Like the rest of the world, most of the maintenance industry has been turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic. We talked to several maintenance professionals to find out what challenges they’re facing, how they’re meeting them head-on, and how they’re showing incredible resilience while helping provide essential services.
If you’re looking for more resources to help you and your team through these uncertain times, we’ve created a Resource Hub that includes some helpful articles and webinars.
When operations manager Juan Ruiz looks out at the floor of his facility, everything seems normal. A technician talks to an operator before fixing a machine. A critical asset is inspected during a rare break in use. A production line is adjusted to make sure it can fulfill a crucial order.
But this isn’t business as usual for Juan’s team.
The conversation is happening in a designated quiet place so the two employees can stand six feet apart. The critical asset is a sensor used to take the temperature of staff as they enter the building. The crucial order is for millions of boxes that will hold lifesaving N95 masks.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Juan and his entire team to change the way they work.
“We are running to failure, and that’s changing our mentality right now,” says Juan.
“We’re surviving. We’re not improving.”
They are far from alone. Maintenance departments everywhere are feeling the impact of COVID-19.
“Maintenance teams are nervous right now,” says Terrence O’Hanlon, the CEO of ReliabilityWeb.
“Even before COVID, there weren’t too many maintenance departments who could say, ‘Yep, we’re fully staffed, fully budgeted, and we have all the resources we need.’…So if that’s the case when things are normal, it’s only going to get tougher in these times.”
Getting processes in place to support people is priority #1
For Tom Dufton, a maintenance and continuous improvement manager, these challenges aren’t just about business–they’re personal too.
“One of our maintenance team members, his wife is a nurse, so he’s taxed very heavily right now,” says Tom.
“He has two young kids. So we have to ask, ‘What can we do to help you out so things are better for you?…The last thing I want to do is to burden anyone down, especially maintenance.”
We’ve reached out to our competitors to get the crucial parts we need for our corrugator…And they’ve reached out to us for some of these consumables…We’re each making sure that we can get business done. We understand that we’re essential businesses and need to keep running.
The biggest hurdle for James Afara, the chief operating officer at a cannabis producer, is balancing the health of staff with the need to do critical maintenance.
“The biggest challenge is getting eyes on the plants to make sure they’re healthy and our process metrics…are being collected properly so we can make our decisions remotely,” says James.
“We have key individuals that go in during off-hours to collect the data, but you try to balance that because you never want to put people at risk.”
Juan’s facility has also struggled to do more with less. Most suppliers (90%) have stopped delivering key parts to the plant. But Juan has found an unlikely ally to help him solve this issue.
“We’ve reached out to our competitors to get the crucial parts we need for our corrugator,” says Juan.
“And they’ve reached out to us for some of these consumables…We’re each making sure that we can get business done. We understand that we’re essential businesses and need to keep running.”
Finding a way to get the job done isn’t the biggest worry for most maintenance teams. Instead, it’s ensuring staff health and safety. This has meant putting a lot of new processes in place.
For example, Tom and his team have increased their use of automation so his staff can run operations remotely.
“Our finger is always on the pulse of the facility,” says Tom, “Even without being there, you still know what’s happening.”
These measures have reduced after-hours call-ins by 42% over the last year, which means fewer risky trips to the plant.
Tom, along with James and Juan, have put several other precautions in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. They’ve started putting fewer technicians on each shift, taking the temperature of staff, sanitizing all incoming parts, and reducing production so staff can do frequent deep cleans of the facility.
Companies have even mobilized maintenance as a key weapon in the battle against the virus.
“It’s imperative that maintenance ensures the facility is running,” says James, “The last thing you want is staff sitting in the lunchroom and not social distancing because of a breakdown.”
This new way of working is essential, but it also has consequences.
“We are limited because if anyone has any sort of symptom, we are pulling them out of work,” explained James, who says his workforce has been reduced by 15% because of illness.
Juan’s team has had to sacrifice efficiency in the name of health and safety.
“Because the staff have to leave their machines and go to a separate area to discuss things, it creates more downtime,” says Juan.
Although their teams are stretched thin and dealing with more breakdowns, it’s all worth it to keep staff safe and healthy.
“Your employees and their health always comes first. You have to value people over profit,” says James.
“If you’re lowering your production, you still have to remember maintenance”
While increased production has led to challenges for some maintenance teams, others have faced a very different obstacle: Coming to terms with facility shutdowns.
Lines have gone silent at many plants in the face of both the pandemic and a struggling economy. That means an uncertain future for many maintenance teams. But there’s opportunity among the difficulties, says Rob Kalwarowsky, host of the Rob’s Reliability Project podcast.
“If you’re lowering your production, you still have to remember maintenance,” says Rob.
“This would be a great time to work through your backlog…or a great time to do those rebuilds you wanted to do. There’s opportunities here, you just have to look for them.”
While some maintenance personnel are learning to work remotely or with fewer resources, some are facing more dire circumstances.
There was nothing out of the ordinary about Brandon De Melo’s shift on March 13. Brandon, the CMMS coordinator at a major auto parts manufacturer, helped shut down the facility for the weekend and went home. By the next Friday, he had been laid off.
Although Brandon is temporarily without a job, it hasn’t stopped him from exploring new ways to improve maintenance at his facility for when business starts again.
His top priority is creating a list of crucial maintenance tasks for a successful cold start. He’s also working through several projects that have been on the backburner for his team, like organizing inventory records.
Brandon has also turned his home into a one-man manufacturing facility, where he’s been creating protective masks for healthcare workers with a 3D printer.
Perseverance and hope are how maintenance teams are winning the day
Brandon’s story isn’t the only message of resilience among maintenance professionals. Hope was the word coming from everyone’s mouths when talking about the future, both on and off the shop floor.
“Don’t give up hope,” says Terrence.
“This is going to be a long battle…but I have huge faith not only in the people of this industry, but for all people to innovate and thrive even in this environment.”
Juan echoed this thought.
“The most important part about facing a situation like the one a lot of us are in now is to stay calm and to understand what is essential,” says Juan.
“What is essential is the safety of our employees. If we keep that in mind, everything else will be all right.”