What is reactive maintenance?

Simply put, reactive maintenance, also known as breakdown maintenance, involves addressing equipment issues as they arise. Instead of planning maintenance tasks in advance, you wait for equipment to fail and then fix it. It's the "if it isn't broken, don't fix it" approach.

The advantages and challenges of reactive maintenance

Reactive maintenance, also known as run-to-failure or breakdown maintenance, comes with both advantages and challenges. Below are some of the key pros and cons:

Advantages of reactive maintenance:

  • Lower initial costs: There are no upfront costs for maintenance planning, preventive maintenance procedures, or the purchase and implementation of predictive maintenance technologies.
  • Less planning: Since maintenance is performed only when a failure occurs, less time and resources are spent on planning and scheduling regular maintenance tasks.
  • Simplicity: Reactive maintenance is straightforward because it involves fixing problems as they arise. There are no complex schedules or preventive measures to follow.

Challenges of reactive maintenance:

  • Higher long-term costs: While reactive maintenance might seem cheaper in the short term, the long-term costs can be much higher. This is due to the potential for collateral damage when equipment fails, the costs of emergency repairs (which can include rush charges for parts and overtime labor costs), and the cost of unplanned downtime.
  • Unpredictable downtime: Equipment can fail at any time, leading to unexpected interruptions in operations. This unpredictability can make it difficult to meet production schedules or deadlines and could even lead to lost revenue.
  • Shortened equipment lifespan: Regularly running equipment to the point of failure can shorten its overall lifespan and increase the frequency of replacement.
  • Safety risks: If equipment fails unexpectedly, it could potentially pose a safety risk to operators or other employees.
  • Poorer asset utilization: Without planned and scheduled maintenance, assets might not be used to their full potential, and their overall performance can decrease over time.

Ditch reactive maintenance with this preventive maintenance checklist template

Types of reactive maintenance

Reactive maintenance can be broken down into several types:

  1. Emergency maintenance: This is a type of reactive maintenance that is performed immediately following an equipment failure to prevent further damage, to avoid possible safety risks, or to get critical operations running again. It requires high priority, immediate attention, and often leads to high costs due to the urgency and unplanned downtime.
  2. Corrective maintenance: This involves making repairs and adjustments after a defect or failure has been detected. Corrective maintenance can include both minor and major repairs and can be planned once the issue is detected, but before complete equipment failure.
  3. Failure maintenance: This is a type of maintenance where action is taken only when equipment breaks down or fails completely. This is the most reactive form of maintenance as no attempt is made to prevent failure; the focus is instead on restoring the equipment to its normal operating condition after failure.
  4. Deferred corrective maintenance: In this scenario, once a problem has been identified, the repairs are deferred to a later date. This is typically due to the non-criticality of the issue or lack of resources at the time the problem is detected.
  5. Fault maintenance: This involves identifying the cause of a fault or malfunctioning of equipment and performing the necessary fixes or replacements. It is reactive in the sense that the fault is allowed to happen, and then corrective measures are applied.

Examples of reactive maintenance

Reactive maintenance occurs when repairs or replacements are only done after a piece of equipment or machinery has failed. Here are a few examples:

  • Automobile repairs: If a car owner only takes their vehicle to the mechanic when something breaks down or stops working completely (like a dead battery, flat tire, or engine failure), that's an example of reactive maintenance.
  • Office maintenance: If a business owner only fixes the roof after it starts leaking, or only replaces a faulty furnace after it breaks down in the middle of winter, these are examples of reactive maintenance. Similarly, dealing with a burst water pipe only after it has caused a flood is another example.
  • IT systems: In the IT sector, only addressing server or network issues after a system outage or data loss occurs is a form of reactive maintenance.
  • Factory equipment: In an industrial setting, only repairing or replacing a piece of production machinery after it has broken down and production has been interrupted is an example of reactive maintenance.
  • Infrastructure: Only repairing a road, bridge, or railway track after a pothole, crack, or other serious damage has occurred is reactive maintenance. Similarly, dealing with power grid issues only after a blackout is also an example.
  • Hospital equipment: In a healthcare setting, only fixing a broken MRI machine, ventilator, or other critical piece of equipment after it fails is reactive maintenance.

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Reactive maintenance vs. proactive maintenance

Below is a table to illustrate some of the differences between reactive and proactive maintenance:

Reactive Proactive
Performed After a failure has already occurred. The equipment is used until it breaks down, and only then is maintenance performed. To prevent failures from occurring. It includes both preventive and predictive maintenance.
Involves No prior planning or scheduling, which can make it simpler and less expensive in the short term. Performing routine inspections, servicing, and replacements at scheduled intervals, regardless of whether a failure has occurred.
Can become Costly in the long term. Equipment failures can lead to operational downtime, lost production, and potentially more extensive (and expensive) repairs due to collateral damage caused by the failure. It can also shorten the lifespan of equipment. More cost-effective than preventive maintenance, as it avoids unnecessary maintenance, but it requires investment in monitoring tools and technologies, and in data analysis capabilities.

Is there a right time and place for reactive maintenance?

The short answer is: Yes. There are specific scenarios where reactive maintenance is appropriate and can be considered the "right time" for maintenance teams. Here are some instances where reactive maintenance might be the preferred approach:

  • Non-essential equipment: For tools or equipment that don't play a crucial role in primary operations, or whose downtime doesn't significantly impact the operation or production, reactive maintenance can be applied. It might not be economical to perform regular preventive maintenance on such equipment.
  • Low-cost replacement: If the cost of frequently maintaining a piece of equipment exceeds the cost of its replacement, it might make sense to simply replace it when it fails, rather than invest in preventive measures.
  • Equipment nearing its end of life: Sometimes, with very old equipment that's nearing its end of service life, it might be more practical to keep it running until it fails and then replace it, especially if preventive maintenance won't extend its life significantly.

The long answer is:

Most teams will encounter reactive maintenance periodically because equipment failure just can’t be perfectly predicted. The industry rule of thumb says to aim for only 20% of your maintenance time to be devoted to reactive maintenance. In reality, teams spend somewhere between 34-45% of their time on reactive maintenance.

There are exceptions, of course. Some industries that rely on remote assets (like satellites, for instance) will always be a bit more reactive because the cost of running preventive maintenance is just too high. But generally speaking, reactive maintenance should be reserved for components that are inexpensive, easy to replace, and where failure does not cause collateral damage in the system.

Reactive maintenance is more challenging and costly than planned maintenance

In reactive maintenance, you must react quickly, deal with unexpected problems and respond to changing conditions. Maintenance teams would be wise to consider the advantages and disadvantages of reactive maintenance for their assets before committing to this method of maintenance.

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