How to get your ultrasound program over the hump


Industrial plants that are either considering an ultrasound program or have one and seek to improve it may face several challenges. Simply introducing predictive maintenance tools is not enough – plant managers have to consider the best practices, training, processes, coordination and cost reduction programs.

Chris Tindell of Alcoa Point Comfort Systems conducted a webinar at Ultrasound World IX where he shared tips and experiences designed to help a manufacturing plant successfully implement a new ultrasound program or grow an existing one. Though he’s self-admittedly not an ultrasound expert, he has had success with his predictive maintenance techniques at Alcoa using ultrasound technology.

What constitutes the hump?
The hump consists of the necessary checkpoints required in moving your plant maintenance tools from point A to point B. These goals build, one after another, until your overall plant maintenance plan is ready to reach the next level.

At first, you need to define your goals, budgets and metrics. Then there is the equipment itself to purchase, train employees on, earn qualification and gain experience using. Additionally, your system must actually include strategies to complete the repairs, provide diagnostics, give predictive information, and so on – essentially, perform the plant maintenance tasks you desire. After that, it is time to move forward and adopt the system for other uses and determine how it can continue to benefit your plant and cut costs.

In implementing the predictive machine maintenance plan, you need to learn from your mistakes and take a systematic approach.

Challenges with steam trap and air leak programs
Tindell discovered that Alcoa’s steam trap systems lacked standardization across the plant, and as a result, the traps were disjointed and unorganized. That makes it difficult to determine the source of a broken or inefficient trap. Then, as repairs were made, new traps were introduced and the entire platform became more convoluted.

There were also installation errors present that lead to various problems. These mistakes included traps with insulation over them, traps installed backwards, leaky or corroded piping, and overall problems with the system.

With air leaks, it is difficult to stay on the physical path a given leak takes because of the temptation to chase leaks elsewhere. It can seem to be an impossible task to trace a leak and routes become inefficient as you go astray.

What worked better for Alcoa was to take small bites out of the leak survey, breaking it down and taking a step by step approach. Tindell opted to stay within one section of a room, find leaks and tag them in one- or two-hour chunks, and enter them into the plant’s log in manageable groups. Ultimately, they discovered that repairs could not be effectively made during the surveys themselves. They would require advanced planning to coordinate scheduled shutdown or isolation. Now, Alcoa uses work orders consisting of each individual leak to plan, investigate, track and repair the issue.

Tindell and his team also attended a formal training session on compressed air leak detection that introduced them to new concepts and possibilities. The hands-on training was beneficial and the formal instruction gave them more direction that they would not have otherwise been aware of.

An ongoing journey
Once you implement a predictive maintenance system into your plant, it is not enough to leave it as is over time. There are always updates to be made, new equipment to investigate, training to be held and so on. Alcoa’s system underwent numerous changes over the years as they learned more about the system and sought to create a more effective leak management strategy.

In 2003, Alcoa purchased a UE 550 and hired a summer intern to survey the plant. It was a cursory approach. From 2005 to 2007 they attended a conference and underwent two steam trap surveys. The first survey revealed a number of leaks and traps that were malfunctioning, and the second one revealed that little was done to address those issues.

Then in 2007, they instituted a weekly, two hour leak survey. The next year Alcoa made their air and steam programs a full-time commitment – they trained three technicians, added a UE 9000, and scheduled instrument use. Over the next few years, they introduced a lubrication system using ultrasonic greasing. By 2010, they had nine Ultraprobe 201 greasing units, plus three more UE 9000’s.

Their development continued, including the introduction of more trained technicians and cutting-edge equipment. As a result, they were able to effectively identify, measure and repair their leaks.

Things to remember
Tindell outlined a few basic rules and suggestions that allow any manufacturing plant to become more effective. At the heart of it is taking a step-by-step approach, building a system of qualified individuals and quality equipment and having the presence to look at the plant as a whole – not just on the production floor, but from the point of view of the manager and customer as well.

Investing in people is extremely important – training, continuous development, and cross-training those individuals to understand how different functions and technologies connect. Equipment is only as valuable as the technicians who implement it.

Align goals on the floor with organizational goals. Determine how ultrasound is a cost-effective solution that takes into account energy, inventory, turnover rates, lubrication and so on. Break down and find specific functions and uses that have measurable outcomes on the bottom line.

Keep things simple. Take the path of least resistance whenever possible and use the most basic solution. Be consistent and ensure that task activities are clearly defined and repeatable, regardless of the technician.

Customer and supplier communication should be direct, binary and paced. Understand how the activity relates with the service provided. Make sure problems are easy to identify, so that from the onset any issue is understood and the correct measures can be implemented.

If you take a measured, direct and continuous approach to your plant’s condition monitoring, you will be able to get the most out of your ultrasound program.