How to Implement an Efficient Operator Driven Reliability Strategy for Mobile Plant Workers

July 26, 2018

Let’s think about eating pizza. More specifically, let’s think about how we don’t have to think about eating pizza. Your eyes see a slice, your hand reaches out, and just like that, you’re chewing. Easy.

Now imagine that your “pizza-seeing” department and your “pizza-grabbing” department were in two different bodies. When one department sees a pizza, it has to tell the other that it wants some pizza grabbed. The request gets put onto a stack to be addressed, in the order that it was received, and the “pizza-grabbing” department gets around to it when it’s got time. By then, the pizza’s cold. Not very efficient, is it?

While this is admittedly a silly example, it illustrates a common—and costly—inefficiency in the management of large plants. Operations and Maintenance are often two different departments—two different bodies.

When a Plant Operator on their Rounds sees an equipment issue that must be corrected—a piece of pizza—they inform their superior, who passes a work order onto Maintenance. Maintenance, already busy performing scheduled tasks, puts the request in the queue and gets to it when they can. By that time, the problem may worsen, your equipment may fail, and you may be dealing with expensive downtime—or worse.

Why can’t your Plant Operator just fix the problem when they see it? They can—and they should. Empowering your mobile workers to take proactive action to improve operating efficiencies—what’s known as an operator driven reliability strategy—increases efficiency, reduces downtime, and keeps your plant running smoothly.

The Benefits of an Operator Driven Reliability Strategy

Empowering your Plant Operators to perform preventative maintenance when it’s observed and needed improves the functioning of your plant, and thereby lowers your Total Cost of Ownership (TCO), in two primary ways:

  1. Reduced time between observation and correction of maintenance issues
  2. Increased Maintenance Department resources thanks to a reduction in minor maintenance tasks

Reducing Time Between the Observation and Correction of Maintenance Issues

Equipment maintenance issues only worsen over time, becoming more and more likely to create secondary equipment issues.

Imagine that one of your hydraulic systems is lacking proper pressure, gets out of alignment, and starts scoring piston heads, rendering them inoperable. Any and all systems depending on the hydraulics will then be affected, failure cascading through your equipment. What was a two-minute, ten-dollar fix if caught on time could become a two-week replacement project that costs $100,000.

The sooner after being observed a problem is corrected, the lower the cost of the repair will be. By empowering your mobile Plant Operators to recognize and correct minor equipment malfunctions, you can prevent major issues, including unexpected downtime and product loss due to defective equipment.

Freeing Up Maintenance Department Resources via Operator Driven Reliability

Your Maintenance Department is likely to thank you for implementing an operator driven reliability strategy (as long as you do it the right way) because it frees up valuable maintenance resources. While Maintenance Managers must keep some of their workers in pocket to respond to critical equipment conditions, most maintenance resources are booked out weeks to months in advance with myriad scheduled preventative maintenance tasks, some of which can be very time and labor intensive. 

A loose screw or two on an intake pump may cause a big problem later when other screws fail due to an increased tension load. But if it looks like the other screws might hold for a week or two, your Maintenance Department might not have time to get to it right away. Or, if they do go take care of it, they won’t be able to swap out the gaskets in your coolant lines on schedule. But that’s fine—those gaskets will hold another week, right?

Being able to rely on your Plant Operators to take care of the simple equipment maintenance issues that commonly arise allows your Maintenance Department to focus their efforts on where they’re needed most. If plant equipment maintenance is a game of whack-a-mole, having your Operators cover a few strategic holes ensures that Maintenance always gets their mole.

Best Practices for Implementing an Operator Driven Reliability Strategy

Implementing a new system for equipment maintenance, or adjusting your existing system, takes careful planning—and effective interdepartmental coordination.

To introduce an operator driven reliability strategy, it will be critical to:

  • Decide in tandem with the Maintenance Department which maintenance functions should be relegated to your Operators, and which should be elevated to Maintenance.
  • Communicate the new responsibilities to your Plant Operators, as well as their Frontline Supervisors.
  • Train your Plant Operators and Supervisors to recognize and properly handle equipment conditions which require maintenance. Your own Maintenance Department may be the best training resource available.
  • Establish a clear timeline for the implementation of the new operator driven reliability system.
  • Equip Operators with the proper equipment maintenance procedures and tools needed to document equipment conditions and perform service, like the ability to digitally collect data.
  • Ensure accountability by creating and adhering to process oversight and assurance protocols.

Developing and Establishing Operator Maintenance Responsibilities

Better than anyone else in the plant, your Maintenance Department knows how to take care of your equipment. Soliciting their advice as to which tasks can be accomplished by your Operators, and which are best left to their highly experienced technicians, will ensure the success of your operator driven reliability strategy. It will also prevent redundant work by maintaining a clear separation between departments and a definitive delineation of responsibilities.

Your Plant Operators, their Frontline Supervisors, and all levels of management up to the Plant Operations Manager should clearly understand their new responsibilities. Operators should be trained on the function of all the equipment under their care, as well as the workings of their internal systems. And everyone should be made aware of when the new operator driven reliability system will be implemented so that maintenance coverage proceeds uninterrupted, and all parties are prepared for the shift.

Coordinating classroom and hands-on training sessions between your Operators and your Maintenance Department will not only make good use of the Maintenance team’s experience and accumulated knowledge, but will also increase interdepartmental cooperation. An extra benefit of your new operator driven strategy will be more effective communication across your plant during stressful situations.

Equipping Your Plant Operators for Reliability Success

Your Operators should be equipped with the necessary tools to perform their new service duties. They should also be taught to properly care for and service these tools themselves, or how and when to make arrangements with Maintenance for their service.

In addition, your Operators need efficient communications and data collection systems to record and inform their supervisors of equipment conditions on an ongoing basis. Radio communications are useful for real-time communication across large campuses. Mobile asset documentation tools support equipment reliability and allow Operators to efficiently collect data in the field.

Control Room Supervisors can then review and take action on this data in real time, informed by software which highlights anomalies and any conditions which require immediate maintenance action. If Operators do no have wireless internet access where they record their data, software can be configured to automatically send results as soon as connectivity is available. Decisions can be communication to Operators in real-time via radio.

Operator training and equipment procurement requires an upfront investment of both time and capital, true. But, the returns generated on this investment are many. The improved plant reliability training produces:

  • Reduced equipment downtime
  • Extended mean times to and between failures
  • Reduced potential for safety issues related to inadequate maintenance
  • Increased plant oversight
  • Better informed plant maintenance strategies
  • A more efficient allocation of maintenance resources

In short, operator driven reliability strategies can be reduced to this maxim: If you see something, do something. Teaching your Operators to see when your equipment requires service, and empowering them to perform that service themselves, will improve your plant operations.

As an added upside, empowered employees are more motivated employees, readier and more capable to take pride in their work and ownership of their responsibilities. If they see a piece of pizza, let them know that they can eat it.

Knowledge is power—that’s why we created GoPlant. Our mobile-based, asset-centric data collection system gives you oversight into the current condition of all your essential assets. Seeing your plant in real time helps you make smart decisions. To see GoPlant in action, request a demo. For any other questions, contact our team today.