A sure sign of the widespread fear over the COVID-19 virus has been the disappearance at big-box and grocery stores of the usual mountains of paper towels, toilet paper and the food that we normally buy.
Like the jolt in demand for bottled beverages during heat waves or for canned goods and water before hurricanes, the current red-hot sales of paper goods, hand sanitizers and disinfectant wipes no doubt have triggered non-stop production runs for these products and others. To meet the sudden demand, all systems are go, and then some.
Before touching on what the sudden production surge may mean for manufacturing in general and maintenance procedures specifically, let me acknowledge the extraordinary contributions being made by everyone involved in operations during this time of unusual stress. Mindful of health risks, and dealing with supply chain disruptions and other challenges, operations teams are making sure that much-needed products — many of them life-saving — are being manufactured. My thanks to all of those supply chain professionals, from line operators, mechanics, QC technicians, forklift drivers, to warehouse loaders and truck drivers. They are doing their best to keep our shelves stocked.
With many facilities operating full out, and with several of their people working remotely, this is not the time to rethink maintenance procedures. But, like high tides that recede, when this crisis eventually ebbs it will reveal stress-induced damage requiring production shut-downs and many time-consuming repairs. Many will also remember that certain lines failed to meet expected output due to unexpected crashes that always seem to happen at the worst of times. The major takeaway is likely to be a heightened emphasis on machine reliability and predictability. Here’s why:
During normal times, shutdowns of production machinery for maintenance work take place routinely. Since these are not normal times, routine shutdowns may not be happening in order to meet demand. Keeping machinery running that may need major maintenance or repairs may mean slowing down production to keep things moving, even if more slowly than desired. Simply put, a manager may decide to have a piece of equipment limp along for several days, by slathering grease on a troubled part rather than lose 10 hours of production (which could turn into 12 if they don’t know exactly what needs to be fixed) to correct the problem. In other situations the team will roll the dice and hope equipment doesn’t fail and take the line down before demand abates all risky propositions.
Similarly, many managers will prefer a production line that produces less output reliably than a line that can produce much more, but experiences frequent and unexpected crashes. The more reliable, less productive line requires fewer parts to be kept in the storeroom and demands less attention by tech and maintenance personnel — all of which save money and compensate for the lower output. Never mind the additional just in case inventory required to overcome the unexpected outage.
But what if you could predict when equipment was going to fail? You could now make decisions on extending runs based on equipment health data instead of rolling the dice and hoping Lady Luck smiles on you. Manufacturers can make better decisions if they adopt machine health monitoring programs and predictive maintenance techniques. By employing monitoring equipment that detects when a part requires maintenance, output improves due to fewer shutdowns and less extensive repairs being necessary when a shutdown does occur. At the same time, reliability is also increased because the variability of a particular product line is reduced. In effect, because of savings in downtime, parts inventory and other expenses, proactive machine health programs produce highly reliable “extra” capacity at no cost.
As companies do post-mortems on their COVID-19 response, they are likely to see that they could have had a better handle on the health of their machinery. Since sudden surges of demand are inevitable in the future — and, like COVID-19, typically unpredictable — doesn’t it make sense to add some predictability to your company’s maintenance efforts? Instituting a machine health monitoring system or predictive maintenance program is wise preparation.
Ed Ballina, formerly Vice President of Manufacturing and Warehousing at PepsiCo, serves as an advisor to Augury, Inc., whose mission is to build a world where people can always rely on the machines that matter.