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10 ways preventative maintenance can assist in reducing downtime

Deon McHatton, (11 min read)

Downtime costs the world’s top companies billions in revenue every year. One report goes so far as to say businesses lose $84,000 to $108,000 USD for every hour of IT system downtime. Manufacturing is no exception.


Most are aware of the benefits of preventative maintenance in reducing planned and unplanned downtime. But what other steps can you take?


When we talked with machine maintenance technicians, managers, service engineers and business optimisation experts to put together our top 10 tips for reducing downtime, what they said was surprising: empowering employees and adopting a proactive and disciplined mindset were mentioned just as much as preventative maintenance and smarter software systems and technologies.


So, we’ve separated our top 10 tips for reducing downtime into two categories:

  • Plant operations
  • People and culture

Before we begin… what is downtime?

In this context, ‘downtime’ is any unplanned event that stops production for any amount of time. Unplanned downtime is most often caused by operator error, poor maintenance, hardware or software error and ‘perceived downtime’, which includes poor performance or slow changeover.


Planned downtime (such as upgrades to software and hardware, or planned maintenance) is, as its name suggests, planned and therefore controlled, so it shouldn’t be calculated in downtime costs.


And now to our top tips:

Downtime tips for plant operations

1. Undertake a risk audit


There’s nothing sexy about it, but a risk audit is THE fastest and most effective step you can take to reduce downtime in future.


In particular, equipment obsolescence poses a significant risk to operations. Despite advancements in control systems, a great number of manufacturers still work with equipment that’s 15–20 years old, and aging PLC systems that are no longer supported by manufacturers. Parts often become unavailable, or are made out of the country and take weeks to deliver. Knowing your support networks and equipment availability can mean the difference between a few hours or a few months in a downtime event.


Other risks that impact automation infrastructure include: security, safety, and quality. A risk audit will highlight problems and solutions so that when you go down, you’re better prepared.


2. Calculate the dollar cost of downtime


Not calculating the true cost of downtime is one of the biggest errors that manufacturing managers make. Five minutes here and there adds up.


True downtime costs include loss in staff productivity, loss in production of actual goods, number of man hours devoted to rescheduling, the unexpected costs of repairing equipment, time spent satisfying customers and damage to reputation.


Downtime should always be calculated into a dollar figure. This, paired with a preventative and proactive mindset (see tip #10), is vital, because it will help focus and legitimise your prevention activities to your stakeholders.


3. Install low-cost sensors to move towards ‘predictive maintenance’


In an increasingly data-driven world, manufacturers are looking to low-cost sensors to detect, prevent and reduce downtime on the factory floor. Sensors can detect inputs like vibration, temperature, heat and light – conditions that are likely to cause equipment damage or failures. They then send data back to a central point to alert production managers if anything is amiss, prompting operators to change the conditions to avoid equipment damage, and thereby helping to stop downtime before it happens.


They’re cheap, have long battery life, are easily added to any machine, and are roughly the size of a keyboard mouse, so they are well worth the small upfront investment.


4. Harness your data and reporting systems


It goes without saying that manufacturing and enterprise software will impact the level of insight and control you have over production. A large amount of manufacturers still report having manual methods of data collection or unsuitable software for the job, which has driven the uptake of specialised manufacturing software and integration solutions.


Evaluate your current data collection systems. Are they providing the right information? Your data should pinpoint the macro causes of downtime. A spreadsheet or report stating that ‘machine 31 caused two hours of production loss’ doesn’t solve the problem. Having access to your entire operational data in real-time does.




Different operational and IT systems can be integrated to give a plant-wide view. This helps manufacturers pinpoint the exact moment a machine goes down, and allows them to cross-check this against other activities in the plant to find a correlation.


Quickly finding the cause of downtime enables faster, more accurate responses.

5. Get support for your current automation systems and equipment


The reality is, whether you are a process or discrete manufacturer on a small or large scale, most automation equipment will be from a range of different vendors and span across different eras. This requires operators and maintenance technicians to be skilled across multiple vendor hardware and software, as well as hold multiple spare parts – a challenging task, to say the least.


Automation service partners can cover maintenance, repairs, replacements, upgrades, programming and integration for a range of vendor systems. Having these services on-hand ensures you have up-to-date industry knowledge to implement prevention programs, and 24-hour support for breakdowns. 

People and culture 

6. Train and empower your employees


Ask yourself, who affects downtime the most? Are they your maintenance technicians, production supervisors, or line operators? The staff who have the most potential to prolong downtime events are often in the best position to prevent it in the future.


Operator error is the second-most common cause of downtime after hardware error. A good operator will not only diagnose and fix their own machine, but have the ability to prevent future downtime events through maintenance schedules and accurate documentation.


Direct your resources into specialised industrial and automation training and emphasise the importance of keeping up-to-date documentation. Empower operators to be able to diagnose and problem-solve their machines and remind them how their actions can positively impact downtime. The emerging trend of combining the operator and maintenance technician roles is also effective because the employee knows the machine intimately and fixes his/her own problems.


