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How Reliability Centered Maintenance Can Save You Millions

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I saw this sign in several of my teacher’s classrooms when I was in school: “I can only please one person per day. Today isn’t your day, and tomorrow doesn’t look good, either.”

That phrase may sound harsh, but it’s grounded in fact.

The human brain can only handle so much information. To wit: the average person can only comfortably maintain relationships with 150 other people. That idea, called Dunbar’s number, comes from Oxford professor and anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. It’s not that Dunbar’s a Scrooge—rather, it’s the fact that our brains can only handle so much information, be it friends, foes, or things on a to-do list.

Try telling that to a maintenance manager, however.

The maximum number of people you can know? 150. The average number of parts in a 737 airplane? 367,000. The number of moving parts in all the assets that make those 367,000 airplane parts? I’ll avoid listing a number, because I’ve already reached my Dunbar’s number of numbers I can handle. So how do you keep all those moving parts working?

Reliability centered maintenance.

When you combine reliability centered maintenance with computerized maintenance management software, your thousands of moving parts will work together. Even if you have only a few assets, reliability centered maintenance can still help with your maintenance goals. You’ll be able to manage that information overload and better anticipate possible problems.

That’s because reliability centered maintenance uses seven simple questions to organize the sensory overload that is maintenance management.

Reliability centered maintenance: order out of chaos

You’ll see reliability centered maintenance called a strategy, or a method, or a process. Whichever word you want to use, just know that RCM figures out how to make your maintenance program run at peak capacity.

Reliability centered maintenance analyzes problems and failures, then uses that analysis to determine the best way to fix, and prevent, them. It’s a relatively young procedure, born in 1978 when F. Stanley Nowlan and Howard F. Heap authored a report with the same title. It got big in the 1980s, and is still going strong today.

They call seven “the age of reason,” and seven’s also the magic number for reliability centered maintenance. The seven questions below are the brainchild of John Moubray, who literally wrote the book on the subject.

RCM asks seven questions about every asset: 

1. What does an asset do, and what are its desired performance standards?

2. How could an asset fail at what it does?

3. What are the failure modes for each of those assets?

4. What’s the cause of each of those failure modes?

5. What’s the consequence of each failure?

6. What can you do, or should you do, to predict/prevent each of those failures?

7. What should you do if you can’t figure out how to predict/prevent each of those failures?

Once you’ve asked those questions of an asset, you plan your maintenance around the answers. For example: if one of your centrifugal pumps tends to break every three months, a reliability centered maintenance plan would ask you to check on the failure modes for that pump, check out why it failed, then plan your maintenance to prevent future downtime.

If asking all seven questions of an asset seems like a lot of work, that’s because RCM is a strategy that goes beyond normal, reactive maintenance plans. Reliability centered maintenance seeks to understand the deep causes of why an asset breaks. In RCM, “you’re trying to understand why things are failing, then develop a maintenance plan based on what’s likely to cause the downtime,” says Ryan Chan, CEO of CMMS vendor Upkeep.

RCM’s seven questions can help you keep trouble from happening. Think of RCM as making a big list of everything that could (or did) go wrong, and planning your maintenance so that those wrong things don’t happen.

There’s a strong preventive aspect to reliability centered maintenance. “Reliability centered maintenance isn’t just about ways to fix, but also ways to prevent,” says Leah Garcia of Maintenance Connection. “You see a problem happen a lot, and say what can we do to fix it, and knowing that you’ve got to fix it every two months instead of every three months.”

In that sense, reliability centered maintenance is like the answer to Murphy’s Law: anything that can go wrong, will. In maintenance terms, those “anythings” that can go wrong can range from an air leak to a problem with an asset’s bearings. There are a lot of things that can go wrong with the sort of intricate, complex machinery that keep factories and facilities running.

That’s where computerized maintenance management software comes in: it makes it easier to figure out what did go wrong, and anticipate what might go wrong.

RCM and CMMS Software

CMMS software makes an RCM strategy possible. The work order management and service history tracking features of CMMS software give you the information you need to answer those seven RCM questions.

“A CMMS is about tracking maintenance, and when you go back to answer the RCM questions, the answers can be extracted from a CMMS, if the CMMS is used properly,” says Ryan Chan.

Because a CMMS tracks and stores information about past maintenance tasks, the answers you need to know about a certain asset—when and why it broke—are easily searchable. By contrast, searching a paper-based maintenance system requires a lot more time and effort.

“The biggest issue in the maintenance industry is that a lot of stuff is still done on paper, and when you have stacks of paper, nothing is searchable or easily found,” adds Chan.

Ask yourself which is easier: combing through several weeks of your technicians’ handwriting, or doing something equally as simple as a Google search.

It’s not just searchability that’s important, however. Reliability centered maintenance requires you to know what your assets do, and what their optimal standards are. With a CMMS, you can include information about those optimal standards in work orders. As a result, routine maintenance tasks include information that ensures you’re meeting those desired performance standards.

When you create a maintenance procedure, says Garcia, it’s a good idea to set up that task according to the manufacturer’s instructions and standard operating procedures. “Manufacturers made the machine, they know how it’s going to function best,” Garcia says.

This also helps with compliance. “You can void a warranty if you don’t follow routine maintenance,” Garcia adds.

Is RCM right for you?

Garcia is adamant about RCM’s usefulness.

“RCM is​​ for everyone unless they’ve already done it. As long as you’re running maintenance, you should be running RCM, even if the evaluation of the maintenance only happens once a year.”

Even if you’re only altering your maintenance program annually, the insight you’ll get from asking what did, or could, go wrong, will set you up to stop problems before start.

If it seems like a lot of work to go through the seven RCM questions for every single asset in your facility, you can relax: it’s not as overwhelming as it seems.

According to Doug Plucknette, RCM discipline leader for Allied Reliability Group, “RCM should be performed on somewhere between 5 and 20 percent of your critical assets,” while “a well-designed failure modes tool” will suffice for the rest of your facility.

Chan agrees with the 20% figure. “The things you want to focus on are the ones that cause the most breakdown, have the highest downtime in terms of dollars, and the highest ROI impact.”

“If you start out with the, say, four or five assets that have the most issues, and biggest impact on business, then that entire RCM program is much more meaningful,” Chan adds.

RCM is also right for anyone who wants to save money:

What is your experience with reliability centered maintenance?

Has your facility used reliability centered maintenance? If you run an RCM plan, how has CMMS software helped you? If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

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About the Author

Geoff Hoppe

Geoff Hoppe writes about business intelligence and field service management for Capterra. His background is in education and higher ed, but he’s interested these days in how small businesses can use software to be more agile and efficient. When he’s not reading and writing about software, he’s probably reading and writing about history, music and comic books, finding new hikes throughout Virginia, or following the Fighting Irish.


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