proactive vs reactive maintenance

Proactive vs. reactive maintenance: What’s the difference—and can they actually work well together?

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What’s your favourite food—that “last meal” dish you’d never say no to? We all have one. But while it may be your all-time favourite, does that mean it’s the only thing you want to eat for the rest of your life? Probably not!

We could think about maintenance strategies the same way. Every maintenance manager has his or her own set of maintenance guidelines that inform their day-to-day work and the way they manage their team. Some believe a preventive strategy makes the most sense, while others strive to set up a predictive program. But any well-rounded organization realizes that success is maximized when many different maintenance approaches work together, rather than choosing one and sticking to it until the end of time.

With that in mind, let’s explore two maintenance strategies that at first seem to be at odds with one another: proactive and reactive maintenance. Used in the right scenarios, these approaches can work together to create a balanced maintenance strategy.

Proactive maintenance

What is proactive maintenance? The terms “proactive” and “preventive” are often used interchangeably, but in fact, there are more than a few degrees of separation between them. Proactive maintenance is a preventive approach that aims to anticipate problems (failures or defects) and stop them before they occur. While any preventive maintenance program would schedule work based on time or usage-based triggers, proactive maintenance takes a more focused approach. It considers data from a CMMS, condition-based monitoring, and machine sensor data to determine when maintenance should occur. Any work that is performed on a scheduled basis should address the root cause of failure for the asset at hand.

Let’s bring in an example. Say you have a PM set up for a large piece of rotating machinery to replace the cylindrical bearings every 2,400 hours. This would be part of a preventive maintenance program. However, if after careful analysis, you determine that failure typically occurs when measured vibrations start to consistently exceed a baseline vibration threshold set at install, you would set up a PM that triggers within the P-F interval of that indicator occurring.

Carrying out proactive repair successfully hinges on the quality of resources that an organization has at its disposal—a skilled workforce, the ability to track machine health, and the software required to gather data and schedule work.

Reactive maintenance

Conversely, reactive maintenance occurs once a piece of machinery has already failed. In contrast to proactive maintenance, no analysis, tracking, or anticipation is required to carry it out. As the name implies, work is only completed in reaction to a breakdown.

Reactive maintenance tends to carry some negative associations with it, and for good reason. It’s true that for many organizations that are working with older maintenance systems like pen and paper or Excel, being in a state of reactive maintenance is the result of not being able to anticipate failures, rather than being a strategy the organization has actively decided on.

When Fiix surveyed customers in 2017, we found that while 25% of customers were currently using reactive maintenance, none of those customers planned to use it in the future, meaning they hoped to replace it with another approach. In a recent report carried out by Plant Engineering, 33% of survey respondents said that they were hoping to decrease downtime in the future by moving from reactive to preventive maintenance.

proactive vs. reactive graphic

Reactive vs. proactive

It’s at this point in the conversation that we should insert a giant asterisk: Reactive maintenance is only a problem when it’s not planned. Maintenance professionals hear time and time again that they should be moving away from reactive maintenance and over to more sophisticated asset management strategies. However, reactive maintenance can, in fact, be part of a sophisticated, well-balanced, reliability-centered maintenance strategy.

The catch here is that if a reactive approach is going to be adopted for a piece of equipment, it should be done as the result of careful analysis. That’s right—the claim that reactive maintenance doesn’t require any planning or analysis is only partially true. Yes, reactive maintenance is based on the fact that anticipating and preventing failure for an asset is not always efficient or effective. However, it’s the way you determine which assets fall into this category, and how you manage them, that makes a difference. This is where having the right tools and creating a good plan comes into the equation.

For example, you may use machine data and the help of a CMMS to determine that it costs less to replace a part rather than carry out regular maintenance on it. You don’t plan maintenance, but you do plan a response. Any reaction is well-thought-out and efficient. Similarly, you might crunch some numbers, look at past failure data and determine that a machine breaking down would have little to no impact on production. In this scenario, a reactive approach could be appropriate for that piece of equipment. Again, the plan isn’t to regularly service the asset but to use your resources in the most cost-effective way while also focusing on reliability.

The bottom line: All maintenance types are welcome in a reliability-centered approach

The key takeaway here is that context is everything. Today’s reliability landscape offers a buffet of strategies. It’s important to understand them all and how each can be used successfully for your own set of circumstances. Picking one to stick with forever just doesn’t make any sense.

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