Is zero downtime a fantasy?

Oct. 15, 2019

New technologies can get processors close to that impossible goal

Murphy’s law is a popular adage that states that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. This law may evoke fear, particularly for processing plant managers working hard to achieve zero-downtime. After all, it indicates that, with enough time, anything that can happen will happen.

Facilities managers in processing industries should take note of this possibility and take action.

If we apply this mentality to the concept of zero downtime in industrial applications, then the idea seems incredibly bold. It suggests that, with thorough planning and careful scheduling, downtime could be eliminated forever. But just as Murphy’s law reminds us, processing plants will eventually succumb to the chance of downtime.

That said, zero-downtime is an ambitious goal that is driving processing facility improvements. The concept has been well-received in all processing sectors due to the sheer impact of downtime to a business’s bottom line. The average impact of unplanned downtime in the process industries alone is $20 billion, attributed to lost sales, machine start-up costs, parts replacement, idle labor and other factors.

A more realistic ambition is "near-zero downtime." Through the use of preventative maintenance and condition monitoring procedures, downtime can be kept to an absolute minimum. Gathering machine data over time will help facility managers to plan and foresee downtime much more accurately. This allows them to predict failures before they occur and plan maintenance schedules and parts replacements accordingly.

A manufacturer of precision coated papers and films, Transcontinental Advanced Coatings (TAC), based in North Carolina, recently publicized its adoption of a condition monitoring system. Specifically, the system is used for its critical oxidizer processors, which clean air before it is released to the environment.

Previously, the company had relied on monthly monitoring of the fan motors and bearings in the processers that used thermal imaging, oil sampling and vibration analysis. However, these monthly tests provided just a snapshot of the equipment’s condition, rather than a continuous real-time picture.

To improve upon this, TAC implemented smart sensors as part of its new condition monitoring. These now enable the business to only conduct maintenance on the fan motors and bearings as needed, rather than on a fixed schedule.

Upgrades such as these can certainly help a business on its way to near-zero downtime. However, zero downtime may never be truly possible. Processing managers need to remain cautious of downtime, even with new technology adoption.

For example, if a programmable logic controller (PLC) breaks down, this could hold up the entire production of the processing facility. A business could hemorrhage money as a result, especially if there are huge lead times for a replacement part.

Parts replacement is a recurring theme in the zero-downtime discussion. Sourcing the right parts quickly is important for both planned maintenance and far more disruptive instances of unplanned downtime. Of course, the stakes are much higher in the case of nasty surprises, as downtime costs start to build up the second the machine stops working. It is crucial that parts are sourced as quickly as possible.

Processors must remain vigilant and open to the possibility that a breakdown could be just around the corner. More positively, new technology means these instances will be much less frequent and, with the right connections to industrial parts supply, the duration of the infrequent downtime can be kept as short as possible.

Zero downtime is thought to be an impossible fantasy by some. But if the processing industry can achieve near-zero downtime with very infrequent breakdowns and rapid fixes, then the difference between zero downtime and near-zero downtime could be negligible.

Acknowledging Murphy’s law reminds us that even a technology-packed processing plant will one day experience a fault. But as long as processing facilities are doing what they can to keep downtime to an absolute minimum, there is still huge cost savings to be had.

Claudia Jarrett is the United States country manager at industrial parts supplier EU Automation. For more information on EU Automation, contact 877-830-2021 or email [email protected].

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