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Keeping the old faithful

Utilities are becoming more competitive and can no longer afford to have plant performing poorly or human resources deployed inefficiently. A proactive plant maintenance system focusing on asset reliability can have a material impact on production and profitability.

Nigel Blackaby, Features Editor

With a job description of “reliability expert”, Brian McGuire has a lot to live up to. The executive with Canadian company Ivara Corporation promised to call me to outline the latest developments in the field of industrial asset management and reliability practices and just part of me was secretly hoping that he would give the lie to his title by failing to call on time. Not a bit of it though. Punctuality is clearly part of the make-up of a reliability expert and the call came through at the appointed time.

The first thing I wanted to know from McGuire, whose official title is actually vice president of marketing at Ivara Corporation, was how a reliability approach to asset management differed from current industry practices. “The reliability approach is the third generation of maintenance practices,” McGuire explains. “The first generation was reactive – to simply fix an asset when it broke. This was superseded by a time-based preventative maintenance response to avoid failure that was more efficient and less costly than the reactive approach. This third generation, which is the view now being adopted by leading companies, doesn’t just respond to failure or focus on time or operating hours but treats assets as we might do our own bodies. Just because the risk of heart attack rises as we get older, we don’t check into hospital to get fitted with a new heart. Instead, in a much less intrusive way, we get checked out for signs that our body may not be functioning normally e.g. high blood pressure or high cholesterol levels. If our doctor notices a certain indicator trending the wrong way he concentrates on that one indicator and treats that,” says McGuire.

Abnormal signals

Ivara Corporation has built its business on employing this approach to the maintenance of critical industrial assets across a variety of capital-intensive industries including the power sector. It finds ways to test the condition of physical plant and only works on plant whose indicators are non-normal. “By monitoring the temperature of a bearing, for example, we can spot early signs of failure, which is a more efficient way to carry out asset maintenance than routinely tearing the pump apart and replacing both the good and bad bearings, hoping that it is going to work when it is all put back together,” says McGuire.

The asset reliability process is aligned with business goals and provides effective ongoing asset management
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The reliability-based approach is a lot less intrusive than time-based and operating age-based maintenance and it seems to support the popular adage: ‘If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it’. Ivara points out that around 70 per cent of all failures that occur in plants today result from ‘infant mortality’ so by routinely disassembling equipment plant maintenance staff are actually introducing instability and contributing to this failure. Studies have shown that more than 80 per cent of all mechanical, electrical and structural failures are random in nature and cannot be effectively correlated to time or run hours. Carrying out maintenance also introduces health risk for the workforce so there are safety benefits by reducing the number of maintenance routines carried out. “Our approach is to monitor the health of a plant and focus on asset reliability rather than responding to failure,” says McGuire.

A more reliable plant means a smaller parts inventory because it is easier to predict the need for parts. “Often it is secondary damage following a failure that creates a big demand for replacement parts and can be very expensive. If you are doing far less failure response and doing more proactive maintenance in a reliability environment you have far reduced the need for parts,” says McGuire.

Change management

Ivara Corporation’s EXP software is the tool that interfaces with the customer’s own computerized maintenance management software (CMMS). Through condition monitoring, EXP will guide the CMMS to issue work orders and maintenance routines. But Ivara sees its role more in terms of change management than just a software provider. It works with customers to help them make the transition from reactive to proactive maintenance working with key operation and maintenance staff individually or in small groups. Customers usually ask Ivara how they will be able change all their people, used to a reactive approach, overnight. “We don’t need to do that,” answers McGuire. “We implement the programme one piece of equipment at a time. We don’t try to take on a whole power plant but prioritize equipment focusing on those that fail a lot and those whose failure poses the highest risk to the business.”

Manual analysis of condition data is replaced by graphical displays and automatic asset condition feedback
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EXP helps collect the enormous amount of data needed which is collected by equipment inspections, recorded on hand held devices and then uploaded into the EXP database. The customer then can view on screen all the health data that is coming in and respond to alarms where non-normal data shows up. The customer does not need to spend a lot of time reviewing all the normal data. Instead they can concentrate on the small sub-set of abnormal reports that will be drawn to their attention. The availability of data also has regulatory benefits in enabling auditors to quickly check that procedures and checks have been followed and presenting the company in a more professional light.

Aging workforce

Utility companies also face the challenge of an aging workforce. In the next 3-5 years, over 50 per cent of the workforce will retire and utilities are in danger of losing vast amounts of knowledge and experience while struggling to find suitably qualified recruits to take the place of current staff. McGuire summarizes the problem: “There is an enormous amount of knowledge out there about how equipment performs. Right now it is stored in the heads of the employees and in the little notebooks they carry around.” Through software like EXP this data can be collected, stored and made available to all. “This means that the young guys coming in can use the automatic tools and perform the work that the experienced fellas were performing,” says McGuire.

Ivara’s president Bill Shaw founded the company in order to anticipate the next development in asset management, moving beyond the traditional asset repair culture to provide solutions that help customers to focus on asset reliability. The firm is backed by a number of institutional investors including Germany’s Siemens and has around 80 employees. Based in Burlington, Ontario, the company developed the EXP reliability approach in an industrial plant and has been marketing it for around five years. Because assets are prioritized with the most vital being given attention first, users often see a payback within 12 months. McGuire believes that customers employing Ivara’s reliability approach typically get a 7-12 times return on their investment.

“We usually prepare a financial business case upfront and when the CEO sees the payback and ROI and appreciates the impact it will have on safety, environmental concerns and customer satisfaction all this links in nicely with the strategic initiatives of the company.”

Competitive pressures

Utility companies are the custodians of vital assets whose performance is crucial to the provision of services to customers, especially during peak demand periods. Competitive markets have meant an even greater emphasis on efficiency. Asset dependability has a direct bearing on a company’s responsiveness, customer retention and competitive position. By adopting more effective operating and maintenance routines the same capital assets and labour force may be used to increase capacity and output and reduce variability in capacity.

Summing up the benefits McGuire says, “If you are in a market where you can sell everything you make, reducing failures means increasing production and profit.” Although reducing costs is an important part of this approach to asset management it is not nearly as significant as the ability to leverage profits.

“CEOs tend to care more about profit than costs and are looking for their businesses to become more competitive and produce more profit, more reliably.” That is one sure-fire certainty in business that Brian McGuire and his colleagues at Ivara Corporation can rely on.

Case Study: Brighton Beach Power

Brighton Beach Power is a joint venture between ATCO Power and Ontario Power Generation. It operates one of the largest gas fired power plants in Canada, a 580 MW combined cycle facility in Windsor, Ontario that entered service in July 2004. In order to achieve its primary business goal of providing reliable and efficient electric power, reducing operating risk and maximizing generation reliability is critical.

As a new plant Brighton Beach Power did not have a track record of operation and maintenance. It also had large amounts of data collected during commissioning and needed to capture this data and organise it into an informative resource for when the plant went live. It was looking for a user-friendly and scalable solution, which would be supported by maintenance and operations personnel alike.

Brighton Beach chose the Ivara Reliability Solution to link in to its CMMS and optimize asset performance and maximize generating capacity. The implementation took only 56 working days during which large amounts of equipment data was collected and made available through the CMMS. Users with varying computer skills were fully trained on the software and quickly adopted it into their everyday work.

Since the plant’s commissioning it has experienced industry-leading commercial availability levels and has consistently been able to deliver the required generation levels. The Ivara solution satisfied Brighton Beach Power’s need for a work execution solution while supporting its long-term strategy for improved reliability.

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