Early results from Plant Services survey: Teams have fewer resources, corporate culture looms larger

Maintenance operations have evolved significantly over the past decade and are at a crossroads of sorts today, according to preliminary results from the fifth industry survey by Plant Services magazine.

Preventive maintenance is better understood and more valued than ever before, according to the survey. However, maintenance workforce shortages have soared to more than 1 million unfilled manufacturing positions in the U.S. alone. This has forced teams to cover more bases with fewer people. Automation and technology are helping backfill some of the skills gaps as well as improving efficiency.

These are just a few of the survey’s early findings.

Every 18 months, Plant Services conducts a rigorous survey of the American maintenance and operations industry to assess changes in practices, barriers to improvement, and outlook. The current survey is still underway through March 2020, and you can still participate by taking the survey at Plant Services’ website.

Thomas Wilk, the Editor in Chief of Plant Services, agreed to join the Fluke Reliability Best Practices Webinar Series in early March 2020 to share preliminary results.

Wilk began his presentation by reviewing some of the trends he saw coming out of 2019:

  • Maintenance data is now almost as valuable as the assets themselves
  • There is no silver bullet to overcoming the skills gap; it’s real and will take some years to overcome
  • To benefit from proactive maintenance, companies must audit their preventive processes before working to optimize them
  • Preventive processes have expanded to include big data analytics and network security basics

The first two points may be known to most in the industry, but the next two have more recently become top of mind. Many facilities are stretched too thin to do a self-assessment of their operational readiness for improvement, Wilk says. Last year saw a substantial increase in the use of third-party auditors able to review current procedures and advise on next steps more objectively. Fluke Reliability offers one such service and Wilk references system integrators as a valuable resource.

Once an audit has been completed, the survey data shows an increasing number of facilities receiving outside assistance for remote monitoring technologies and/or services. One of Wilk’s key takeaways from the preliminary results is that maintenance job responsibilities include far more vendor management than before. “Make sure you are comfortable managing service partners,” he notes, since maintenance team size isn’t expected to increase any time soon and team members must wear more hats.

Plant managers helping more with asset monitoring

Another interesting finding in the 2020 survey data so far is where decision-making responsibility falls for asset monitoring tools and configurations. Some 45% of participating plant managers reported that they are now involved in asset monitoring. Wilk attributes this to the importance and the cost of the vendor relationships, to the complexity of data management, and the associated security risks. Maintenance managers and reliability engineers remain important stakeholders in that decision-making.

Change is happening in the area of data, as well. The survey findings show little movement in the types of predictive maintenance technologies facilities are using—vibration, ultrasound, infrared, oil analysis, and electric motor testing are all still heavily used.

The difference comes in how that data is now collected. Preliminary survey results show a surge in the percentage of facilities now using sensors, smartphones, and tablets. More than half of all respondents report using a tablet for data collection and more than 40% report using a smartphone. More than 70% of maintenance facilities report using wireless or internet-enabled sensors.

Figure 1. Preliminary results regarding data collection methods from the Plant Services PdM-RxM Survey 2020.

Wilk notes during the presentation, “The problem is not whether to use sensors but how to wrangle the data; data is coming from everywhere.” Facilities report using a variety of tools to receive and manage their data, from reliability solutions to a Historian system, an EAM, or a CMMS, but it looks like sites are struggling to integrate their data and their management systems.

“The next frontier in predictive and proactive maintenance,” Wilk says, “is data and systems integration, perhaps over a single platform.” Data integration and team connectivity are essential, he says, for facilities to continue making progress toward their uptime goals. Maintenance teams will need to get more comfortable with condition-monitoring technology and lean harder on their system providers to provide data integration solutions such as Fluke Connect.

Dissatisfied workers more compelled to leave their employers

Corporate culture and workplace contentment emerge as crucial factors in the Plant Services survey results. Facilities are increasingly at high risk of losing their reliability talent due to dissatisfaction with the work environment as well as burnout in current roles. Of the survey respondents self-identifying as millennials, 80% say that unhappiness with their company culture would be the top reason for leaving their current employer.

Figure 2. Preliminary results regarding job satisfaction from the Plant Services PdM-RxM Survey 2020.

Younger workers now make up a significant part of the workforce and expect their job to support their personal career goals. When asked what leaders could do to support their teams better, Wilk reports that plant leaders often don’t receive leadership training until eight years after being promoted to a management position. Plant culture and staff appear to need bolstering from all sides.

Wilk provides more insights and recommendations in the Fluke Reliability webinar, a full recording of which is available online.