frequent lube changes, depriving synthetics of the extended use that justifies their expense.

Washdown areas are a problem for any lubricant that isn’t water soluble, Lubriplate’s Hamid agrees, which makes those with a polyalkylene glycol (PAG) base the best choice. Polyol esters provide the best thermal stability, but when reduced friction, extended life, corrosion and oxidation resistance and other factors are considered, PAG lubricants are the top performers in food plants.

Despite documented cases of five times longer performance by syns, “most people still use mineral oil,” rues Hamid. “But for some reason, young engineers are more inclined to use synthetics. They look at the performance data and say, why would I change the oil every six months when I can use this synthetic and not change it for two years?”

The training imperative

Before Lakeview Farms implemented the Leading2Lean CMMS, fewer than 400 of every 1,000 hours of technician clock time were spent executing work orders. Today, wrench time is approaching 750 hours. Technicians who exceed that benchmark qualify for bonuses.

Perhaps the biggest savings has come from reduced overtime. O-T previously accounted for about 37 percent of maintenance payroll. Today, it’s less than 14 percent, according to Parker.

The ability to access technical data and order parts with a mobile device at the job site is part of the reason, but maintenance techs are more highly skilled now, he says. The company is investing in enhanced skill training and education for employees. Maintenance head count also has been increased to 27, including five additional workers dedicated to preventive maintenance.

Similar strategies are being implemented by other food manufacturers. In the Manufacturing Outlook Survey, most said their companies are expanding on-the-job training programs, and 31.2 percent indicated they will hire more maintenance personnel this year.

The internet is playing a larger role in technical training, with You Tube channels the library of choice for disseminating how-to videos. An example is the maintenance videos posted by SPX Flow (, the SPX division that includes APV and Waukesha Cherry-Burrell-branded valves.

Maintenance videos for Delta DA3+ double-seat mix proof valves are the latest in the expanding SPX library, with Spanish, German and Chinese translations of the English-language instructional in the works. “Viewer is assumed to be somewhat mechanically inclined,” Chris Sinutko, global product manager-food & beverage valves, wrote in an e-mail. “However, the video is clear enough where viewers do not need to be familiar with the specific ... products.”

Motion Industries is another supplier with an expanding how-to video collection on You Tube. The parts distributor and service provider groups many of the videos under the heading Tom’s Toolbox, covering such topics on proper lock out/tag out procedures and vendor-specific instructionals, such as wiring a low-voltage brushless DC gear motor from Integra. As of mid-January, 63 videos were posted on the Tom’s Toolbox section.

Advanced automation is lowering operator head counts but putting more pressure on maintenance teams to keep complex machines and equipment running longer. Technology is providing tools necessary to accomplish that goal, but they are of little value if manufacturers don’t invest in the skills development needed to use them effectively.