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Introducing A New Line? What’s Your Breakdown Plan?

The marked increase in the use of automation in manufacturing industries has been driven not only by the need to realize the lowest possible costs for a product but also by consumer demand for variety and customization.  Control systems are cost-effective and provide the means to maximize efficiency and accuracy of the processing lines.  Therefore, today the set-up, change-over, product scheduling, and sequencing, together with quality control are necessarily automated.  The control systems also allow the collation of documentation for all materials and processes used in production, which is essential to meet product safety.  It is also necessary to be able to recall defective products quickly and cost-effectively.  These demands have led to the integration of critical information from the plant floor and from suppliers into corporate enterprise resource planning systems.

The adoption of automation technology has not happened without problems.  In the planning stages for the installation of control systems, the focus is predominately upon the existing product line or new process and the in-house production team that will be involved.  Training programs to improve the skills of the in-house production team and/or the hiring of additional engineers with the required skills will be included in the planning stages.  The plant services are often overlooked, yet it is these engineers, technicians, and electricians that will be required to respond to maintenance problems that arise, some of which may result in costly downtime.  It is possible that there is a lack of understanding of automation technology within management.  It has been suggested that in some instances the control systems selected for a project may be limited to the ability of the available in-house engineers and electricians (the KISS philosophy). This apparent reluctance to accept automation is somewhat reminiscent of the reaction to the introduction of fuel injectors in automobile engines several decades ago.  The fuel injector represented an innovative technology that at first was regarded as complicated and it replaced the carburetor, which was a simple engine part.  Technology for the automobile has advanced to such a degree that today it requires the assistance of a computer (a specialized technician) to service the engine.  Yet this is no longer difficult to accept.  Similarly, it should be realized that the maintenance of control systems and automated equipment will require “a computer,” that is expertise not readily found in the electricians and engineers that make up the in-house plant services.

Automation brings the ability to control, process, track and manage production in real time while reducing labor costs and improving efficiency.  However, once a company has invested in automation technology, that technology and equipment must be protected from breakdown and the expected early wear and tear.  As stated earlier, the question of how to provide that protection, particularly over the long term, is not often addressed in the planning stages.  It may be that providing the required support services increases the overall project costs and this is a concern to management.  But surely it is obvious that such support will be needed.

There are three approaches to the maintenance of control systems and automation equipment that may be considered:

  1. Create an in-house team of electricians, engineers, and technicians to provide the necessary maintenance and support. This will likely require the addition of personnel with specific skills related to automation.  Training programs directed to support services may be introduced, the training customized to the product line.
  2. Completely outsource maintenance activities related to the control systems and automation equipment.
  3. Establish a hybrid arrangement in which the mission-critical engineering skills are kept in-house, but general maintenance services are outsourced.

There is a key factor that should be considered in determining how to best provide maintenance and support services.  Determination of the impact of downtime should be given the highest priority since downtime affects both productivity and profitability.  Establishing in-house capability that can quickly deal with breakdown problems is advantageous.  However, it must be recognized that the in-house team will need ALL the necessary skills related to automation technology and control systems to quickly deal with every problem over the long term.

If it is decided to keep the critical engineering skills in-house several questions arise:

  1. What is the availability of skilled engineers and electricians?
  2. With possibly a relatively small number of skilled individuals available, do you hire to support current operating systems or for new processes under consideration?
  3. Should you seek multi-skilled individuals with considerable experience in automation?
  4. Should these individuals have the ability to grow and change as technology changes and how is this ability recognized?
  5. Are you able to offer attractive compensation packages, including pension and healthcare benefits as well as salary?
  6. Will you be able to retain these individuals?
  7. Is the location of the plant attractive and interesting to mobile, skilled engineers?

Clearly, these questions only apply to options 1 and 3.  Completely outsourcing maintenance activities avoids these uncertainties, and it is possible to acquire the skills needed without long-term commitments to employees. However, it is recognized in manufacturing industries that plant managers may struggle with the loss of control that results from outsourcing activities.  Under these circumstances, the plant manager finds it difficult to directly manage, set priorities, and instruct the workforce.  Yet, without question outsourcing delivers expertise, efficiently provides high-quality work and is NOT costlier than establishing in-house capabilities.

Finally, it is the responsibility of the end user to determine the focus, flexibility, control, and cost-effectiveness, required to manage maintenance activities.  Automation has perhaps upset the traditional balance between the process and the maintenance required by that process.  Automation and today’s control systems demand a range of specific skills to install and maintain and outsourcing does offer immediate access to those skills.  It may be argued that many companies are prepared to invest in their own people, recognizing the positive impact that competent and responsive maintenance has on their business.  That indeed may well be true but there are situations where it is better to outsource the responsibility, e.g., the lack of sufficient skilled people being available, where maintenance is cyclical and has periods of low activity, where equipment is highly specialized or where the facility is too small to warrant investment in an in-house maintenance function.







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