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Bad Medicine or Good?

Nov. 20, 2003

Asset management may just be what the doctor ordered, but unless it is prescribed correctly, the cure might be worse than the disease

In the broadest sense, asset management is simply the monitoring and analysis of plant assets to increase plant uptime, throughput, and quality. In other words, asset management provides a means to help maintain a healthy, productive plant.

While operationally, process plants have been doing this for decades, new software and supporting technologies have emerged to systematize the discipline, automating the gathering and analysis of performance and other equipment data so that plant personnel can improve plant operations, extend equipment life cycles, and avoid costly downtime.

If these systems can be such good medicine, then why isn't everyone filling the prescription? In the first place, initialy applying the treatment can be expensive.

Justifying the initial investment is particularly difficult because its chief economic benefit is the prevention of events that have yet to occur. In other words, one must convince management to spend large sums of money to reduce (but not eliminate) the possibility of future operational problems.

"The biggest hurdle to justification of asset management systems is quantifying the return on investment (ROI). Is our plant getting a sufficient ROI? Who knows, we have too much money and time invested now to throw in the towel," says Jock Stucki, a maintenance engineer with Wabash Plastics in Evansville, Ind.

Committed to the Cure

Asset management must not only be sold up front, the system has to show results on an ongoing basis for top management to recognize that it is getting value from the investment. Once in place, if the asset management system is not fully supported and effectively administered, the good medicine can quickly turn bad.

To realize the promised benefits of an asset management system requires the full commitment of everyone involved--from plant operators and technicians to maintenance personnel.

That means old, paper-based methods of maintaining and servicing assets must be quickly abandoned in favor of the new system and plant personnel must exclusively use it to enter data, check equipment or instrument status, and schedule maintenance outages.

If one wants to keep his or her job after the asset management software is up and running, then detailed reports must be produced regularly to demonstrate specifically how the new system is saving money and avoiding costly events.

So, if it is hard to convince the boss and the accountants to spend money on the asset management system, difficult to install and operate the system, and the person behind the push for asset management is laying his or her job on the line based on system performance, then why prescribe asset management at all?

Because even very small improvements in uptime and throughput can result in tremendous productivity increases and huge cost savings. Most plants can expect at least minor improvements with properly-implemented asset management systems, so the champion of a new asset management system can be a hero.

Improved plant performance is not only good for the the asset management champion's overall career health, it is also good for the plant as a whole. When executive management decides to close the sickliest among your firm's 10 plants, the one you occupy might be spared if an asset management system was implemented correctly and working properly driving maintence costs down and productivity up.

Why do we maintain that asset management is good medicine and an effective operational support system? Certainly it's not just because the asset management vendors we interviewed say so. The consensus comes from your colleagues--the ones we talked to in the trenches, and their good, bad, and perhaps ugly experiences recounted in the remainder of this article.

Let's Get Organized

One of the main advantages of asset management systems cited by end users and vendors alike is the way it provides for the systematic organization of the asset management process. "Our Emerson (www.emersonprocess.com) asset management system gives us the ability to manage documentation effectively. It allows us to look quickly at numerous instruments and helps us manage the paper trail more effectively," observes Joe Pittman, a principal safety systems specialist with the Lyondell Chemical Company in Channelview, Texas.To reiterate, process plants have managed assets for decades. Computerized asset management systems can formalize this activity and make it part and parcel of everyday plant operations and maintenance.
"Asset management is a process rather than a reference to a specific tool. Many people engage in "asset management" without realizing it. Re-tuning a difficult control loop or assessing the performance of a newly-installed loop is a form of asset management," says Matt Bothe, a senior I&C/automation engineer with CRB Consulting Engineers (www.crbusa.com) in Plymouth Meeting, Pa. Process plants perform asset management activities on a daily basis, and asset management systems organize this effort. "The greatest benefits occur when the asset management program is formalized and the effort becomes systematic. Due to the organized and coherent approaches taken by asset management systems, these products are typically better and more effective than ad hoc methods," adds Bothe.Cargill is an international marketer, processor, and distributor of agricultural, food, and industrial products and services with 98,000 employees in 61 countries. The company's Vitamin E/Sterol Plant in Eddyville, Iowa was built in 1996 using primarily HART communications for more than 3,500 control devices. They use Emerson AMS to monitor the health and status of instruments.According to the Cargill's plant automation manager Wade Howarth, benefits derived from the system include the predictive/diagnostic abilities of the technology. "Prior to a recent plant shutdown, we used our asset management system to diagnose 30 potential problems with 350 valves. All problems (air leaks, crimped air lines, feedback linkage, liquid in term block, etc.) were diagnosed and repaired before the plant was affected.""We use our asset management system to become more effective at what we do through systematic documentation and proof of performance. Our future vision is to use the system's predictive technology to eliminate unnecessary plant downtime, and to use the system to help us optimize plants and processes," adds Howarth. Proceed With CautionAlthough many report success with asset management, others report problems with the initial cost or value justification. "Most of the time we are too busy fixing things to worry about predictive or preventative maintenance. When we're not too busy, the company culture seems to be that it's too geeky to be tracking maintenance or equipment on a computer," reports an anonymous user at a process plant in the Midwest.
Asset management systems can reduce the need for asset inspections, but one must be careful to not abuse the capability. "Technicians tend to work from a PC located in the shop and don't always visit the instrument and inspect the installation. A transmitter may be working fine but hanging by its impulse lines or it may be blocked in at the root valve and still be functioning," says Lyondell's Pittman.
Asset management benefits do not come without associated costs. "Our maintenance supervisor spends at least half his time administrating the system, and maintenance personnel each have to spend at least two to three hours a week entering work order information. We do generate a detailed downtime report, but not much action is ever taken due to a stretched skilled labor force," reports Stucki at Wabash Plastics.Stucki raises an interesting point, and one that vendors must overcome when explaining the value of asset management. These systems not only have up-front costs, but also ongoing costs. Proposed solutions generated by asset analysis require follow through actions, and these actions can be expensive. All such costs must be taken into account when attempting to calculate ROI, so management buy-in and support is a necessity."Executing and maintaining asset management systems requires management support, total user commitment, and discipline. Long-term viability (often due to personnel turnover) is often questionable. Transference of system ownership to the ultimate users may be a formidable challenge depending on the breadth of implementation and the depth of training," says CRB's Bothe.Another system integrator seconds Bothe's concerns and adds some of his own. "The amount of value added by a system is very dependent on installation. If the system is configured to drive maintenance from a calendar instead of from asset information, then much of the possible benefit remains untapped," observes Cedric Luyt, the director of MEPIMS (www.mepims.com), a systems integrator in Brisbane, Australia.Luyt says that potential purchasers should have no illusions about trying to implement an asset management system quickly or cheaply. "A solid asset management implementation is generally expensive and runs a high risk of having a drawn-out and lengthy installation phase. Because systems are generally very configurable to allow for best fit for a given site, they are, unfortunately, complex to configure," cautions Luyt.One of the ways to minimize installation time and expense is to have a firm understanding of a project's requirements prior to implementation, and to have an implementation team with specific experience and knowledge of the required software.Another task that can be very time consuming is the integration of existing control systems with asset management systems. As detailed in the sidebar (see Asset Management Drives Maintenance), MEPIMS often finds it necessary to use data historians as a link between plant floor control systems and asset management systems. Installation and integration of these systems is neither trivial nor inexpensive.

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