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MRO Leans Into the 21st Century

By Brad Marley Contributing Editor

Maintenance, repair, and operations catches up with the rest of industry

In the world of engineering, the focus is on the finished product. Whether it’s a new car or a new airliner, products that roll off of the assembly line get all the attention, as they represent what a company is capable of producing.

MRO is an integral part of the manufacturing process. And like most functions and operations, it is being reshaped by data and predictive analysis.

But maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO) is important in its own right. Coming into play after the initial batch of finished products are deployed, MRO is a bit removed from the building of actual products—it’s the day-to-day repairs that go on as part of the regular cadence of work being done to build and develop.

Without a solid MRO plan, plants can fall behind schedule if machines break down or assembly lines are down for an extended period of time. Companies that handle MRO properly, or give it the attention it deserves, are more likely to meet their goals and thrive.

Predicting Future Needs

Like most industries and functions, MRO is being reshaped by data and predictive analysis.

In the past, MRO was mostly reactive or preventative, in that most work done to keep machines up and running happened when something went wrong and engineers could pinpoint the problem. This also meant shutting down lines to fix the issue, causing loss of time and manpower. But, at the time, there were no better alternatives.

The repairs were handwritten and logged in manuals that had to be discerned by the next group of maintenance workers to make sure they were staying on schedule for repairs. What was already a tedious process was made even more difficult if human error entered into the equation, not to mention trying to decipher handwriting.

“As the industry has evolved, so has our ability to better monitor problems before they happen, thanks to analysis that takes place on an ongoing basis,” explained Charles Sage, lead mechanic, Dynatect Manufacturing Inc., New Berlin, Wis. “While we were once forced to write everything down by hand and put out fires, the institution of computer maintenance management systems (CMMS) has really changed the game.”

A CMMS, when properly implemented, allows the manufacturer to track and treat problems. Organizations can also be preemptive and schedule maintenance as needed, rather than just being reactionary.

Dynatect provides engineering and manufacturing for custom applications, which improve human-machine safety and machine uptime. It works closely with customers to help them understand what a CMMS can bring to the table in their own shops.

“When you implement a CMMS, the initial time spend is high because you are learning how to input massive amounts of data that then has to learn how to organize the data before it’s useful,” Sage said. “Once you have all of the data in the system, then you can work with specialists who will help you follow the plan and adapt.”

Where MRO is shifting is the type of personnel who are trained in deploying a preventative maintenance system. It’s no longer as simple as taking a wait-and-see approach. With more data, the need for highly skilled people is increasing, which increases the need for specialized training.

“Companies certainly see the value, as far as time and money saved goes, when they implement a system that spots breakdowns before they happen,” Sage added. “If they can incorporate individuals who have gone through specialized training to arrive at this particular skillset, the savings will be eye-opening.”

Customer Focus

When you have so much data at your fingertips, it becomes necessary to figure out how that information is going to help the end user.

Companies that don’t implement data into the end product are doing customers a disservice, as they spend too much time and money repairing machines and fixing broken down lines. When data is properly implemented, that’s when the predictive analysis stands out and makes real change.

“At its core, MRO is about helping customers solve problems,” said Scott Dowell, vice president and general manager-industrial of Pittsburgh-based Wesco International Inc. “There aren’t many businesses around where a faulty $200 part could shut down a million dollars an hour worth of production, so it’s vital we are helping customers mitigate the risk with every tool we have at our disposal.”

Wesco, a supply chain solutions provider, sees more need for MRO across the board as companies get larger, thanks to the recent spate of mergers and acquisitions affecting multiple industries.

Larger companies need more insight into what they have at their disposal, so they lean on the captured data. Wesco can assist by putting third-party information into its own “data lake,” where it can develop tools and systems that will help customers identify what’s being used and create supplier partnerships to source the necessary materials.

“Data was always available but not at the sheer amount that we find ourselves having access to today,” said Dowell. “Once we figured out it was possible to use the data to sell our products and normalize the MRO supply chain, it changed the game for us.”

