How the maintenance team can solve six of the biggest manufacturing challenges

May 24, 2023

| 6 min read

The six biggest challenges facing manufacturers and why investing in maintenance is the secret to overcoming them

This is article is part of a series exploring the results of the 2023 State of Smart Manufacturing and how maintenance teams can use them to strategize, plan, and add value to their operations. Get your copy of the report.

One of the longest-running debates about maintenance is whether it’s a cost or profit center. But everyone might be asking the wrong question.

In a world where risks to manufacturers are rapidly multiplying and evolving, the real question might be, is maintenance a problem solver or a problem maker? If we find the answer to that question, the value of maintenance becomes clearer.

With that in mind, let’s look at the six biggest challenges for manufacturers and the strategies maintenance teams can use to overcome them.

*All data comes from the 2023 State of Smart Manufacturing report, which surveyed 1,350 manufacturers. Check out the results for yourself here.

Three big external challenges for manufacturers

Manufacturers identified inflation, supply chain disruptions, and raw material shortages as the three most dangerous external threats in 2023. Maintenance plays a role in navigating these challenges and helping businesses take back some control in an ocean of unpredictability.

External: technology industry obstacles and outlook. Inflation, supply chain distribution, and raw materials/Microchip shortgage/prices being the highest

1. Inflation

The challenge: Inflation exceeded 7.5% in the US by the end of 2022, according to the Federal Reserve. This has driven up costs for manufacturers while shaving valuable percentage points off their margins. Finding out how to stretch budgets and reduce waste will be a main priority for manufacturing companies facing a crunch from inflation.

How maintenance can help: Maintenance teams spend a lot of money on parts, which makes inventory purchasing a prime battleground for fighting the effects of inflation. Everything, from lubrication and bearings to motors and pumps, is more expensive these days. Maintenance teams that reduce the number of parts consumed and the price of these parts will help manufacturers cut or maintain the cost of production.

One way to reduce inventory purchasing is to cut the use of parts in troubleshooting. Replacing parts unnecessarily leads to huge spends. To avoid these costs, focus on the fundamentals of logging proper work order notes, including which parts were consumed, when, and why. There should also be an easy way to access or reference an asset’s repair history to reduce troubleshooting with parts and easily forecast which parts need to be reordered.

Create strong maintenance records with this equipment maintenance log template

2. Supply chain disruption

The challenge: The supply chain is in disarray. Shipping containers are stranded at port. Microchips are in short supply. Shelves have been empty for years. This chaos has put manufacturers in a double bind: They can’t get materials to fuel production and the products they do make are unlikely to be delivered on time. Reducing the impact of these disruptions will be an ongoing puzzle for companies to solve in 2023 and beyond.

How maintenance can help: An unpredictable supply chain means production is unpredictable. Equipment can suddenly be needed ASAP after laying dormant for weeks. Any production delays can mean even more losses. Maintenance teams can make sure this doesn’t happen by maintaining assets while not running and creating detailed procedures for cold starts so asset availability is high, even in less-than-ideal conditions.

Avoid production stoppages with this facility start-up checklist

Another way maintenance can reduce the impact of supply chain disruptions is by building contingency plans for vendors. If parts or supplies can’t be delivered on time, these plans help maintenance teams source materials from other vendors or sites within the company.

3. Raw material shortage

The challenge: Manufacturers that can’t get materials to make their product can’t fulfill orders and make money. The consequences are amplified in businesses where raw materials spoil quickly. Unfortunately, the shortage of raw materials is caused by circumstances manufacturers can’t control, like global conflicts, climate change, and labor shortages.

How maintenance can help: Maintenance has very little control over the availability of raw materials, but it can help manufacturers maximize what they get from the materials they can obtain. One way is to increase clean start-ups out of maintenance windows. If equipment can run cleaner from minute one, quality goes up, and both waste and the risk of production stoppages go down.

Maintenance teams can also create processes to avoid waste from spoiled product, including:

  • Emergency parts kits: Kitting parts and supplies for the most likely failures with high impact on critical equipment helps teams respond to breakdowns before materials spoil

    Download your own parts kitting template

  • Mobile work orders: Making work orders accessible in the field reduces response and troubleshooting times so product isn’t sitting on the line for too long

    Learn more about mobile work orders

  • Frequent audits of machine specs: Regular audits of machine specs help maintenance rebuild and calibrate equipment components correctly, reducing waste and stoppages.

