Ways to reduce downtime without IIoT

Sept. 3, 2020
How does an older factory limit downtime while it continues to run with legacy systems in place? Here are a few suggestions.

Downtime is a dirty subject no one in manufacturing willingly talks about. In fact, studies by Aberdeen and Gartner both place the cost of downtime at more than $250,000 per hour. With those costs in the balance, the elimination of downtime should be a priority. Yet, only one of every five companies can accurately estimate how much downtime they will experience in the coming year.

The Limitations of IIoT

It seems like every other article today is about the benefits of sensor technology and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). It’s true that IIoT is poised to rapidly transform the factory floor by connecting and coordinating different industrial systems into one smart factory capable of sharing data, regulating energy consumption and optimizing workflow. It’s also true that this type of connection will almost certainly improve uptime and help to better predict or prevent costly downtime.

However, the nature of process equipment typically stands in the way of any kind of “rapid transformation.” Industrial equipment is, by nature, robust and long-lived. It’s also expensive. It’s rarely cost-effective to rip out well-functioning equipment just because new alternatives offer better connectivity. Additionally, system replacement comes with its own Catch-22: the plant will certainly experience extended expensive downtime as old equipment is removed and replaced.

So, how does an older factory limit downtime while it continues to run with legacy systems in place? Here are a few suggestions.

Determine downtime costs and causes

The first step in eliminating or limiting downtime is to know where downtime is stemming from, and at what cost. First, determine the root cause of the downtime. Is there a problematic machine? Is operator error involved? Are there issues with materials? Or is there something within the plant itself such as vibration, dust, or excess heat causing the problem to occur?

Once the source issue or issues are pinpointed, steps can be taken to correct the problem. Data analysis may take some time but can be valuable, especially when it shows where production backups occur or proactively diagnoses maintenance issues.

Empower and train employees

A great manager does a lot to keep the production floor running smoothly. But a manager can only be in one place at one time. Empowered employees with the knowledge and the skills to make decisions in real-time will reduce downtime through enthusiastic problem solving.

This only occurs under specific circumstances, though. First, employees must be properly trained to do their job well. Additionally, they need to understand how their day-to-day decisions affect the overall strength of the company. This can be done by setting goals and keeping track of which operators are meeting or exceeding those goals. It can also be done by listening to team members’ suggestions at all levels and checking in to talk about how each person’s work is contributing to the bottom line.

Essentially, this comes down to workplace culture. Do frontline employees trust in their employee-manager relationship? Do they feel responsibility will be rewarded (if not now, eventually) with monetary compensation, a promotion, identity as a leader within the work community, or some other kind of reward?

Plan ahead

It’s the nature of moving parts that eventually something will need maintenance. It cannot be avoided. Maintenance put off too long will only result in the machine choosing when maintenance occurs.

Scheduled maintenance avoids these unscheduled stoppages. Make sure any needed documentation that may be required to service machines is kept organized and located where it’s easily accessible by those completing maintenance.

It can be difficult to source replacement documentation for older, legacy systems if originals are lost or misplaced. Best practices suggest scanning any hard copy documents to maintain PDF backups. Inexpensive tablets make it simple to store, access and transport these documents to the machine when maintenance is required, leaving original hard copies safe.

Additionally, as systems age it’s important to have a strong obsolescent management system in place. Risk analysis pinpoints and prioritizes purchases for replacements depending on factory need and current availability. This puts parts into inventory before they’re required rather than risking a situation where a necessary part is on extended back order. No one wants a situation where the plant floor remains at a standstill for an extended time because of one unavailable part.

Implement proper handling techniques

For years, manufacturers have used various lean manufacturing practices such as 5S, Kaizen or Six Sigma to maintain proper inventory and resource management. If the plant does not implement any sort of lean manufacturing technique, now may be the time to investigate.

Even small amounts of waste can contribute to downtime. This may be something as simple as identifying bottlenecks in production. These stalls in production can leave downflow operators waiting for something to do (downtime) while those above the bottleneck must wait for it to clear to continue (more downtime.) Eliminating these time wasting processes can significantly reduce downtime and improve productivity. 

Consider integration instead of replacement

If the lack of real-time visibility feels like a significant issue but a full system upgrade isn’t an option, consider the addition of newer technologies like smart sensors and edge gateways to increase data collection capabilities. Such additions are significantly less expensive and don’t come with the associated downtime that will inevitably occur while fully upgrading a system. Additionally, there is no drop in productivity as staff gets used to new equipment as there would be with a new system.

Sensors and edge gateways offer a window to real-time data that can offer up a better understanding of plant floor operations. This open door to better metrics will certainly lead to more insight into the points above, and less downtime overall..

Marla Keene is a Tech Writer at AX Control, Inc