14 Jun 2024

Making the most of downtime

Injuries in sport are inevitable, but the greatest sporting comebacks haven’t been achieved by simply accepting the circumstances and waiting for recovery. The same philosophy can be applied to factory shutdowns. Chris Johnson explores the factory maintenance opportunities gifted by an unexpected pause in production.

An unexpected factory shutdown can occur for a number of reasons — political, environmental, technical, or, at the moment, virus-related. Whatever the cause, unplanned shutdowns or changes to schedules can have a profound impact on the company operating the facility and its bottom line.

However, what if a plan is developed in advance; one that can be implemented during times of halted production? An alternative way of looking at shutdowns is that they are a fantastic opportunity to conduct preventative maintenance, make incremental equipment upgrades, or even invest in staff development opportunities.

In 2017, it was estimated that downtime costs UK manufacturers £180 billion every year. Actually, the true cost of downtime goes far beyond the financial data, and can wreak havoc in multiple areas of a business. While avoiding downtime altogether would be an ideal goal, aiming for near-zero downtime should instead be a facilities’ first — and more realistic — line of defence.

Gathering machine data through the use of an automated system can help facility managers plan and foresee production disturbances far more accurately. However, if an unavoidable shutdown does occur, then how should plant managers respond?

Opportunistic maintenance

It might not be possible to accurately predict the length of a production disturbance, so it isn’t advisable to implement lengthy maintenance tasks. Instead, manufacturers should focus their efforts on projects that can be completed in a single day, so that the facility can be back up and running if circumstances change.

Opportunistic maintenance to prevent future equipment failures is an ideal undertaking in this scenario. Such an approach to preventative maintenance takes advantage of unscheduled pauses in production to replace components, improve system availability and reduce production losses.

However, for opportunistic preventative maintenance to be successful, managers must be aware of when, and where, replacement components are needed in order to gain the most cost-effective improvement. For instance, if a machine has been idle for some time, temperature changes and condensation may create moisture within the system. Therefore, changing the oil to remove contaminants before start-up is cost-effective, if it prevents future equipment failure.

Equipment upgrades

Aside from part replacements, an unexpected production disturbance can be an ideal opportunity to undertake unscheduled equipment upgrades. Take bearings for example. As a critical machine component that keeps manufacturing processes running and rotating smoothly, bearings may require relubrication, realigning or for the equipment balance to be addressed to avoid premature equipment failure.

By replacing a standard bearing with a smart bearing, this can provide operators with a real-time overview of the bearing’s performance and health. Installing a smart sensor, or a bearing with a sensor integrated into the component’s housing, is a simple facility upgrade that is both cost-effective and easy to integrate into existing systems. The self-diagnosing bearing can then send signals to an external condition monitoring unit, which can notify the operator when an action is required.

Staff development

A pause in production can also be a fantastic opportunity to train and upskill employees. Especially as, according to a study, 23 per cent of all unplanned downtime in manufacturing is due to human error. Instead, downtime can be spent enrolling employees onto online courses. If the course is tailored to a specific job role or skill-set, then the worker can develop a deeper understanding of the installation, programming and maintenance of specific pieces of equipment.

Not unlike preventative maintenance applied to machines, good quality team training can help prevent future instances of human error — and yield valuable advantages once production is back up and running.

Like the athlete recovering from an injury, a robust plan of recovery can be crucial step towards getting the most out of pauses in production. Shutdowns needn’t be something to dread but, rather, an opportunity for manufacturers to seize unexpected opportunities and gain competitive advantages.

*Chris Johnson is managing director at specialist bearings supplier SMB Bearings.