Put Down the Firehose...and Improve Your Maintenance Department

Kim Phelan

Master of continual improvement and the father of Kaizen, Edward Deming was born 120 years ago but his principles are as relevant to the foundry industry these days as they were to post-WW2 Japan and much of 20th century American business. Case in point: His postulations on “constancy of purpose” became the driving current behind one Ohio foundry’s turnaround in the maintenance department, circa 2005, as new management halted a reactive system and began the deliberate movement toward “dedication to improvement.”

Similar movement is prevalent today. In fact, strategy for the maintenance department is a mobile continuum, rather like a shakeout conveyor, moving people forward, loosening old practices on the trek to better methods to support production and the business as a whole. While everyone’s on a slightly different place on the belt, to be sure, it’s universally imperative to monitor the condition of your maintenance department the same way that team monitors and repairs your foundry assets. 


The issues your maintenance manager is dealing with may be severe and taxing day to day, week to week. With observations and wisdom from numerous foundry insiders, here’s your opportunity to press pause and perhaps begin your own maintenance department health checkup.

The incentives for doing so are many––but chiefly: the reduction or even elimination of unplanned and sometimes catastrophic machine failure that threatens the safety of employees and can shut down production. 


“Firefighting” describes the maintenance picture Angela Dine Schmeisser inherited when she took over as president of AFS Corporate Member St. Mary’s Foundry (St. Mary’s, Ohio) 15 years ago. She and the new management team had a choice and knew it was theirs alone to make, at the top, if any change was going to stick. 

“We had many issues to tackle,” she said. “One of the foremost was dealing with equipment repair and too much downtime. In the past, they had a more reactive style to maintenance. We wanted to be proactive––what was then called productive maintenance. In order to achieve productive maintenance, you have to have effectively mastered preventive and predictive maintenance. We installed a CMMS [computerized maintenance management system] and somewhat tackled all three simultaneously.”

Sudden failure of a critical piece of equipment––and the ensuing loss of production––is a powerful catalyst for a company to finally respond to the altar call of maintenance transformation. At St. Mary’s, it was Plant Manager Steve Barry, now retired, who executed the new maintenance mindset out on the floor, reigning in and gaining control over a culture of emergencies.

“Before I started, maintenance was pretty much a repair-it-as-it-breaks type thing, and that led to a lot of downtime,” Barry said. “A piece of equipment would break and you wouldn’t have sand, you wouldn’t have metal, you wouldn’t have a crane until you could arrange to repair it, and that can get very expensive––you never know exactly what you’re going to be doing.”

His goal: Take the company from 95% repairing breakdowns and 5% prevention to 85% prevention and 15% reactive repair, and he says he just about hit the mark. He credits the support of management for turning maintenance around and restoring confidence that equipment was running properly. 

“Angie made a comment to me one time,” Barry said. “She felt like we were able to produce 15% more castings without investing in any additional equipment just because we knew when the equipment was running and we could count it.”


Even so, for Barry, the backbone of change was rooted in a much earlier vision. 

“Edward Deming was a quality guru, and one of my favorite sayings [of his] always was ‘constancy of purpose,’” Barry said. “For any organization and for maintenance, this constancy of purpose means it’s not a one-time deal. It’s something you have to do every day. It has to permeate through your whole organization. It requires training and dedication. You can’t do it once and be done.”

Making Sense of the  Maintenance Journey

Though perhaps a shade elementary, this may be a good time to define the terms used to describe how a maintenance department functions, especially since it’s easy to interchange words like preventive and predictive. 

1.) Reactive Maintenance. St. Marys’ story sums it up well. However, another foundry maintenance manager adds more context to this approach. He’s been on the job for a few years and came into an environment where equipment was more or less run to failure, and the maintenance team has been continually repairing what’s broken. He’s on a mission to move his department toward more systemized preventive processes and away from the reactive mindset. 

2.) Preventive Maintenance. It’s about taking regular action on a set schedule or cycle based on time and/or volume. From lubing equipment and changing hydraulic fluid to replacing bearings or filters, preventive maintenance tends to be rote in nature, but not always entirely blind. In a preventive atmosphere, technicians and operators alike are watching for telltale signs of imminent breakdowns, such as leaks around a hydraulic cylinder. Visual inspection plays a critical role in this approach, and techs are maintaining machines to (hopefully) prevent them from breaking. 

