Causes of Equipment Failure

5 causes of equipment failure (and what you can do to prevent it)

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This post was originally written as a guest blog by Nicole Pontius from Camcode. Edited and updated by the Fiix team in June 2019. 

Equipment failure happens. The impact of it can run the gamut from easily fixed with minimal losses to catastrophic, depending on factors like repair costs, total downtime, health and safety implications, and impact on production and delivery of services.

There are several common reasons equipment can break down, and understanding why your equipment may be failing is your first line of defence against the serious consequences of unplanned downtime.

5 common causes of equipment failure

Cause #1: Improper operation

There are a whole bunch of people who might be in and around equipment on a daily basis who could have a significant impact on its overall operating condition.

Equipment operators are one such group. They typically receive in-depth training on appropriate operating procedures, basic troubleshooting, and best practices for safe equipment use relevant to the machines they’ll be working with. However, the day might come when an operator ends up working on a machine they haven’t been adequately trained for. Sometimes this situation arises as a result of short staffing or unexpected absences. Other times emergencies come up that require quick remediation with available staff who might not necessarily have the level of expertise that your most experienced operators have.

One solution to these problems is to ensure that you have enough trained operators to allow for some flexibility and a contingency plan for staff shortage emergencies. If possible, all of your operators should have some training on every piece of equipment—even assets they don’t typically work with.

Most importantly, never allow an operator to use equipment they are not qualified to run. Not only will this help to reduce operational errors, but in some industries, it’s imperative for regulatory compliance. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets regulations for operator training requirements for certain types of equipment and for general occupational safety. It’s up to you, however, to know the regulations applicable to your industry and ensure that you have adequate compliance procedures in place.

Cause #2: Failure to perform preventive maintenance

Most equipment requires regular maintenance for optimal performance, but too often, preventive maintenance is the first task to go when you’re short-staffed and overwhelmed. It’s easy to brush off regular maintenance when things seem to be running just fine, and many companies work under the assumption that experienced workers will identify impending trouble before equipment fails entirely.

That said, many of the subtle signs of slowing performance or the early stages of failure aren’t easily detectable and often go unnoticed. In other cases, companies simply lack efficient planning methods for ensuring that ongoing maintenance is performed. Tracking equipment and machinery with asset tags can help to keep maintenance schedules on track and equipment operating at maximum operational efficiency.

Preventive maintenance is one ongoing function that should never be allowed to fall by the wayside. Taking care of your equipment with regular tune-ups will extend the usable life of your equipment, ultimately giving you more for every dollar. Additionally, preventive maintenance can identify small problems with inexpensive solutions before they become major, costly breakdowns. When you use effective inventory control strategies to ensure that you have the right spare parts in supply for the most common maintenance tasks and malfunctions, downtime for routine maintenance and repairs is minimal. In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that preventive maintenance results in:

  • Up to a 30% reduction in energy and maintenance costs
  • 35% to 45% fewer breakdowns
  • Reductions in downtime by up to 75%

Cause #3: Too much preventive maintenance

“Surely this is a mistake,” you’re thinking. “You just told me that NOT doing preventive maintenance will cause things to break.” It’s true— there’s a bit of a Goldilocks situation going on when it comes to preventive maintenance. Not enough can be problematic for the reasons we outlined above, but too much is also a major cause for concern.

We’ve written about this in-depth before, so check out this blog if you want to get deeper into the concept of post-maintenance breakdowns. But here are the Coles Notes: Every time you get into a machine to maintain it, you open up that piece of equipment to a whole set of risks, and over time those risks can compound and lead to failure.

Think of it in terms of surgery— a triple bypass is a life-saving operation. But you don’t want to undergo open heart surgery on a regular basis simply because a few years have passed, or your heart has beat a few million times. But so often, that’s exactly how we approach preventive maintenance. It’s done on a predefined schedule (generally time- or usage-based) without taking the actual operating condition of the asset into consideration.

Which brings us to…

Cause #4: Failure to continuously monitor equipment

So how do you find the right balance of preventive maintenance? The cure here is simple in concept but a bit more complex in execution: condition-based maintenance. This is maintenance that’s done based on the operating condition of a piece of equipment, instead of just a ‘set it and forget it’ schedule. It takes a lot of things into account, from manufacturer information equipment history to real-time data like vibration analysis.

Continuous monitoring relies on sensor data to establish a baseline for what good equipment condition looks like in order to detect subtle changes, which can be used to predict breakdowns and failures. This allows more time for contingency planning and scheduling downtime to minimize production interruptions. This type of monitoring and the data that’s collected in the process can help companies identify the causes of increased stress on machinery and adjust workloads and schedules to lessen the load on equipment showing early indicators of impending failure.

The catch here is that this is actually really hard to do if you’re managing maintenance with pen and paper or Excel. If this is where you want your maintenance operations to go, it might be time to consider moving to a digital maintenance solution.

Cause #5: Bad (or no!) reliability culture

Everyone has been there— major pressure from the top means there’s not a second to spare if you have any hope of hitting your production goals. In these circumstances, it can be so tempting (and so easy) for an operator or maintenance worker to notice something’s not working at 100%, slap a band-aid solution on it and say, “I’ll figure this out when things calm down”. The problem is that realistically, things never calm down to the extent where you’ll have time to revisit that work. Which means that band-aid solution becomes a semi-permanent solution until it stops working and becomes and full-fledged failure.

A really good example of this is Boeing. You’re probably familiar with the two deadly crashes involving the company’s 737 Max aircraft, which raised questions about whether Boeing’s rush to get the plane through production led the company to take safety risks that ultimately resulted in the crashes.

But the quieter story concerns a different plane model— the 787 Dreamliner. Several whistleblowers have come forward to raise the alarm about the Dreamliners, which were manufactured in 2009 at a then-new plant near Charleston, South Carolina. From the beginning, sloppy production was an issue which was consistently swept under the rug in favour of aggressive production schedules.

If you want the full story, check out the full New York Times article here (or the related podcast from the Daily if you’re more of an audio person). But long story short, the issues at Boeing are a really good example of competitive pressure at the highest levels of a business having a ripple effect all the way down the chain of command, right to the factory floor. Bad culture at the top creates a “get it done quickly” mentality that can result in devastating oversights, band-aid solutions, and mistakes.

So what if bad culture is at the root of your equipment failure? What can you do? We’ve covered the topic of how to start establishing a culture that’s focused on reliability, so go ahead and check out one (or all!) of these pieces to give yourself a firm foundation in reliability.

The bottom line: Trained operators, a solid PM schedule and a focus on reliability culture are your tickets to a failure-free future (or at least fewer failures)

Equipment can be unpredictable, and failure happens. People make mistakes, parts get old, and sometimes preventive maintenance is just the one thing too many in an already busy day. But by ensuring adequate operator training, running preventive or condition-based maintenance at the right time, and working towards a better overall culture, you’ll have a much better shot at keeping your equipment running in tip-top shape.

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