During a trip to Europe, several years ago, I visited the German Museum of Science and Technology in Munich (the largest museum of this type in the world). While there, I marveled, as many do, at the machinery and equipment that people have designed and built without the help of modern technology. Consider the many windmills that used to be so prevalent across the European landscape
According to Low-Tech Magazine (Barcelona, lowtechmagazine.com), at their peak, the total number of wind-powered mills in Europe was 200,000. The Netherlands alone is reported to have had 9,000 of them by 1850. Based on a capacity of about 50-hp each, that calculates out as roughly 450,000 hp to mill grain, pump water, and support other industrial uses.
The craftsmen of those early, engineered wonders were driven to do great work, mostly because their livelihoods depended on it. Today is not that different. For example, as stated in a Feb. 2015 Los Angeles Times article, The Boston Consulting Group (Boston, bcg.com) predicted that investment in industrial robots would grow 10% a year in the world’s 25-biggest export nations through 2025, up from what, at the time, was said to be 2% to 3% annual growth.
Those numbers reflect just one of many such projections that popular news outlets seem to continuously share. Regardless of automation’s actual rate of growth in industry, for purposes of reliability and maintenance (R&M), the reality is that our skilled trades need more technical knowledge to understand wireless controls, computer interfaces, machine learning with predictive technologies, big data, and digital connectivity.
A lot can be accomplished right now. It starts with getting better at doing the basics well with proven best practices. Much of this falls into the category of precision maintenance.
My 2016 study comparing the savings resulting from precision-maintenance training with those from general-maintenance training showed that the benefits of applied precision maintenance were greater by a factor of four. Precision-maintenance training teaches trades and plant-floor engineers essential manufacturing skills. Examples of such skills include asset care and operation and machine assembly and installation, plus hands-on knowledge of precision alignment, pumps and pumping systems, gearboxes, and root-cause failure analysis.
You recognize a skilled craftsman when you see one at work. It’s evident in how he or she takes care of every detail, checks and rechecks the work, and shows pride in doing something right the first time, every time. Sadly, for reasons such as time pressure, lack of training, and organizational culture, among others, there’s been a decline in craftsmanship over the years. I am, though, of the opinion that most personnel, if given the opportunity and an enabled work environment, want to do the best job possible. At the same time, the generally accepted number for human error in maintenance issues is greater than 50%. A thorough comprehension and application of precision maintenance can reduce that percentage.
Of course, we first have to find adequate numbers of qualified technical workers. That’s a challenge. According to the Georgetown Univ. Center on Education and the Workforce (Washington, cew.georgtown.edu), by 2020, the United States will be short 5-million workers with the necessary technical certificates and credentials to succeed in high-growth, high-demand industries.
In 1991, the National Research Council (NRC, Washington, nationalacademies.org/nrc/) investigated U.S. manufacturing competitiveness. The subsequent report stated, “…the most cost-effective increase in U.S. manufacturing capacity may well be achievable through improved maintenance practices for existing equipment.”
Fast-forward 26 years: I believe this NRC statement holds true in 2017, and will continue to hold true in industries of the future. MT
Based in Knoxville, Klaus M. Blache is director of the Reliability & Maintainability Center at the Univ. of Tennessee, and a research professor in the College of Engineering. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.