3.) Predictive Maintenance. This is the next milestone on the spectrum, and here is where machine monitoring produces data that drives maintenance action. It’s a method in which the analysis of trending metrics generated by sensors on the machines themselves becomes the basis for very targeted preventive maintenance. Predictive maintenance can apply to any foundry because the cost-threshold begins at about $10,000 for some condition monitoring, not millions. But generally speaking, it tends to be found where the plant is highly automated and machinery is spread around a campus of buildings. 

“Any maintenance guy can fix something once it’s broken. But the real skill is to predict, to nurse it along, be preventive––like teeth cleaning before you get the cavity,” said Michael Stowe, a consultant at Advanced Energy. “There are best practices you should be doing, and if you maintain the equipment properly and make that investment, it’ll pay you dividends on uptime, it’ll pay you dividends on productivity ... and a lot of these are not capital intensive. They’re just things you can do that also can reduce energy.”

Stowe says he has often advised plant operations management of the maintenance mantra, “You can pay me now or pay me later.” In other words, invest in some predictive maintenance and carve out a shift when necessary to keep equipment running. “The ultimate thing,” he adds, “is to deliver the parts on time.” 

4.) Productive––also known as Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) and sometimes interchanged with Autonomous Maintenance).This Japanese-developed approach is “the process of using machines, equipment, employees and supporting processes to maintain and improve the integrity of production and the quality of systems,” according to an article by Jonathan Trout, Noria Corporation. “Put simply, it’s the process of getting employees involved in maintaining their own equipment while emphasizing proactive and preventive maintenance techniques.” Some say it’s the overlap of Predictive and Proactive.

5.) Proactive (also known as Autonomous Maintenance). Jim Wenson, product manager of AFS Corporate Member Sinto America, takes productive a tad further where, he said, “everything is automatic.” Artificial intelligence (AI) is applied, as is machine learning, and humans are much less involved in determining what to do and when. 

Keep the Goal in View

Mike Olszewski, a predictive technologies and monitoring expert who founded AFS Corporate Member Vendor Reliability Concepts, said some of his clients who invest millions of dollars to run in full predictive mode now have no tolerance for an unscheduled failure in their business operating plan. They’ve arrived at the destination, and it’s a goal worth pursuing, regardless of foundry size.

“Once you realize the dream and you’ve worked in a place like that, the maintenance department is no longer a bunch of firefighters,” he said. “You don’t have those hazardous situations where you’re repairing something in a state of catastrophic failure, which presents so much safety risk. I’ve seen so many times where a failed piece of equipment has caused a major injury in the repair process.”

When the entire team, both maintenance and production, engages as the eyes and ears of the plant and fully understand what predictive technologies are doing for them and for the company, the result is an ideal work environment. 

“It’s called a five-day workweek,” he said.  

The 5 B’s of a Maintenance Manager’s World

Every foundry maintenance manager shares a set of common conditions and faces them bravely in his or her quest to keep assets running optimally. They range in severity and solutions, but all have merit as awareness dots on foundry management’s radar map. 

BRUTAL––Such is the environment in which foundry equipment uniquely exists. The harsh industrial factors of the foundry deteriorate equipment life and make maintenance a far greater task than in, arguably, any other industry. Equipment fatigue and wear, coupled with knowing how to keep the equipment up and running, said Olszewski, together rank as one of the biggest manager challenges.

MAKE IT BETTER: Remove as much guesswork as possible. Evaluate what you’ve got, do the math on what every hour of downtime costs you, and move toward equipment monitoring, which can reduce not only downtime but maintenance costs and over-investment in nonessential spares. Olszewski recommends making a list of your top 10 “heavy hitters,” the things that can shut you down, and start monitoring those, either with sensors connected to the ERP/CMMS or using things like infrared heat testing and vibration testing devices. Two foundry owners indicated they invest 5% to 6% of sales into maintenance and critical spares, including a muller and key motors that have long order lead times. 

BURDEN––It’s not an exaggeration to say that the weight of the whole foundry is on the maintenance manager’s shoulders, or so it feels to him. He’s responsible not only for myriad types of complex machinery, but machinery ranging in age from brand new to so antiquated that they’re not OEM-supported anymore. 

