Developing a condition monitoring strategy

Industrial technologies have led to the creation and collation of a wealth of data within the manufacturing plant, which allows plant managers to re-evaluate their maintenance program. Condition monitoring is the process of monitoring a parameter or condition of equipment to identify changes that could result in a potential fault developing. The process uses an array of sensors to continuously check and monitor the pre-defined parameters affecting equipment, including temperature, vibration, moisture and oil levels.

The gathering of this data has led to the creation of four key maintenance methodologies; reactive maintenance, where repairs are only conducted when equipment has already broken that can lead to higher costs for repair; preventative maintenance, a more traditional schedule-based program with actions undertaken during a planned time frame; predictive maintenance, uses a variety of inputs to predict potential failures; and proactive maintenance, which looks beyond specific equipment and addresses the problem area.

Using data to implement a maintenance plan on an annual basis is an effective way of ensuring every piece of equipment is free of errors, however it may not be the best use of an engineer’s time. Instead, condition monitoring can be used as a way to reduce downtime, extend equipment lifetime and improve Total Cost of Ownership (TCO).

By identifying potential faults before they happen, plant managers can act to prevent major system failures and production downtime. As equipment nears the end of its life span, condition monitoring allows for a replacement plan to be put in place. This ensures that new equipment is in stock, making the transition as smooth as possible with minimal disruption to production.

Basing a maintenance plan on equipment condition rather than predicted lifespan allows the plant to operate more efficiently. More informed decisions allow maintenance teams to work effectively and creates more time for identifying areas of improvement in the plant.

While condition monitoring allows plant managers to prepare and implement a robust maintenance program, they also need to ensure that the monitoring itself is as effective as possible. The only way to do this, is to instigate a condition monitoring strategy. But where should you begin? As every plant is different, even those owned by the same manufacturer, there is no one size fits all solution. Manufacturers should look to invest in multiple solutions, perhaps equipping various sensors on the same piece of equipment.

The first step in developing a strategy is to make sure whoever is tasked with implementing it understands the needs of all the relevant systems, equipment and processes. A full audit should be undertaken, establishing peak operating efficiency for all equipment and what parameters will need to be measured, which will dictate what sensors are needed. Budgets may restrict a full plant roll out, so it may be wise to start small, adding additional systems and processes over time.

Set specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time bound (SMART) objectives. You should have something to aim for that is more descript than ‘improve plant efficiency’, for example reduce production downtime by 20 per cent in 12 months. These objectives should remain fluid and be evaluated on a regular basis to ensure the program is achieving exactly what it should be.

In the early days of implementation, objectives may not be met for a whole host of reasons, such as unrealistic expectations or simple teething problems with the sensors. Over time these issues should be tackled and learnt from, in-turn influencing future decisions.

It’s not only equipment and sensors that can be connected by IIoT technologies, but plant managers too. Connected devices and cloud technology allow plant managers to monitor equipment condition in real time from any location that has been given access. For example, should a plant manager be made aware that a motor is not operating at optimum efficiency, they can easily order a replacement from a supplier, like EU Automation, before the equipment fails altogether, minimizing any potential production downtime.

As technologies become more advanced, the demands on engineers will only increase. However, by using the correct tools and data, plant engineers can use their time more effectively, allowing the equipment to work for them rather than the other way around. Capturing and analyzing the data produced by condition sensors will improve plant safety and performance and result in a more efficient and profitable operation.