Why companies are investing in automated maintenance technology

Steve Herd at Distrelec

Driven by the opportunity to transform and develop business operations, Steve Herd has been fundamental to the delivery of Distrelec’s customer and product proposition since 2015. With over 19 years’ experience in the electronics industry, Steve is a results driven leader, and has a sound understanding of how to best serve the needs of engineers.

When time is money, every delay is an expense businesses would rather avoid. This is increasingly true in today’s competitive global economy, and is especially true in the case of maintenance, repair and operations. When a factory or workplace suffers an extended period of downtime, costs can spiral if the problem isn’t resolved quickly and efficiently.

Why Companies Are Investing in Automated Maintenance Technology

Evidence of the costs of downtime is easy to find. In the manufacturing sector, downtime costs UK-based enterprises Â£180 billion every year, while North American companies lose around $700 billion a year to IT downtime. In the UK, US, France and Germany, unplanned downtime costs around $260,000 an hour across all sectors, according to a global Vanson Bourne study published in 2017. 

This same study found that 70% of companies lack the ability to determine when equipment is due for maintenance, upgrade or replacement, and that 82% of businesses have experienced at least one period of unplanned downtime in the previous three years.

In other words, it is crucial that businesses invest more in technology that can improve MRO efficiency and minimise downtime. Fortunately, a growing number of companies are leading the way in offering such technology, having developed various systems and solutions that can automate MRO practices and ensure downtime is either avoided altogether or kept to a bare minimum.

These include names such as IFS, IBM, eMaint, Oracle, and Maintenance Connection. Such firms have harnessed AI, big data analytics, the Internet of Things, and cloud computing in order to create tools which let their clients stay ahead of necessary maintenance and repairs, and also ahead of the competition.

Computerised Maintenance Management Systems 

The cornerstone of 21st Century MRO is the computerised maintenance management system (CMMS). While these come in various shapes and sizes depending on the provider, they all essentially have the role of providing a single portal through which enterprise data can be accessed and maintenance events can be scheduled.

As an example, Canadian distributor Acklands-Grainger uses the IBM Tririga CMMS to monitor every component in its facility that might need maintenance. It can also use this system to check the history of maintenance work, track spare parts and schedule new tasks.By using such a system, Acklands-Grainger and other companies go a long way to making their operations more reliable and, as a result, more profitable.

CMMS and enterprise asset maintenance (EAM) systems enable companies to closely track which assets, machines or tools are exhibiting increased signs of wear. As such, they let businesses schedule preventive maintenance for ageing components, which not only avoids downtime but also helps to extend the working life of parts.

Follow Best Practice

Of course, successful MRO isn’t a simple matter of paying for an automated CMMS and expecting it to do the rest. It also depends on following best practice. For one, companies aiming to benefit from MRO systems still need to adopt a proactive approach and ensure that employees with responsibility for MRO upkeep really do take full responsibility.

recent survey conducted by the Peerless Research Group discovered that as many as 19 different job roles can be tasked with handling MRO at any given company. It’s therefore important to ensure that every employee occupying one of these roles is fully aware of their duties, since the same survey also revealed that 13% of companies describe their internal MRO handling as “poor.” Depending on the size of your company and your in-house MRO expertise, you can also choose to implement a ‘hybrid’ MRO policy that shares maintenance responsibilities internally and externally.

Another key to successful MRO activity is spare parts management which is vital if downtime is to be minimised. This includes monitoring your inventory of spare parts and ensuring that parts are sourced according to ongoing needs. One of the most common issues affecting spare parts management is an inability to find parts just when they’re needed, so using a CMMS or EAM system to track parts is a sensible policy to have.

Predictive vs. Preventive

In most cases, companies use preventive – aka scheduled – maintenance to ensure that downtime is minimised. This involves planning regular maintenance activities for any enterprise asset or component known to require regular attention.

However, with the advent of big data, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things, companies have increasingly found themselves using predictive maintenance. Rather than planning anything as a matter of routine, this entails using AI to analyse data taken from the factory floor. Based on the detection of certain patterns in this data, CMMS and EAM systems that are capable of predictive maintenance can forecast when a component or asset is likely to need repair.

Although more expensive to install and implement, predictive maintenance generally saves a company money in the long run compared to its preventive counterpart. This is because it calls for maintenance and repairs only when it detects likely faults, as opposed to scheduling MRO activity at regular intervals. Consequently, labor costs are reduced and the occasional pitfalls of over-maintenance are avoided.

It would be slightly misleading to say that this is always an either/or situation, since preventive and predictive maintenance aren’t quite direct competitors. It’s possible to use predictive and preventive maintenance in parallel for different systems, although the cost and complexity of predictive maintenance means that it’s usually better left to larger organizations that have already implemented preventive maintenance systems.

The Future

As the costs of AI-based technology are squeezed downwards, it’s likely that preventive maintenance will become an increasingly prevalent fixture of the MRO landscape.

An Allied Market Research report published in September found that the global predictive maintenance market will grow to $23 billion by 2026, from $2.8 billion in 2018.

Driving this change will be an increase in skilled staff who are trained to handle the machine learning and IoT technology necessary for implementing predictive MRO systems. As such, if companies want to remain at the forefront of automated maintenance technology, they need to invest in their AI and IoT capabilities now, while also enhancing their handling of cybersecurity and data privacy.

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