You’ve heard it before and know it from firsthand experience: “All machines break down.” As a savvy manager, you aren’t trying to eliminate this basic reality, but simply to control it wherever possible.
By Neal Bolton
Your success at minimizing the impact of downtime is directly related to the level of maintenance your machines receive. In this regard, ignorance of specific maintenance issues is no excuse.
Ignoring any maintenance activity or safety practice—no matter how obscure—can still contribute to failure of the system. And the responsibility for any machine damage or worker injury still comes back to those responsible for maintenance.
When you buy a truck or tractor, you have the expectation that the machine is going to do the job it’s intended for and will be dependable and run economically.
Reality of Breakdowns
Of course, if you are realistic, you’ll also expect that the machine will periodically break down. Parts will fail, seals will leak, things won’t work—and you’ll simply have to fix them.
The reality of expectation number two, that machines will sometimes break down is pointed out in the manufacturer’s owning and operating cost estimates. All manufacturers will affirm that you budget for repairs (sort of a repair cost reserve) so that when something breaks, you’ve got money in your operation to take care of that.
Typically, those repair costs will represent somewhere between 5% and 15% of the machine’s hourly owning and operating costs. This leads us to the third expectation related to your machines. If it’s ignored, you’ll create a serious disconnect between the first two expectations and reality. This third component is that machines will be properly maintained.
The clear line of communication that must flow through your equipment maintenance system includes the following:
- Current condition of the machine(s)
- Thorough daily walk-around inspections or detailed evaluations by a mechanic
- A system for tracking upcoming services or repairs
- Computer program
- The means for performing services and repairs
- Recordkeeping of past maintenance-repair activities
- Projections of future activities, including major rebuilds
It Starts With the Operator
A practical and sound equipment maintenance program starts at the ground and works up. The first step is for the equipment operators to fully understand the machines they are operating.
Know the Machine
Machine operators must read and understand the manufacturer’s operation and maintenance manual for every machine they operate. Their knowledge must be machine specific—it can’t just be generic. It doesn’t work to say, “If you’ve seen one dozer, you’ve seen them all.”
|Photo: Neal Bolton
No place for wimpy machines
There are variations between machine types, models, sizes, manufacturers and even year of manufacture. To ensure that workers know the machines they operate—and to protect the landfill manager or owner from potential liability or negligence—it is imperative that the operators read and understand the manufacturer’s operation and maintenance manual. This “understanding” must be documented through training and appropriate record keeping.
The next step is for the operators always to perform a pre-trip inspection (commonly referred to as a walk-around inspection) every time they operate a machine. It doesn’t matter if the shift starts at 1 p.m. after someone else has run the same machine all morning. Anytime an operator gets on a machine for the first time that day, it’s imperative that he or she completes a walk-around inspection. That inspection must, at a minimum, follow the manufacturer’s recommendation for pre-trip operation inspection points or items to check. Very often, it is expanded to include some site-specific items, to address repetitive or chronic issues associated with that particular machine or facility. Maybe this is heat related, abrasive soil related, or perhaps in response to a history of safety issues.
So again, all operators must conduct comprehensive walk-around inspections of any machines they will be operating that day.
And when returning to the machine after a coffee or lunch break, they should conduct minimal walk-around inspections to confirm that there are no leaks or safety risks. For example, before putting a machine back to work, the operator should make sure nobody is lounging around the machine.
The comprehensive walk-around inspection must be documented. In other words, there must be a form that is geared specifically for machines at your facility, a form the operator fills out for each machine that he or she operates. That form must in some way move up the chain of communication to whoever is responsible to see that repairs and maintenance issues are taken care of. Similarly, once those issues or repairs are taken care of, there should be communication with the operator to determine that the work has been done or, if it’s not done, why it wasn’t and when it will be.
Participate With Maintenance
The level of involvement your operators have in the equipment maintenance process depends on many factors. Is your operation unionized? How busy are the operators? What are their skill levels? Is your operation large enough to justify a full-time mechanic or service worker?
We often find that at small facilities, operators service their own machines. This may include daily lubrication, changing oil and filters, replacing hoses, and performing other minor repairs.
As facilities get larger and tonnage increases, we generally see less operator involvement. In these cases, there is typically a maintenance team. As a general rule of thumb, it generally takes one mechanic/service worker for every six pieces of heavy equipment. Again, there are many variables, but this is typical.
