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The Skills Shortage: An Alternative Approach

Originally published in MRO Magazine. February 2008

We don't take advantage of the tools we already have to help  deal with a rampant skills shortage in industry. Why aren't we using them?

By Cliff Williamís
Operations Maintenance Manager
Erco Worldwide

I recently presented a paper at a shutdown/turnaround/ outage (STO)  conference where there was a recurring comment among most of the presenters. One  of the major problems that companies involved in major shutdowns find is the  lack of people resources (skilled craftsmen) to complete the work required in  the time available.

Things are so bad that some companies are having to bring in welders,  pipefitters, etc., from overseas -- the Philippines, India and Croatia. There was even talk of some oil sands projects being prefabricated in modular fashion  in China and floated down from the Arctic.

Anyone who has tried to hire a skilled tradesman for a manufacturing plant in  Canada can testify that the people at the conference are not alone. We constantly hear the complaint that we are experiencing a skills shortage and it's only going to get worse unless we do something about it.

Some are looking to the government for help -- setting up apprenticeships or encouraging immigration -- but this doesn't seem to provoke much action. I think we need to try to find alternative solutions within our control; we certainly  couldn't fly in a few mechanics and electricians to help with our down days.

We have a solution at hand

I would like to suggest that Canadian manufacturers and maintenance managers already have some tools we could use to help ease the situation.

When I asked a couple of people from the utilities and chemical sectors why  they did so much work during a shutdown, I got the same answer I get when I ask local maintenance managers why they are changing pumps, rolls or bear-ings:  "Because we always do it."

Then, when I asked if they used any predictive or non-destructive testing in the decision process for what work gets done, most said no, that they just did what they did every shutdown. When I asked if they then analyzed if the  changeout was necessary by examining the old equipment or parts, they all said no.

I'm sure if I asked the same questions of many more maintenance managers, I  would continue to get the same replies. Even though the cost of monitoring equipment has decreased dramatically and the speed of the analysis has increased to the point that some companies offer notification via Blackberry, phone or  e-mail if a preset alarm is reached, very few plants are using this  technology.

Vibration analysis, oil analysis and infrared imagery can tell you the health  of your equipment when it's under load, which is when you need to know how it's  performing. Add ultrasonic technology and flow detection and you could  prioritize the work that has to be done during a shutdown with a great deal more  confidence -- and more importantly decide what jobs you're not going to do.

Some of those I spoke with admitted that they did have windows of time where some of the smaller jobs could be done, but they just didn't have the means to determine which those were.

I know of paper mills where they still change out major components on a  sixmonth rotation. Yet one paper mill that I worked at that, 15 years ago,  installed online vibration analysis, started oil analysis, and carried out motor  current and phase analysis, which resulted in changing components only when  production needs demanded it -- usually every two years. The payback on the  monitoring equipment we installed was 15 days and now that equipment has been superseded and cost only half of what it did back then.

So why don't others use tools like these that are available to us? I'd answer  this question by asking, "How do we find out about it?" A vast majority of  maintenance managers have come up through the ranks and so have not had the exposure they need. Although the PEMAC (Plant Engineering and Maintenance Association of Canada) Maintenance Management Professional (MMP) certificate offers a module on predictive maintenance, not enough people are attending the program to make an impact quickly enough.

I recently asked a co-coordinator of the apprenticeship program at a local Ontario college how much predictive maintenance was taught. "Little to none," he replied. So instead we must rely on sales people, articles in magazines like this and seminars to raise our awareness.

The discussion with the college cocoordinator brought up another problem with  the system. We train people on the basic skills but teach them nothing about the  environment in which they will need to use them. They need to know what the difference is between reactive and predictive maintenance and what tools are needed for each.

Maintenance CSI

Even more of a failing is the lack of taking an opportunity to glamourize the  trades. When the most popular TV shows are programs like Miami CSI, we need to  be showing that there is a forensic side to maintenance. Root Cause Analysis is just like a post-mortem and we can offer the ability to diagnose the health of our equipment just as well as any specialist in a hospital, yet we barely mention it to those entering our profession.

Another approach is using one of Lean manufacturing's most powerful tools -- Total Productive Maintenance (TPM). This is also known as operator maintenance but it is much more than that - in fact one of the goals is maintenance  prevention.

This involves the removal of perhaps the biggest stress inducer on equipment-contamination. The team, both operators and maintenance, then look for ways to ensure the contamination does not return. Gauge blocks, match marks, etc., help the operators set up their machines and enable them to make  adjustments within set tolerances. They would get trained not only in the 'how to' but also in the 'why', so that they understand the impact of what they are doing.

TPM will go as far as you allow it. I know of a company in Saskatchewan where  its TPM operators use a vibe pen and a temperature gun and carry out predictive maintenance on a daily basis. The maintenance team still complains it has too  much work to do in the time it has available, but they will tell you they now  use half the shutdown time they used to and their ultimate goal is to reach  zero. Wouldn't' you like that problem?

Comments? Requests for further information? Send them to Cliff Williams at cwilliams@ercoworldwide.comCliff is  the operations maintenance manager at ERCO worldwide in Canada.

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