By Adam Fahrenholz, Wilmer Pacheco and Charles Stark
Maintenance programs are key to a feed mill’s continuous operation and longevity. And though it may seem like semantics, there is certainly a difference between simply performing maintenance and having a developed and dedicated program. The latter requires top-down support from management in order to provide for the necessary resources including personnel, equipment, and time. While many can understand the long-term implications of good maintenance, in the moment it can often seem expensive and interruptive to the production schedule. However, choosing to focus on maintenance as an important component of operations will limit unscheduled downtime and reduce customer waiting times, positively impact overall costs, support compliance with safety regulations, and limit those dramatic events that lead to stress and additional issues downstream.
As we touched on in the previous issue, labor is a major concern for the feed industry, and maintenance personnel are a particularly evident subset of the worker shortage. It can be difficult to find qualified personnel, particularly those who will choose to work in our non-environmentally controlled, loud, and “always-on” facilities. With this in mind, it’s important to hire qualified and trained personnel who can perform certain tasks (e.g., electrical, welding, boiler operation, etc.) in addition to more basic maintenance. Contract workers can be also be a good alternative depending on the task at hand. Contracting may be a bit more expensive, but if the skill is only needed for limited hours, then it may be a cheaper alternative overall.
Many facilities will hire experienced millwrights for the most involved repairs, preventive maintenance, and renovation needs. It’s important to remember as part of the maintenance program to include any necessary safety training, policy sharing, and checking of training records and insurance of outside personnel in order to cover liability and keep everyone safe in and around your facility.
Finally, management should pay close attention during the hiring process and while observing employees at work to look for those with mechanical aptitude. Someone who seems particularly adept at and comfortable with general maintenance (e.g., greasing bearings, cleaning magnets, replacing belts, etc.) may be an excellent candidate for additional on-the-job training and/or external skills development in order to develop a qualified maintenance employee from within.
When it comes to maintenance, there is a lot to be said for dedicated space and the right tools for the job. One good, albeit not foolproof, way to get a first impression on the maintenance status of a facility is to visit the tool room, shop, and/or maintenance office. If everything seems well organized, including tools, spare parts, equipment manuals and documentation, etc., it’s a pretty good sign that maintenance is a priority. If there is no organization, or indeed no dedicated space for these items at all, then it may be a different story.
In addition to space and organization, it is typically worthwhile to make the investment in the right tools, of good quality, and in sufficient supply. There are some specialty tools that, while expensive, may get a job done much quicker and safer to perform. In most cases, just one of these tools on hand can make a difference. But when it comes to things like screwdrivers, wrenches, sockets, and pliers, one set is going to become a lost set. Furthermore, it may be a good idea to buy a few small job boxes and keep these basic tools in multiple areas around the facility. This saves time and helps keep things from being left in random places, it also encourages employees to use the right tool instead of the wrong one. With this in mind, you might want to limit the use of that pipe wrench and three-pound hammer to the most senior and qualified of your maintenance personnel.
As with any good program, maintenance should be scheduled and documented. Programs can be managed with local or cloud-based systems, on spreadsheets, or on paper. Some systems are more convenient and robust than others, but the method is less important than the fact that the program is managed in the first place. Systems should focus on the development of schedules and the tracking of work and parts, and care should be taken to not overload the program with more information than is actually necessary and valuable.
Maintenance personnel should develop a schedule that minimizes production interruptions to the extent possible. Maintenance that can be safely done during the week should be the goal, with the weekend reserved for activities requiring large time commitments or mill shutdowns. Schedules should account for regular preventive maintenance as well as planned larger jobs that occur on a less frequent basis. These schedules may be developed based on time or tonnage, depending on the equipment. Obviously, they should also assume that there won’t be full shifts dedicated to the scheduled items, since there will always be a need to address unexpected repairs and other issues.
Equipment information is necessary to avoid searching for information during a breakdown, but it’s also valuable in day-to-day operations in order to maintain efficiencies. Collecting all the information ahead of time will help avoid delays when ordering parts. Information may include manufacturer, model and part numbers, location within the facility (for things like sensors, switches, and motors that are used in multiple areas), and required maintenance instructions. For spare parts, greases and oils, belts, bearings and other common items, local suppliers are good first options, but additional sources should be identified as well. A facility should have a good idea of which parts are critical and which are not so that stocking decisions can be made.
As with any part of our operations, maintenance comes with associated costs. A good program will not only keep the facility operational, it will also track expenses through the management of work orders and supply purchases to ensure maintenance is being done efficiently and in a cost-effective manner. When done correctly, the program should effectively save the facility money by keeping it out of a vicious cycle of maintenance and production requirements limiting each other on a regular basis.