3 P's of Maintenance

Maintenance professionals talk about preventative, predictive and precision maintenance.
By Holly Jessen | October 22, 2014

If an ethanol production company wants to increase efficiency and profitability, it needs to take a new look at maintenance, asserts Jason Resler, maintenance manager at Denco II, a 24 MMgy Morris, Minnesota, facility. “Maintenance has always been the just fix it and get us going type of mentality,” he says. It’s always been looked at as an expense. But doing the right things, you can change that expense into being an asset. There’s still the cost, you’ve still got to buy the parts, you’ve still got to pay the labor to do the work, but if you are doing the right things you can extend those periods between maintenance and breakdowns so that you are running longer and being more profitable.”

Resler, who started working at Denco last November, has worked to change the plant’s preventative maintenance structure. “We’ve gone from more repair orientated, and pushing off preventative maintenance to making preventative maintenance the priority over the repair, especially the repairs that are not crucial,” he says. “Obviously, you’ve always got some critical repairs that you have to work on but we try to keep the preventative maintenance up front.”

Chuck Gallop, operations development manager for ICM Inc.’s product development department, agrees the maintenance department is key to profitability. The reality is that, especially in times of tight margins in the ethanol industry, one of the things that gets scaled back is regular plant maintenance. “You find yourself prolonging action, thinking that maybe we can get another week or a month before we tear it apart and rebuild it.” Gallop says. “Rather than doing it on a scheduled period, we try to make it last just a little bit longer.” Although it’s common, it does create problems. “It isn’t sometimes,” he says. “It always costs us more money in the end.”

It’s a different situation now, however, as the ethanol industry is enjoying a time of good margins. “We need to really focus on spending that money and getting the plant back up to its designed capacity or getting all the equipment in a renewed state,” he says.

Crystal Ball
As a helicopter mechanic in the Marine Corps, Gallop says he was taught there are three types of maintenance. Preventative maintenance is typically performed on a schedule, usually with input from the manufacturer. Corrective maintenance doesn’t happen until something has failed and has the highest cost in terms of equipment damage and unplanned outages.

The third type, predictive maintenance, is performed as needed, based on daily observation and measurement of variables that indicate future problems, he says. This allows the department to anticipate equipment failures before they happen. At a minimum, the goal is to reduce failures. The hope, however, is that they can be eliminated entirely. This keeps the plant running and staff safe, he says.

Safety is the No. 1 concern, agrees Jim Swope, maintenance manager at ICM Biofuels, a 50 MMgy ethanol production facility leased from Lifeline Foods in St. Joseph, Missouri. Next up on the priority list is conducting repairs in a structured and planned way. “If you can do it in a fashion that is preventative, in the long haul, you eliminate extra costs, whether it be expedited freight or cost for overtime hours for extra help to get here to take care of those problems,” he says. “And in some instances, if you can anticipate bearing failure, for example, you replace half as many parts. You may save the shaft but you just replace the bearings.”

Although the plant was previously staffed with maintenance employees 24 hours, seven days a week, in case of emergencies, hard work in preventative and predictive maintenance has changed that, Swope says. When things are running more smoothly, the maintenance department can anticipate fewer emergencies. “We now have a good enough hold on our PM program so that they are here seven days a week,” he says. “So they work 12 hour shifts, seven days a week, no overnights.”

As part of predictive maintenance, at ICM Biofuels, vibration analysis is conducted monthly on all assets, with a quarterly analysis conducted by an outside contractor to verify the company’s internal results. The testing helps pinpoint potential equipment problems before they happen. “Vibration analysis allows us to know if we have vibration issues before they become issues you hear,” Swope says. The testing method is also in use at Denco, Resler says, adding that it helped identify an issue with the plant’s centrifuge, allowing time to have parts in place for a quick change out if it crashes.

He also agrees that advanced planning is important. The department gets more work done in a day if it sticks to the schedule. Deciding to do something off-the-cuff can lead to delays if a particular part isn’t on hand. “We’re trying to be as efficient as possible,” he says. “We’re also trying to do the right work at the right time.”

To Be Precise
Resler likes to think of his job in terms of precision maintenance. “In my opinion, there’s actually a difference between doing maintenance and doing precision maintenance, by using best practices techniques and using various equipment reliability techniques,” he says.

Take the example of grease. Looking at whether the right type of grease is being used for the job, rather than just using one grease to blanket everything, can make a positive impact on operations. While following manufacturer recommendations is a good practice, it’s not always the best available practice, he says. An important question to ask is where in the process is the piece of equipment and what variables, such as temperature, will it be subjected to. “All those variables can definitely play a role in the breakdown of an oil, like, say, in a gear box,” he says.

Resler is certified through the Society of Maintenance and Reliability Professionals. He highly recommends the organization’s conference, which he attends yearly, both to maintain the certification and to network with and learn from other maintenance professionals. One of the most valuable things Resler says he has gained from the conference, as well as his nearly 10-year career in maintenance with Cargill Inc., is how to use new matrixes to make maintenance decisions. “Run time, down time, you name it, there’s pretty much a matrix to measure it,” he says. “Right down to your warehouse. Are you ordering your spares in the most efficient and cost-efficient manner?”

For example, performing an asset criticality assessment gives each part a numerical ranking that can be used to determine which parts should be kept on hand and which can be ordered when needed. “The old theory of maintenance is, 'I’d like to have one part for everything in the plant,' but there’s a cost associated with doing that and having those parts sit on your shelf,” he says. “On the other end of that spectrum, you’ve got to have your critical parts so you don’t get caught without them and now your plant is not running.”

Resler also believes strongly in the importance of training for the mechanics, or craftsmen as he calls them, that work under his supervision. That means sending them off site for classroom training and bringing in vendors for on-site training.

Swope agrees that training is important. Training through ICM and various vendors help keep maintenance staff at the St. Joseph plant well-trained. For instance, the plant’s mechanical seal vendor has provided classroom and hands-on training on the proper instillation method. “It’s very easy to make an install like that, without the proper knowledge, and ruin a brand new seal as soon as you install it,” he says.

While there are some situations where it wouldn’t be appropriate to share confidential information and trade secrets, Resler says, another source of knowledge is other ethanol plant maintenance departments. For the most part, ethanol plant maintenance professionals work together well, sharing information about good contractors and even parts, when a neighboring facility is in a bind. “Even though at the plant level, everybody is in competition with one another, as an industry, as a whole, we’re all a team trying to achieve one goal,” he says, “which is to produce ethanol, make money and help ethanol become a bigger part of the pie and get some of that back from Big Oil.”

FSMA Fallout
The Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed into law Jan. 4, 2011, will impact the way things are done at ethanol plants. For companies that employ more than 500 people, the compliance date is August 2015—less than a year away. Companies that employ fewer than 500 people have another year to comply. “Some of those regulations will directly impact how we will perform or how we approach predictive or preventive maintenances,” Gallop says.

Ethanol plants will have to identify critical control points where foreign debris, such as greases or lubrications, could end up in the distillers grains or corn oil, both coproducts fed to animals. One such control point would be moving distillers grains with a pay loader. The maintenance department will be responsible for looking at contaminates that could come in contact with the feed, such as diesel or hydraulic leaks, and put a program in place to handle those possibilities. Certain plant cleaning agents or practices may also have to be changed. “From a maintenance standpoint, we need to take a look at what equipment we have in place now, what maintenance procedures we [have] and what types of products we are introducing into the process that don’t meet the FSMA guidelines,” he says.    

Author: Holly Jessen
Managing Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine