North American Stainless is calling on QR codes to support its best-in-class maintenance practices.
By Don Stewart, North American Stainless
North American Stainless (NAS), a member of the Acerinox Group, is the largest fully integrated stainless steel producer in the U.S. The Ghent, KY, mill (shown above) has expanded rapidly since its founding in 1990, but still operates very lean with only one manager of mechanical maintenance for the entire plant. Like most companies, NAS is particularly concerned with increasing the performance and furthering the reliability of its equipment. Paper-based processes, however, and a lack of adequate equipment history had been holding the Ghent mill back from best-in-class performance.
Granted, having access to history doesn’t necessarily make repairs faster, but it would help us in finding the origins of problems. For example, if a particular pump or cylinder has repeated problems, we could use the history to help investigate and identify the root cause. Access to equipment history would likewise reduce the learning curve of our technicians and improve labor productivity, allowing for more effective, accurate, timely and cost-effective repairs.
In 2008, NAS launched an initiative to invest in Web-based software and state-of-the-art technology to simplify the process of capturing and accessing equipment information, performing inspections and tracking repairs through completion. As a result, maintenance practices have become more predictive and effective than in the past, and equipment is operating more reliably.
Turning opportunities into achievable goals
Previously, repairs were tracked by maintenance personnel with file folders, who attached quotes and repair inspections when available to purchase orders. That was essentially the extent of the documentation—and it wasn’t always utilized properly. Many times, maintenance had paper files detailing past repairs, but when an item was again sent for service, that information wasn’t readily accessible for review. Sometimes, the equipment would go to repair shops that didn’t have records of previous work performed.
Because of our reliance on paper work orders generated by our computerized maintenance management system (CMMS), inspections were also not ideal. Each inspection would include a combination of visual checks (e.g., is something good, bad or needing attention), as well as data-based observations (e.g., recording levels, pressures, set points, etc). Once completed, the paper work orders were given to a clerk who scanned them and sent them to the responsible maintenance personnel for review. It was up to that maintenance person to generate new work orders based on discoveries made during the inspection.
Basically, for both repairs and inspections, NAS depended on the memory of whoever was in charge of the line—and if he/she moved to a different group, transferred to another plant or left the company, the history was lost. To resolve this challenge, we needed to digitize our equipment records and work history in a centralized knowledge base, which would simultaneously allow us to upgrade our maintenance work processes.
System selection and deployment
Following a careful search and evaluation of reliability information management systems, NAS chose Tango from 24/7 Systems to store and retain reliability data points like oil analysis, thermography, etc. Implemented in 2008, this system appeared to offer the best type of software and Web service for our needs: reporting, storage, tracking and filtering of equipment-condition assessments and predictive maintenance (PdM) inspections. It also was capable of maintaining years of equipment history.
The Tango software provided reliability information management in two areas:
- Integration, management and communication of equipment condition information
- Life-cycle tracking to gain equipment history, MTBF and root cause of failure
In 2011, NAS began incorporating smartphones and quick-response (QR) barcodes into our processes—which boosted the adoption and usage of the reliability information system’s repair-tracking capabilities. The Repair Tracker module provides a Web-based portal for plant personnel and repair shops to enter repair and failure details. Although this tracking functionality didn’t see much action in the beginning, the longer we used the reliability information management system, the clearer it became that the tracking feature was something we should leverage.
QR code on equipment
As shown in the accompanying photo (and as most readers are no doubt aware), QR codes are the square, two-dimensional barcodes that have been fast replacing traditional UPC barcodes because of their readability and storage capacity. If you have the serial number, it’s easy to assign a QR code. Using a smartphone or similar Web-based device, a user can scan a QR code to access and enter equipment information, speeding the process and preventing data-entry errors.
NAS is now using QR codes to track equipment repairs and preventive maintenance activities, and as a means of quick access to data from the field. We began by tagging every pump from which we take vibration data on a monthly basis. The site has already tagged about 400 pumps and several hydraulic cylinders, rolls and gearboxes—and we’re in the process of expanding those numbers. As equipment is pulled from the line during shutdowns or otherwise, we tag it before it’s sent out for repair.