The three biggest internal challenges for manufacturers

There are three internal challenges manufacturers say will impact them the most in 2023:

  1. Balancing quality and growth
  2. Deploying and integrating new technology
  3. Worker and knowledge retention

The maintenance team is perfectly positioned to lead manufacturers through these challenges and give them a competitive advantage.

Internal: technology industry obstacles and outlook. Balancing quality and growth, deploying and integrating new technology, and worker retention/knowledge retention being the highest

1. Balancing quality and growth

The challenge: Making quality products is the best way to build trust between manufacturers and customers. But the more people, sites, and machines you add, the likelier standards are to deteriorate. This puts manufacturing companies in a tough spot between expanding operations and maintaining high levels of quality.

How maintenance can help: Standardization is a manufacturer’s best defense against reduced quality while expanding operations. A standard set of processes for staff and equipment allows manufacturers to spot and fix problems without time-consuming committees or projects. When standardizing maintenance, here are some important areas that’ll deliver value quickly:

2. Deploying and integrating new technology

The challenge: There is more technology than ever for manufacturers, but finding the best options and connecting all these systems is increasingly complicated. That’s why over 33% of manufacturers say they suffer from technology paralysis—the inability to decide on and implement new tech. Any manufacturer that finds a cure for this problem will gain a huge advantage over competitors.

How maintenance can help: This four-step framework gives maintenance teams the tools to beat technology paralysis and quickly implement the right technology for them:

  1. Audit your current systems and processes to identify which ones negatively impact your team the most (ie. creating higher mean time to repair times or lower wrench time).
  2. Choose one system or process to update, and find software that best fits your team’s needs, budget, and workflows. This is a big job in itself. Fortunately, this guide on choosing maintenance software can cut down the time and stress.
  3. Find a system that can eventually connect with your company’s other tech. Integrating systems can take anywhere from a few days to several months. That’s why it’s a major cause of tech paralysis. Instead of integrating immediately, focus on the system’s potential. Is it easy to integrate with other systems? Will the vendor guide you through the process? These questions help you focus on what needs to get done now while finding a vendor that can grow with you.
  4. Deploy with two goals in mind: Adoption and standardization. Most implementations fail because teams change too much, too fast. Focus on getting everyone to use the system and use it the same way.

3. Worker and knowledge retention

The challenge: It’s getting more and more difficult for manufacturers to find and keep talent in 2023 due to increasingly large skills gaps, labor shortages, wage jumps, and turnover rates. Hiring and training new workers is expensive and it stalls work in progress, which makes deploying new technology or multi-site standardization even less likely to succeed.

How maintenance can help:

Let’s start with the role maintenance plays in preserving knowledge. Documenting and centralizing processes is an essential first step. Physical files and Excel spreadsheets often contribute to knowledge loss. If the owner of a spreadsheet won the lottery tomorrow and quit, it would be hard to access and understand their documents. That’s why maintenance software is the ideal solution for capturing information and keeping it in one place. Software also automates many manual and complex tasks, like data analysis. This means you don’t have to employ teams of data scientists to make use of maintenance data.

Retaining workers is often necessitates a shift in leadership style. Embracing inclusive leadership is a proven way to increase worker happiness and productivity. Here are some tips from an article we wrote on how to be an inclusive leader in maintenance:

  • Book regular one-on-one meetings with team members and make sure feedback flows from managers to direct reports and vice versa
  • Work with technicians and other staff to create professional development plans
  • Give workers more opportunities to be leaders, whether it’s being in charge of meetings, creating reports, or conducting root cause analyses
  • Build relationships between maintenance and other business units so staff can learn new skills, swap ideas, and be recognized throughout the company

Is the maintenance department a problem-solver or a troublemaker?

This article began with a question: Does the maintenance team create problems or solve them? After examining the role maintenance plays in helping manufacturers manage the industry’s six biggest challenges, the answer is that manufacturers that invest in maintenance have a huge advantage. While not every challenge can be overcome by the maintenance team, it can reduce the risk and impact of obstacles outside of your control, like supply chain disruptions, and be a leader in solving the internal business challenges for manufacturing.

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