7. Stick to a preventative maintenance schedule


Gone are the days when manufacturing managers can say, “We’ll just run it till it breaks.”


Equipment can’t last forever, but a sound maintenance schedule will increase its life.  Maintenance reduces the probability of failure and downtime, increases overall equipment effectiveness, improves safety and increases productivity.


Thankfully manufacturers seem to be on the front foot when it comes to maintenance. A 2017 maintenance study found that 78% of facilities follow a preventative maintenance strategy, while 59% use a computerised maintenance management system.


Still, a horrifying number of facilities use a ‘run-to-failure’ method where maintenance is reactive. While such operators would prefer to save on maintenance and get more run time, this approach results in longer, more frequent downtime incidents. Plus, it can exclude opportunities for overall efficiency improvements.


Total productive maintenance

The perfect example of proactive mentality is found in the total productive maintenance (TPM) approach.  Its aims are high: no breakdowns, no small stops or slow running, no defects, and no accidents. It emphasises proactive and preventative maintenance to maximise the lifespan and productivity of equipment and empowers all employees to take responsibility for such equipment.


"We are all about team ownership of outcomes and love that the TPM approach empowers employees to be proactive."  – Deon McHatton, National Service Manager at SAGE Automation.


Additional reading: Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) measures the success of TPM and will help identify the weakest link in your operations.  


8. Do your documentation – and make others excited about it


Updating all documentation on your equipment is a simple, yet effective step to reducing the length of any downtime event. Up-to-date drawings of equipment, machine history and procedures should be kept on hand for easy reference in the event of an error. This ensures operators have the right information to quickly address issues, rather than trying to solve issues with no context.  


The challenge is cultivating a culture where people care about this. The trick? Show people how documentation impacts on their time and overall plant performance.  


9. Don’t forget backups


“Even if you've got the replacement part, if you haven't got the backup program you’re in trouble.” – Deon McHatton SAGE Automation Service Manager.


This one requires discipline and continuous staff involvement. Regular, site-wide backups of control systems is integral to safeguarding any operation. In one worst-case scenario, a large manufacturing company with a complex servo-driven cut-to-length machine erased their entire PLC system by accident. The company had no backup copy of the PLC system and the provider had gone out of business 10 years prior, so no external support was available. They had no choice but to rewrite the program, halting production in the entire factory for over two weeks.


A simple, regular backup regime of all PLC systems, SCADA drives and control systems will safeguard against worst-case scenarios. After all, restoring a month-old PLC system is better than having to rewrite it from scratch.


10. Change your thinking from reactive to proactive


Lastly, but most importantly, consider your mentality. Thinking and culture will play a large part in determining whether preventative maintenance, staff training and other measures are successful in reducing downtime.


Adopting and championing a proactive rather than reactive mentality is one important habit that manufacturing managers must adopt – or face being left behind. Proactive thinking will ensure you adopt the systems and habits needed to stop problems before they occur.


The Lean program is one example of proactive thinking. The core idea is to maximise customer value while minimising waste. This includes undergoing continuous improvement, which have a positive impact on your KPIs. For example, long changeover and set-up times between production runs can cause considerable downtime.


A lean approach at a label printing company reduced changeover downtime from an average of 5 hours, to 30 minutes. How? The company used a technique called ‘Single Minute Exchange of Dye (SMED) – to simplify the changeover process. In addition, encouraging a clean, efficient workspace, and scheduled machine maintenance and calibration helped reduce quality defects. The company estimates it gained 5 hours per machine, per shift – that’s 70 hours of added capacity and more than $3 million of annual unexpected profits.  


But all Lean programs start with changing individual and organisational mentality.

This is a huge challenge. A McKinsey report on the psychology of change management offers four steps to effectively change staff mentality:


1) give staff a purpose to believe in

2) reinforce the new system/s

3) provide opportunities to gain new skills

4) don’t underestimate the power of role models.  


Is there a winner in the battle against downtime?

Whether it is a preventative maintenance schedule, operator training, sensor technology or doing your backups, there’s one common factor that will determine its success – employee mindset.


No program will work if staff aren’t committed to taking the steps every time.


No amount of data will make a difference if it’s not acted on.


No amount of policy will ensure equipment is checked and maintained. It’s people who make the cogs turn, day in and day out. So work your way through this list with culture and staff empowerment front of mind.

When a machine stops, it can quickly escalate to calling in external help – sometimes unnecessarily. The Breakdown Checklist is designed to get you back online faster. It will get your team thinking about what caused the breakdown and assess the need for external advice. Download the free downtime checklist here.


Get the checklist!


SAGE Automation delivers agile, scalable and secure solutions that don’t just solve current problems, they preempt and deter future ones, helping your organisation thrive. With years of experience working in defence, infrastructure, resources, utilities and manufacturing we have the expertise you need to custom-build or perform manufacturing maintenance on your equipment for maximum ROI.

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