However, regardless of how impressive your team of mechanics might be, operators should never be “white-glove” operators, where all they do is show up, climb on a machine, and go to work. Instead, they should always conduct thorough walk-around inspections and be involved enough in machine maintenance that they understand the process.
Remember, one of the main reasons for conducting a walk-around inspection is to confirm that daily maintenance is occurring. Along that line, how can an operator conduct a walk-around inspection if he or she doesn’t know what a grease zerk looks like or how to interpret an air-filter restriction indicator?
It is also very important for machines to be inspected periodically by a skilled mechanic. Typically, this occurs during routine service or repair activities. However, if maintenance is performed by a third party, its work should be spot-checked from time to time.
To be successful, a maintenance-tracking program must be able to preschedule upcoming future service or repair activities and then record them for future reference.
Perhaps the most effective way to monitor upcoming service or repair events is with a whiteboard.
A whiteboard system uses a dry-erase whiteboard to track service and repair activities. Each machine is listed in rows along the left side of the board. Several columns are created, with headings for current machine hours, scheduled oil sampling, last fueling, anticipated repairs, upcoming services, and what type of service it is (e.g., 250-hour, 500-hour), and various other activities. Once the basic events are listed, you can provide as many or as few additional activities as you wish. Some whiteboards also include pressure-wash/steam-cleaning, for example, or the cleaning of tracks and the removal of wire wrap from wheels. Do what works for your facility.
In order for the whiteboard system to work effectively, the current machine hours must be updated frequently. The best way to do this is to include a column for fuel, so the current machine hours can be updated on the whiteboard every time a machine is fueled.
A white board/file folder system is dependable, economical and perhaps the most common type of maintenance tracking system. Much of its success is due to its simplicity. Once it’s set up, a whiteboard provides the quick visual status of each machine.
It’s important to note that the whiteboard is primarily for recording upcoming events. As scheduled activities are completed, they should be logged on a form and filed, and the item erased from the whiteboard. Those forms should be kept in a file folder for each individual machine.
Because the whiteboard system is primarily a forward-looking tool, there must also be some means of recording maintenance activities after they’ve been completed. Over time, that file system will contain a complete history of all the services and repairs that were done on each machine. There are generally three ways to track machine maintenance history.
The first method is sometimes called the “shoebox” method. This is where all repair orders, receipts, and other records associated with your machines are simply thrown into a box or file, a kind of Black Hole Equipment Tracking System: What goes in never comes back out!
The shoebox method is fast, easy, and will quickly turn into a disaster. It will always result in higher machine costs and increased downtime.
File Folder System
A standard file folder system is flexible, simple, and works very well. Most waste facilities use a file folder system for tracking machine maintenance and repairs.
All machine manufacturers can provide standardized forms for this purpose, or you can create your own. Like any filing system, the key is completion and organization. It is best to have a separate section for each machine, and each section should include individual folders for the following:
- Walk-around inspections
- Copy of walk-around form, actions taken
- Fuel use
- Date, gallons, machine hours
- Oil-sampling results
- Services completed
- What was done
- Oil changed or added, filters replaced, machine cleaned
- When it was done
- Who did it
- Additional notes on machine condition
- Repairs completed
- Warranty versus non-warranty
- •Work orders
- Third-party invoices
- Parts used
- Additional notes on potential cause, future prevention
Much of this information is taken from the whiteboard as individual tasks are completed.
The folder system can be replaced or augmented with a computerized maintenance-tracking system. And, while computerized maintenance-tracking systems can be used at any size facility, they are considered almost mandatory when the fleet includes lots of machines or when maintenance records must be shared, such as between multiple facilities and county fleet services or the corporate office.
In some cases, a computerized maintenance system can pay for itself by simply improving your ability track warranty work.
Machine maintenance software can be a dynamic tool for monitoring the performance of your fleet. One of the most attractive benefits is the ability to generate virtually any type of report for individual or groups of machines. These could include fuel consumption, average hours between servicing, machine hours per year, machine repair cost, oil sampling results, cost of third-party repairs, and projected cost of repairs for next budget.
Let’s look at how a computerized system could help with your annual budgeting. In many cases, next year’s budget for machine repairs is based on how much you spent last year. It’s a simple calculation but not very accurate, because large component repairs occur at different time intervals.
For example, the major components on a bulldozer have different life expectancies. An engine may last 8,000 hours, while the undercarriage may last only 5,000 hours. But you have no way of predicting when those components will fail by simply averaging last year’s repair costs.