MAKE IT BETTER: Use the training resources available to you. Local community colleges can be helpful. Mark Soucie, owner and president of AFS Corporate Member Ferroloy, points to training available from vendors/suppliers. The better equipped maintenance personnel are, the less stressed they’re likely to be.

BLAME––When critical equipment goes down, the fingers start pointing. Unproductive as it may be, the blame game is still played in the metalcasting industry. Criticism isn’t limited to why the machine broke, either. Maintenance managers take heat for not having the right critical spares in stock, and sometimes it comes from the same people who criticize them for having too much in their parts inventory. 

MAKE IT BETTER: As mentioned, analysis of trending data from machine sensors makes preventive maintenance more targeted and thereby helps maintenance get its arms around spare parts spending. It will also improve overall performance of equipment––and prove it.

“Using those metrics, the maintenance department can also say, ‘Look, our downtime went from 30 hours a week to four hours a week because of these maintenance implementations we did,” said Wenson at Sinto. “So that’s huge.” 

Credit for great production should be shared by the maintenance department who are predictively keeping equipment running. 

Company culture is the other big factor in curing interdepartmental blame. Daily meetings help cultivate a culture of collaboration, and there’s no room in the foundry for an atmosphere of “us against them.” Encourage supervisors from different teams to cross-pollinate and talk to each other–– this fosters understanding of priorities and schedules, which benefits everyone. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter who might’ve made a mistake when a machine goes down. 

“We’ve just got to make sure everybody understands that we’re all in this thing together,” said John Grahek, operations director at AFS Corporate Member Denison Industries (Denison, Texas).

BURNOUT––Why would we expect anything else? Maintenance managers––particularly those operating in a reactive maintenance  zone––are sometimes busting tail seven days a week or during night shifts and holidays. As thanks for their efforts, they can be overlooked for recognition while production takes bows for a bumper month ... coincidentally when none of the machinery was down. 

MAKE IT BETTER: Good, reliable, trending data creates visibility and predictability for the maintenance manager and restores order to the chaos of exhausting work schedules. Entering thorough equipment preventive maintenance history into the CMMS is time-consuming but critical in the long run.

Built-in (or bolted on) wireless probes, when watched and tracked, can be the manager’s new best friend. But the management of the data does require time and skill. Adoption of these technologies is somewhat slow, according to Wenson, as foundries presently are in a due diligence mode. On top of merely weighing costs, small business owners will have to buck their tendency to avoid capital investments. 

BALANCING ACT­—Is your maintenance manager really your Chief Triage Officer? He’s no doubt trying to maximize limited resources, from financial investments of critical spares (are you detecting a pattern here?) to human investments in the increasingly difficult arena of finding and retaining skilled, qualified technicians. 

MAKE IT BETTER: Robert Ott, plant manager at AFS Corporate Member C.A. Lawton (DePere, Wisconsin) said his operation does a Kaizen event every few months in which operators and maintenance personnel join forces to clean and improve equipment and “start with a fresh slate,” which he said is an effective way to minimize unplanned downtime––with the undoubted bonus of boosting positive morale. Daily checklists for equipment monitoring keeps impending problems well in view, too.  

Ott also reported the shortage of qualified maintenance candidates could be his biggest balancing challenge these days. The HR department can help alleviate the pain of the hunt, and tapping into technical schools is advised. Finding ways to retain and incentivize the good maintenance staff you’ve got is more important than ever. 

Grahek, a past president of the Foundry Education Foundation, is an advocate of attracting and cultivating kids into careers in the trades, especially in the era of robotics and highly sophisticated equipment where “more brainpower is needed,” he said. But alongside those industry efforts, he said his company is big on home-grown maintenance people––giving existing employees from other departments the opportunity to be trained, groomed, supported, and moved into maintenance roles.

“We’ve really had to get creative at looking at who we can bring into the maintenance fold that’s already a vested employee in the plant,” he said. “Maybe it’s an operator who has a desire to learn a skilled trade and go into maintenance. So then you bring them into the maintenance fold and train them internally. 

“It’s necessary now,” Grahek continued. “You can’t sit and wait to find the perfect maintenance folks on the street when you need them today. We have to understand that they’re not going to be full speed right away. So, we need to be patient and be willing to train and have people learn. 

“As a foundry industry, I feel we’re starting to get better than we ever have been.”     

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