Software Helps Companies to Cope with Brain Drain

Oct. 1, 2005
Lost expertise coupled with intense pressure to keep process plants running at all times opens the door to plant asset management solutions.

When William Hardin arrived at Engelhard Corp.’s Huntsville, Ala., plant three years ago to manage the maintenance and asset management program, he found that the factory already had a plant asset management (PAM) system installed, but that it was sorely underutilized. The other thing he inherited was an aging senior maintenance staff. Hardin quickly realized that his most valuable resource—the decades of knowledge and experience represented in that staff—would soon disappear, as his managers approach retirement.

“Some of the older guys can go out and tell what is wrong without even touching anything,” marvels Hardin, managing supervisor at the plant, which manufactures automotive emission catalysts. “The younger guys go out and need half a day and struggle, not because they don’t have the ability, but because they just don’t have the experience.”

Hardin estimates that within five years, all of the senior workers will be gone. And according to Wil Chin, a research director at ARC Advisory Group Inc., a Dedham, Mass.-based research firm, this phenomenon is not restricted to Engelhard, or even the chemical industry. “There are not enough people in all of the heavy industries, not enough even to do basic manual inspection and routine maintenance,” says Chin. “Some of the users I’ve talked to have lost so many people that they are just trying to take care of alarms. They don’t have the people to do one tenth of the things they would like to do, such as helping plant productivity or preventative maintenance. They are too busy putting out fires to build a fire-proof plant.”


PAM systems use intelligent devices such as vibration and flow sensors to constantly monitor the condition of plant assets and alert maintenance staff when performance drops out of acceptable ranges, indicating a potential breakdown. By getting this information before a catastrophic failure brings the entire production line to a sudden halt, preventative maintenance can be scheduled to keep the line moving, maximizing production.

The human resources crisis isn’t the only factor behind the growing popularity of PAM systems. According to Chin, the huge installed base of aging equipment and declining capital investment also play a part, as does the advent of innovative solutions that take PAM from a mere maintenance application to a strategic tool that can affect the whole enterprise.

ARC research conducted a few years ago revealed that a PAM implementation strategy can produce 30 percent reductions in maintenance budgets, while cutting production downtime by 20 percent. Given that up to 40 percent of a company’s revenues in asset-intensive industries such as chemicals may be dedicated to maintenance, these savings can have a big bottom-line impact.

According to Chin’s latest report, “Plant Asset Management Systems Worldwide Outlook Study,” the PAM market has gained tremendous traction over the past few years, especially in the heavy process industries, including power, oil and gas, and chemicals, where equipment is subjected to extremely harsh conditions. But now, even “laggard” industries such as pharmaceuticals, food and beverage, and pulp and paper are showing renewed interest, and a shortage of skilled workers is only one of the driving factors.

“It is becoming more and more apparent to companies that some capacity for increased production and profitability can be achieved without additional capital spending,” says Nat Schnurman, service marketing manager for ABB Inc., of Wickliffe, Ohio. “By changing the focus of internal operations to increased reliability of production assets—in other words, better plant asset management—companies are able to produce more product with the same equipment.”

Schnurman notes that PAM systems can help companies boost available production time in a variety of ways, including reduction of unplanned outages through improved reliability practices, and reductions in time-based maintenance practices based on predictive and heuristic models. Plants may also experience fewer changes in production line speeds caused by process upsets, while product quality may also improve, reducing the need for re-processing. “As soon as available production time is increased customers discover that net profits increase and maintenance costs decrease,” Schnurman observes.


According to Chin, PAM systems offer clear and distinctive sets of benefits for both operations and maintenance personnel. On the maintenance side, a PAM system can help staff identify: what equipment may fail if it does not receive timely maintenance attention; what intervention is required, and when; what replacement parts are required, and when; and, the optimal blend of condition-based, calendar-based, usage-based, and run-to-failure maintenance for a given machine.

Meanwhile, operations personnel can ascertain what adjustments can be made to the manufacturing process itself to prolong the life of critical equipment, and to what extent they can increase process output without incurring unacceptably high risks of unexpected process slowtime, downtime, quality problems or shutdowns.

“Operators can make accommodations in the process,” says Chin. “If they see they are going to lose a pump—or a have a catastrophic failure—they can slow the entire process rather than shut it down. They can maintain the plant on their terms.”