Approximately 20 maintenance engineers throughout the plant have been trained on how to use the repair tracker function, including how to assign QR codes to items and how to send an item for repair from the mobile platform. In addition, at least 40 vendors are currently set up to use the software. All of the repair shops and vendors that we use when sending items like pumps, gearboxes, spindles, rolls, etc., out for repair have the ability to log in to the repair tracking system and add information.
Modern technologies transform work processes
Using QR codes and our reliability software to track repairs is easy. If the equipment you’re sending out for repair already has a QR code attached to it, you simply scan the code with a smartphone or Web-enabled tablet using one of the many free QR code readers available for all the major operating systems.
Once the QR code has been scanned, the user will be directed to a link in Tango Mobile. One of the links available via this mobile Web page is a “Send for Repair” button. The user taps this option and then selects the name of the repair shop where the equipment is to be sent. We require a purchase order number to be associated with the repair and also the date the item is being sent. Once those three pieces of information are assigned and the item is submitted for repair, the system will automatically generate an email to notify the receiving department and appropriate purchasing and maintenance personnel. If the equipment does not already have a QR code attached to it, additional steps are required to assign a code before sending it out for repair—something that can be done in the field using a smartphone or tablet.
Repair shops and vendors can input information about the condition of an item as it is received, updates on the repair throughout the process and details on the repair after it has been completed. They also have the option to upload inspection reports, pictures and other relevant documents directly into the tracking software. All of this information can be quickly accessed by the NAS personnel responsible for sending out the referenced equipment for repair. Additionally, if repair shop personnel receive a piece of equipment without a QR code and think it needs to be tracked, they will either advise NAS to enter it in the software or do it themselves.
Repair tracking results page
One major benefit we’re seeing comes from the knowledge that’s permanently recorded by the tracking application. Using this software, all historical information is available online once it has been logged. You can see repair information, testing, pictures, etc., that were uploaded with the previous repairs.
And, you can track these repairs for recurring issues so that future upgrades can be planned. For example, if a pump from a specific system experienced bearing failures on multiple occasions due to a lack of lubrication, we might want to look into upgrading the bearings, the lubrication or both. The software puts this type of information on our screens in an easy-to-follow format.
Current and future goals
Like many other new procedures, it will take some time to achieve 100% adoption of the new processes. Some of our users have embraced the system to a greater degree than others. Although the benefits of using the reliability information management system are evident, it’s still a change from the way things have been done in the past.
Meanwhile, the mill’s reliance on the system is increasing. Our current plans are to implement Tango’s Repair Tracker program for all major equipment that’s repaired. While we now primarily track mechanical assets, we see a huge opportunity to add motors that are sent out weekly to the system.
Equipment travel email
The reliability software isn’t integrated into our CMMS program at this time, but we plan to use the Mobile Rounds Logging feature of Tango in place of our current PdM inspections in certain areas. We feel that it will be faster and easier for technicians to complete inspections with this feature—because it will automate many of the inspection steps. They can pull up the equipment record using the QR code and the data that’s entered is immediately uploaded once the inspection is completed. Alarm levels on entered data will generate condition entries into the software. Users then have the ability to trend these parameters over time. NAS is also working toward moving from smartphones to tablets for rounds logging inspections and for tracking parts.
As a whole, this strategic combination of software and smart technology has eliminated the paper trail and related risks that had previously bogged down the NAS maintenance department and revolutionized its current operations. As North American Stainless continues to find new ways to leverage this investment, we expect our maintenance performance and equipment reliability to continue to improve. MT
Don Stewart is a Predictive Maintenance Engineer at North American Stainless (www.northamericanstainless.com) in Ghent, KY. An ISO Category III Certified Vibration Analyst, he’s been with the company since 2002. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.