Maintenance of plant and equipment has a vital impact on the performance of many businesses, but the relationship between specific maintenance management decisions and business results are often poorly understood.

The effect of this is that decisions about investment in maintenance are made without any realistic assessment of the consequences of those decisions.

A common example is the late alteration of budgets by personnel remote from the plant and the maintenance function. Similarly, over-estimation of the required budget by the maintenance manager is no more likely to maximise uptime of the production facility. The solution is to establish a common understanding of the business impact of maintenance. Such an approach will also include an element of flexibility to take account of the trade-off between maintenance costs and production efficiency. The first step in this process is, however, one which many maintenance managers find difficult to achieve – that is understanding the extent and nature of the problem.

While it is the case that many managers have an intuitive understanding of the way that their facility behaves, this understanding apparently stops short of being quantifiable. This “unconscious competence” forms the basis of many facets of engineering business, and facilities management is no exception.

The notion that breakdowns cannot be predicted and therefore associated budgets are, at best, estimates based on previous experience does have an element of truth, however. It also contains the seed of a solution.

The basis of the technique known as Total Productive Maintenance or TPM is that prevention is better than cure. The careful planning and uncompromising execution of a preventive maintenance programme does increase reliability of plant and equipment in almost all cases. Historical data (where it exists) of downtime will form the foundation of a TPM programme with the routines being continually modified and adjusted as knowledge about the behaviour of equipment is accumulated over time.

With understanding of the nature of downtime, of course, comes the ability to measure the cost of that downtime. This is the stage of development which the more advanced businesses have reached in transforming their maintenance activities into reliable supports of long term production improvement.

When it comes to cranes, however, the lack of understanding of the nature and extent of downtime can be compounded in two different ways;

(i) The physical remoteness from daily life of overhead cranes makes them much less obvious (until they stop working) than machine tools for example.

(ii) If an alternative crane is available when one goes down this inevitably clouds the issue and means that effective maintenance programmes are not a priority. What is actually happening in this case is that an inherent lack of reliability in material handling capacity is being systemised and is storing up trouble for the future.

Both of these issues, once recognised, are easily resolved, and the solution will almost certainly involve training. Training in the maintenance and inspection of cranes and hoists is recognised as a vital part of many maintenance programmes.

With a greater understanding of the way that cranes and hoists function comes an inherent appreciation of the importance of regular maintenance. For example, simple weekly or monthly checks, greasing etc. will increase the reliability of the equipment under normal circumstances. Understanding why those checks are important and understanding where they fit into the total maintenance of the crane or hoist provides a far more fundamental insurance policy for the business.

This point is recognised by those companies who make the decision to continue with, or introduce preventative maintenance programmes by bringing in a third party for general maintenance, statutory inspections and breakdown services. Benefits are recognised such as the ability of internal and external teams to “speak the same language” in terms of describing problems with the equipment and possible solutions. Increased understanding of recent technological advances also aids in the consideration of crane refurbishment and overhaul or in the decision to invest in new equipment.

This makes the decision making process between user and supplier easier because each understands the requirements of the other.

An important link between the abuse of cranes and hoists by operatives and increased downtime becomes quickly apparent to those attending maintenance courses. It is estimated that at least 30% of maintenance costs are directly attributable to misuse of the equipment. It is this relationship which means that companies will often invest in a combination of maintenance and operator training programmes in the drive to reduce lifecycle costs.

Lifecycle cost is defined as the total costs associated with the equipment over its entire working life; Clearly the aim is to minimise Total Costs while maximising Expected Life and here again training is key.

Total Costs are defined as the following:

(i) Equipment Cost – plus interest and depreciation.

(ii) Operating Costs – including energy, service costs and parts.

(iii) Operator Costs – including all recruitment and employment costs.

(iv) Buildings – including building maintenance, rent etc.

(v) Contingency Costs – including equipment failure (lost production) and in house maintenance teams.

Of all of these, Operator Costs represent by far the largest proportion at around 70% of Total Costs.

This in itself is justification for investing in operator training but when we take into account the capacity of the person with the pendant or in the cab to heap costs onto the business through consequential downtime then a more fundamental solution is often required.

This is why some companies are beginning to send crane operators on basic maintenance and user courses in order for them to understand the consequences of such common practices as using cranes to drag loads, lifting out of true and using the end stops on runways as brakes. A deeper understanding of the technology is particularly important where, for example, inverter control has been introduced or is included on a new crane. This may necessitate a completely different technique of operation in order to realise the potential of the new technology.

Such training is also effective in ensuring that simple start up and shut down checks are employed, thus reducing both Operating and Contingency Costs.

Through the continual reduction of these costs the Expected Life of the equipment is increased, thereby reducing lifecycle costs still further The aim of this training is not, of course, to replace the maintenance provider but to supplement their efforts in maximising equipment availability. Nor does training which covers daily checks replace in-depth maintenance and inspection courses. What it will do is free up personnel to carry out more core activities, including TPM.

Finally, such holistic programmes encourage something which has disappeared with the craftsmen in many industries – pride in the machine that is operated or maintained.