Don’t Plan for Repair—Plan for Maintenance

Whether you’re strategic or reactive in your approach to equipment upkeep can determine competitive advantage or disadvantage.

Distribution is changing. Customers with more sophisticated fulfillment requirements are asking for deeper discounts and more relaxed return policies. To help them meet these challenges, DCs are relying more heavily on technology.

When properly applied, technology can make you more competitive and add to your bottom line. But as you layer on more technology and it affects more of your business, you run the risk of a major business disruption when it breaks—and it will break.

How you prepare for technological breakdown can give you a competitive advantage comparable to the one technology gave you in the first place. But are you reactive when a breakdown occurs or do you plan for such emergencies? Putting it another way, do you have a repair plan or do you have a maintenance plan? They may seem similar but they are not. The difference can make you best-in-class.

Best in Your Class

There is a misconception that you have to be a Big Box warehouse with a big-budget maintenance department to be best-in-class. Actually what you need is a well thought out and documented plan for how to maintain your equipment and what you will do when something does break.

On the surface it may not look like a lot has changed in your operation, but there have been on-going improvements in the tools and equipment used in distribution and manufacturing. A lift truck used to be an engine with some hydraulics. Now they also include servo drives, computers, and they communicate with a remote monitoring station to check on the water level in the battery.

Conveyors are also changing. They no longer just move boxes from A to B. Packages are now routed throughout a conveyor system via barcodes or RF tags. Remote managers can check on the health and operation of their conveyor via a smart phone. Did you ever think you’d be able to see if divert 3 is operating correctly while you were sitting on a beach 3,000 miles away?

These things are happening, and not only for the big players. They will become the norm, not the exception. Because of these changes in equipment and their operations, the day of the “Shade Tree Mechanic” is going away. Bob (you know Bob, he’s the warehouseman that also fixes your conveyor when a belt breaks) won’t be able to do anything other than routine maintenance in the future. He won’t have the knowledge, the tools, or the computers needed to diagnose, let alone fix a problem. Or will he?

There is still a place for Bob, but you have to know where he fits in your plan. You have to train him and equip him if you want to make him your first layer in that plan. It makes sense that you do have an on-site person to do the routine maintenance and inspections needed in a system. Bob also works as the liaison to the repairman or service company to describe the breakdown so they can arrive better prepared to deal with the problem.

Part of Bob’s training should include maintenance courses offered by your suppliers. If you don’t provide Bob with the training and tools needed to work on today’s equipment, you run the risk of Bob turning a simple repair into a major breakdown. Touching the wrong contact in a panel can short out a computer and significantly increase the cost of repair. If you aren’t committed to giving Bob what he needs to get the job done, you shouldn’t include him in your maintenance planning.

A best-in-class maintenance plan has both a long-term and short-term component.

Long-Term Planning

The long term is the development and implementation of a maintenance plan. The plan starts with the manufacturer’s preventative maintenance (PM) schedule. Know what it is for each piece of equipment and follow the recommendations. By planning for a PM, you can schedule the work to be done on your slower days and avoid losing a piece of equipment during peak activities. If your business is very seasonal you may want to plan a PM of all your critical equipment before the start of your peak season.

A good plan also includes a comprehensive training program for your employees. They should be taught the basics about how to safely operate a piece of equipment. The program should be documented and taught by a trained instructor, and not by someone who’s worked there for awhile and knows how to run the equipment because Bob taught him when he started. Do your employees know how to use the E-stops on the conveyor system and what zones are controlled by which E-stop, or do they simply use the E-stops to shutdown the conveyor at lunchtime?

A daily safety check should be done on each piece of equipment and it should be more than the typical checklist being done by a lot of well intentioned companies. Too many times a checklist form will be developed for a piece of equipment that lists a number of items the operator is supposed to check before beginning operations. The operator is in a hurry to start work and will look at the lift truck and not seeing a puddle of oil under the machine, will place a check mark in the first box and draw a line down the paper indicating everything checked out OK. The checklist goes on the pile of other checklists and is never looked at or used.

The best use of a checklist that I have seen has been used in conjunction with voice-pick technology. An operator has to go through a verbal checklist at the beginning of their shift before the voice-pick system will release work to the operator.

A simple way to help maintain your conveyor system is to take its temperature, literally. Walk the conveyor route every day and use a handheld infrared thermometer to read the temperature of each drive unit. Record the temperature and take corrective action when a drive starts operating at a higher temperature. It’s quick and simple and can help you avoid breakdown.

Finally, your equipment should have all the guarding in place at all times. It shouldn’t be removed or by-passed because it is inconvenient or slows a worker down. You should also protect the equipment from damage. Guardrails, column guards, corner posts, etc. are all used to not only protect your investment, but to eliminate that unexpected accident that takes a piece of equipment out of commission.

Short-Term Readiness

The short-term Plan is a contingency plan that details the action steps to take when something does break. The two parts of this plan include seeing to the repair of the item and then deciding how business will be maintained.

Spare parts fall into the short-term plan. Do you carry the recommended spare parts or only a partial quantity? Spares are not cheap and many companies reduce the recommended lists to what they perceive as critical, or what they had budgeted. Spare parts are intended to minimize downtime by being available when needed. Don’t expect that your serviceman will have all the components on his truck to fix your equipment. They service too many types of equipment to have all needed parts on their trucks.

As spare parts are consumed, they should be replaced. Sounds simple but too many companies don’t replace spares or they delay replacement because “it just failed--it won’t break right away.” Ordering the spare at a later date may not happen and the part won’t be available when needed.

Your comprehensive plan should include a short-term contingency plan spelling out what to do when equipment goes down. The plan should answer:

• Who will do the repair? Bob (if you trained him right) or do you need a serviceman?

• How do you maintain business? Do you need to rent short-term equipment? Losing an order picker for an extensive length of time during your peak season might result in lost orders.

• Do you need to hire additional temporary help? How are you going to get totes to packing and shipping when your sorter goes down?

• Can you “pick-to-paper” if your network goes down? A contingency plan should look at everything.

Be Comprehensive

Maintenance planning should be done for each part of your system. It can range from a detailed plan for your conveyor system to a simple plan for an off-line semi-automatic stretch wrapper. After all, you invested in this equipment to improve productivity, and all of it plays a part. When it is not available, it can adversely affect your ability to satisfy customer demands.

A good, well thought out maintenance plan will help reduce the chances of a breakdown in your system. More importantly, it will minimize the impact of a breakdown if it does occur. And it will.


Don Kuzma is an industry analyst based in Cleveland who specializes in distribution center design and management. He can be reached at [email protected].

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