Engineers spend a lot of time trying to avoid equipment failures, but learning from breakdowns when they do occur is critical to improving maintenance regimes. Failure Modes and Effects Analysis can help you to find the root cause of problems.

A breakdown is a disaster, right?

Not necessarily: it all depends on whether you learn from what just happened and take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again. And that’s not always easy, as we shall see.

First of all, you need to establish exactly what caused the outage, says Naim Kapadia of the UK’s Manufacturing Technology Centre. He believes a structured approach is best and recommends using Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA).

“FMEA is a very powerful tool if used correctly,” he says. “By doing an FMEA analysis you can identify potential failure modes, get to the root cause and identify actions to eliminate the cause of failures.”

And it doesn’t require sophisticated software: “It could be just an Excel spreadsheet, which basically lists the failures and what may have caused them. If you see something that happens regularly then you need to take action,” Kapadia adds.

It’s worth taking time to look at how failures are currently detected to ensure you are getting an accurate picture of what’s happening. He also suggests holding brainstorming sessions with operators to try to get to root causes.

Keep calm and carry on investigating
Ian Bell, Vice President of Engineering and Facilities, RS Group, says it’s important to remain calm and analytical when investigating a breakdown. “Of course, reports and incident reviews are really important but, actually, most breakdowns are exceptional – you’ve not seen them before. You must make sure you don't overreact to them – don't oversteer.”

Taking time to think when responding to a breakdown is essential, adds Gary Harvey, Head of Field Sales, RS. “If you ask shop floor engineers what they are there for, a lot of them will say they are there to fix breakdowns. Very rarely will someone tell you ‘I'm here to make sure the equipment doesn’t break down’.”

Changing attitudes is important, he explains. “You need to get your excitement from new developments in technology and improvements, not the adrenaline rush you get from fixing a breakdown, which many shop floor engineers are addicted to. There is this sort of hero, ‘I fixed it today’ mentality.”

You need to consider all possibilities, warns Harvey. “In manufacturing, the data is often weak,” he says. “Because in manual systems – and most businesses are still operating manually rather than collecting data from their built-in systems – it’s often recorded by an operator.

So when the operator records 30% of lost time, blame is often apportioned incorrectly to an engineering breakdown when it may have been due to other factors such as lack of cleaning.

And then several days later there will be an argument between manufacturing and engineering as to where the fault lay. Often a lot of energy is wasted in establishing good data.”

Richard Jeffers, Managing Director of RS Industria, RS Group, recalls an incident on a brewery packing line where cardboard was stored near a washdown hose. “It was reported as an engineering maintenance problem but the machine was down for an hour because the cardboard was wet,” he says. “If no component fails, it’s not a breakdown. It’s something else, but it’s not a breakdown.”

Kevin Heslin of the US-based Uptime Institute believes manufacturing maintenance engineers can learn from the approach taken by air accident investigators to establishing root causes. He says it’s vital not to jump to conclusions but to follow the evidence.

Changing culture around maintenance
Maintenance Engineering Academic Dr Moray Kidd emphasises the need to look at all the available information about the machine that failed, including maintenance records which can provide essential insights into what has gone wrong.

Providing a dashboard that operators and engineers can all use will not only help avoid breakdowns but also help bring about positive culture change in the production organisation, he says.

“The operators have got their day job to do, but the maintenance guys need to get their buy-in to ensure accurate reporting,” Kidd explains. “That can bring about a culture change between operators and engineers, which can change behaviour and morale as well as lead to increased production and efficiency.”

And, once you know the cause, how can you ensure that everyone who needs this information gets the message to avoid a repeat event? Dr Kidd says organisations are not good at gathering their collective knowledge and sharing it internally.

“Corporations talk about corporate memory or lack of it and I think that’s a real shame because we see time and time again initiatives around knowledge management and sharing of failure modes and systems that go nowhere,” he adds.

Collecting and structuring data to make it accessible is complex, with some sectors better than others.

“Part of the problem is that the operational community is disconnected from the OEMs [original equipment manufacturer]. Most of the people who design the kit don’t operate it and most operators don’t design it. But there seem to be missed opportunities to learn from good practices in other sectors, like the automotive industry, in terms of continuous improvement,” says Kidd.

“In a lot of traditional industries, it’s still a big challenge. They’re not meeting their operational performance targets. Their availability is lower than expected. And that’s because they have limited resources. Despite our best efforts, a lot of them are still working on unplanned outages. And that’s disappointing, given where we are and some of the new approaches.”

Finding the root cause of failures
Analysing breakdowns so they don’t happen again will lead to better uptime and more productivity. But it takes time and a rigorous approach that seeks out the root cause of the problem. If maintenance engineers engage operators and managers in the process, the benefits can also include improved morale and a better culture for the whole organisation.

For information on support RS can provide, please visit RS Maintenance Solutions here.