Indeed, as sensor technology and networking capabilities become available on the edge of the shop floor, more data flows in. Now companies can pull data and use it to predict needed maintenance, for instance, when a part isn’t performing as well as it should be. The data shows this—and it’s hard to argue against. When more sensors are introduced, MRO providers can piece together software that eventually gives a full view of the entire process and shows, in real time, where new problems might arise.

It’s not unlike what is happening across the board in manufacturing, where data is king. Not only is it used to create better products, data can be used to make products perform better and more predictably.

“We can measure anything we want when we build the proper software based on what the customer asks for,” Dowell said. “Once we crunch the numbers through analytics, we uncover infinite ways to add value to the process.”

What it means for companies like Wesco is the ability to sell more products and become a more integral part of the overall process. When salespeople are better able to identify and predict what is going to happen, they can confidently suggest a new approach that will help customers take advantage of their machines.

Educating End Customers

When you have all of this information at your fingertips, it’s imperative to educate customers on how to use it—you can’t sit next to them all day. Equipping them to recognize what they have and how to use it is of the utmost importance, so companies are helping their customers dig in and use the data to their advantage.

“There is a lot of opportunity to be more efficient when you focus on a certain operation, so you want to be sure you are using the information you have to make better decisions,” added Eric Klein, vice president advanced fabrication markets–business development, Airgas Inc., an Air Liquide Company based in Radnor, Pa.

Airgas, a distributor of industrial, specialty, and medical gases, as well as a line of safety products for MRO and plant maintenance, works closely with customers to help them understand how they can remain competitive, using their data to tell a story, and reduce costs.

When it comes to welding, a lot of shielding gas is wasted. By identifying this, customers can find ways to save money by losing less, which starts with an efficiency check that measures leakage when welding.

“Data and predictive analysis is really stepping up to the forefront for us in terms of being better partners for our customers because it’s right there in front of you and is not debatable,” Klein said. “When you show it to the customer in black and white, they have an easier time understanding how it can help their business.”

There is also a case to be made that MRO is improved when companies are better at doing something more efficiently, like welding. MRO helps in reducing expenditures by helping to operate more efficiently, which means work is done quickly, leaving less time for errors or parts to break down.

Knowing how to streamline operations means less fixes, which improves maintenance.

“You could argue we are helping our clients break down their efficiency to the very essence of what makes the company run,” said Klein. “When one area is running without a hitch, it only stands to help the rest of the operation.”

Data Built on Trust

As more companies start to understand how data ties into predictive analysis for MRO, there becomes a greater need to hire people who can step in and show how it’s done.

Over the last five years, companies have realized they need to change their approach to provide better MRO service.

For technology, defense, and engineering group ST Engineering Ltd., its aerospace arm teams up with the local universities in Singapore where the company is headquartered, as well as with overseas universities. This allows it to sponsor and guide students who want to work in aerospace MRO.

“When it comes to data, you need very specific subject matter experts and data scientists to show customers how MRO can be improved when you present them with their information,” said Lee Hui Fung, head of innovation and continuous improvement, Commercial Aerospace, ST Engineering. “In order to implement the proper predictive maintenance, we can deploy these trained professionals to share their knowledge and break down the data.”

ST Engineering, which supports global fleets with customized MRO solutions, understands how to use data to help clients better predict when parts might break down, or schedule maintenance so they can keep planes in the air to remain on schedule.

Trust is critical, especially considering how much data is being exchanged.

“Some customers are very forthcoming about sharing their data, while others require proof we are using their data in our applications,” Hui Fung noted. “It’s made even more tricky when we explain we have to examine the full lifecycle of the product before we can provide recommendations.”

Lifecycle analysis can be a long process. You have to consistently monitor to ensure the advice you’re sharing is working and not leading the customer astray. That’s why it’s imperative to have properly trained personnel, well versed in how to examine data.

“It’s very clear that data is power,” Hui Fung opined. “When you have the right people and the right data, and the means to deploy both, you can give your customers an advantage that keeps their products in tip-top shape and gives them incredible value. That’s a tough option to pass up.”

Companies are increasingly turning to MRO for an edge, if only because it hasn’t been viewed as an area of improvement until recently. Once you’ve discovered how MRO can be a part of the day-to-day of your business, you might wonder what took so long to approach it as another arm of your business.

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