But there is another way. You could estimate, based on your experience or your fleet history, the average working life of specific components. Then, based on the current condition (e.g., current hours, hours per month) of each machine, you could estimate the date and cost of rebuilding or repairing individual components. Ultimately, a chart could be drawn up showing the anticipated repair cost per year for a bulldozer, including costs for engine, transmission, undercarriage, pins and bushings, and final drives. More or less detail could be added depending on the required output.
Developing such projections from a traditional paper file system would be possible, but very difficult. On the other hand, it would be fairly simple for a computerized program.
The point is this: Having good historical data, and being able to use it effectively, allows for better planning and more accurate financial decisions.
The biggest drawback of converting from a paper file system to a computerized system is data entry. Somebody will have to input the raw data into the computer system. This must be done in a timely and accurate manner, according to the principle of “garbage in, garbage out.”
Many facilities successfully use a hybrid system, combining paper files with a computerized maintenance tracking system. The key to success is to have a system that makes sense…and is simple enough that it will, in fact, be used.
Oil Sampling and Analysis
Regardless of which type of maintenance program used, a true preventive maintenance system must include regular oil sampling and analysis.
Caterpillar originated the scheduled oil sample, appropriately known as “SOS.” Today, most machine manufacturers or third-party service providers can help set up an oil-sampling program.
The oil-sampling process includes extracting a small sample of fluid (e.g., coolant, engine oil, hydraulic fluid, gear oil) from your machines on a regular schedule. These samples are then sent to a laboratory and analyzed for metal, contaminants, oil condition, and other things that could provide early warning of potential problems.
The cost of adopting an oil-sampling program for your fleet is a good investment.
Fuel consumption records should definitely be maintained for every machine. Whenever a machine is fueled, its description, the amount of fuel added, and a notation of the current engine hour meters should be recorded. A simple form can be created and kept in a binder or weatherproof container at the fueling tank or in the fuel truck. As previously mentioned, this information should be transferred to the whiteboard and also kept in a separate file for each machine.
There are important reasons for recording fuel consumption.
The first, and perhaps most important, is that fuel records provide the most accurate picture of machine work. Recording operator hours or time card hours does not tell us how much the machine works. Even recording engine hours does not necessarily tell us how hard a machine works. But recording the fuel consumed per machine hour is very accurate because it shows how hard the engine was working.
Another reason is to prevent theft of fuel. By correlating fuel usage for each machine and comparing it to the amount of fuel delivered to the site on a weekly or monthly basis, a balance sheet or accounting of fuel consumption can be tracked and monitored.
People: Hire the Right Ones
The success of any machine maintenance program will depend on the people. No computer program or library of forms can take the place of someone who knows maintenance…and wants to do a good job.
The maintenance staff is indeed a vital link in the chain of any operation. Let’s make sure it isn’t a missing link.
There was this landfill manager who hired his cousin Jack to provide machine maintenance. Now Jack had no experience in this line of work. By way of training, Jack was a psychiatrist. But he was a nice guy—and he needed a job. On his first day, Jack responded to a problem: a scraper with a leaky hydraulic hose. After spending 30 minutes trying to loosen the hose, it finally broke loose, sprayed hydraulic fluid on the manifold and instantly burst into flames. The operator, who had been quietly watching, now started screaming, “Hey man, what are you doing?” “I don’t know what to do,” Jack responded, “I’m just a psychiatrist.” “Well,” said the operator, “you darn sure better do something.” For a moment, Jack appeared to compose himself, turned to the operator and quietly asked, “So, how do you feel about what just happened?”
Bottom Line: The performance of your machine maintenance program depends more on the people than on the program itself.
Finally, there must be—somewhere in the system—a means of verification. Someone must periodically go through and spot-check to see that operators are accurately performing walk-around inspections.
Spot-checks should also be conducted to verify that daily maintenance is being done properly. Consider bringing in, on a random basis, a manager or third-party mechanic to conduct a thorough review of each machine.
It’s not unusual to find daily lubrication points that are being missed or which have been damaged and forgotten.
Any follow-up inspection should also include housekeeping. In order to keep machines running cool and to reduce the risk of a machine fire, the engine compartment should be inspected for built-up dirt, grease, or other debris. Similarly, so should the undercarriage.
It is true that all machines need to be serviced, and all of them will break down. How you respond to that truth will determine the effectiveness and cost of operating the machines at your facility. Remember, grease is cheaper than steel.
Consultant Neal Bolton specializes in landfill operations and management.