A few years back, I worked for a small automation company as an applications engineer. It was late on a summer Friday afternoon as I headed out to our annual barbeque the phone rang. On the other end was the plant manager of a large factory whose manufacturing line was down. They needed help and wanted an engineer immediately, and by answering the phone I drew the short straw.
I was in the process of telling the plant manager that I’d be there as soon as possible when he demanded I leave now and get to the closest airport. Upon arrival, two pilots and a business jet were waiting to fly me to a small airport in suburban St. Louis. After we arrived, the pilots stood on each side of me while a helicopter arrived to take me to the plant (silly me, I was thinking of renting a car). As we arrived at the facility, I was met by two electricians in a golf cart who supportively told me (and I paraphrase) that unless I worked a miracle, I’d be walking home. Thankfully, I was able to get their equipment back up and running and was able to fly home, commercially of course.
I recount this story not only because it is pretty hard to forget but because it amazed me that a large manufacturer would go to such incredible lengths to get their line back up and running. My trip across the Mid-west probably cost tens of thousands of dollars; but once everything was fixed, it was clear that the customer felt this was a small price to pay to avoid the cost of lost production.
According to an ARC study, the average cost impact of unplanned downtime in U.S. process industries is $20B or almost 5% of production output. The same study stated that the value of legacy automation systems reaching the end of their useful life is $65B implying there are significant opportunities for capital equipment productivity gains.
Pro-active versus Reactive Approach
Reacting to downtime or productivity pressures rather than developing a pro-active plan to improve always proves more costly and stressful. Industrial facilities today make extensive use of automation and there are some things companies can do to stay ahead of the competitive curve, for example:
- Make sure you have the right spare parts on hand
- Ensure your automation system’s technologies are still readily available
- Look at the skills of your staff. Can they support and maintain your equipment?
- Make sure your automation systems are serving your needs in terms of data transparency – remember automation can give you valuable data which can further improve processes if displayed and used correctly
- Upgrade your systems if needed to provide clear, usable diagnostics to help you fix downtime events
- Select a reliable repair service capable of fixing all your electronics and helping you to address the root causes of failures
Some of the items above may seem expensive but I know process lines where 30 seconds of downtime can cost as much as $10,000 US in lost profits. Planning ahead and being proactive can pay off very quickly. It is very important that industrial companies understand where their automation system risks are and develop a road map to address them.
What is your proactive plan to ensure minimal downtime and increased productivity?