There are also a lot of intangible benefits that come along with these types of systems, says Rick Bauer, product line leader for Minden, Nev.-based Bently Nevada, a GE Energy company that produces asset condition monitoring systems and equipment. According to Bauer, PAM systems “enforce methodologies and best practices that get the data to the right person at the right time to prevent costly failures. And, as you move away from reactionary work, morale improves,” Bauer adds. “We’re definitely seeing that. People using our system create rules, and we’re able to capture a lot of that critical knowledge in our rules.”

Adds Chin, “Improving management of capital assets is one of the best ways to increase productivity with little to virtually no production upsets, while meeting the goals and objectives of today’s enterprise.”


Back in Huntsville, where Engelhard makes environmental catalysts that strips emissions from automotive exhaust systems, Hardin’s first order of business was to drive full adoption of the plant’s Avantis PAM installation. “When I first started here, we really only had a preventative maintenance program, which was heavily focussed on manual inspection. Now we’re getting more predictive analysis,” Hardin relates.

It’s an effort that has paid dividends. Since he arrived, the plant has cut downtime from 15 percent to 6 percent. “It’s cut our downtime by more than half, which is a significant productivity gain. Downtime is a big deal. We didn’t really have a control on it when I got here, just a whole bunch of people on the floor and no way to document [what they were doing]. Documentation is the important thing, and you have to get everyone in the production environment to buy into it.”

Engelhard is in the process of getting all its equipment manuals into the database. Every time a maintenance job is completed, staff members fill out reports that include fields for notes and comments, so that the old-timers can explain what they did and why. The goal is to capture critical knowledge that is currently retained only in their heads, and gradually incorporate it into the system.

For Enrico Valle, computer service manager at Reagens Canada Ltd., of Bradford, Ontario, Canada, the impact of rolling out a PAM system was even more dramatic. He found problems that were causing some equipment to be down for as much as two days out of every week. Reagens, which makes polyvinyl chloride (PVC) additives for home and garden products such as patio furniture, garden sheds and window blinds, uses a manufacturing execution system (MES) from Alpharetta, Ga.-based Siemens Energy and Automation, in concert with an add-on maintenance module to manage machine downtime.

“The MES tracks the actual amount of time the line is down, while the maintenance package looks at why the machine was down,” says Valle, adding that the system enabled him to focus on the problems and fix them, driving improved production from the line. “The first thing it allowed us to do was to assess exactly how much product we were making and how much it was costing to do that.”

As is typical in most North American chemical plants, Reagens has a mix of new and old equipment, which means differing maintenance schedules, as older machines tend to break down more often than newer ones. All of this has to be incorporated into the PAM strategy, and makes manual scheduling that much more complicated. “Some of the older machines date back to 1965 and require a more intensive maintenance program,” Valle says, adding that automating the process makes it easier to keep track of the different maintenance schedules.

Gimmi Felice, product marketing manager at Charlottesville, Va.-based GE Fanuc Automation, counsels customers to tie all assets into one system. “An overall maintenance strategy includes everything from the plant floor all the way up to an enterprise asset management (EAM) system. Some companies already have an EAM system, they just don’t tie it into their production data,” Felice says.


According to Chin, the time has never been better to adopt a comprehensive asset management strategy. Traditionally, PAM systems were predominantly predictive maintenance applications, but with today’s analytical software capabilities, they are evolving into comprehensive asset information solutions that preserve their maintenance roots while expanding into the operations realm.

Additionally, there are a growing number of vendors shouldering their way into the market from both the automation and production sides of the spectrum. This is both a benefit and a challenge to customers, as there is a wealth of options to choose from. But Chin cautions prospective buyers to make sure they engage a vendor that can handle both new equipment and the machines that date back to the ‘60s.

Despite the benefits he has seen, Hardin, at Englehard, also advises buyers to think carefully before they run out and connect all of their equipment to a centralized system. “You have to look at how critical each piece of equipment is to the production process. If a particular component goes down, is it going to shut the line down? It’s very beneficial as long as you put it on the right components. You don’t want to put it on a bearing that costs $50 and takes 30 minutes to replace.”

For more information, search keyword “asset management” at

Alex Anderson is a freelance writer based in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

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