‹ Back to Columns

Keeping Your Equipment Running

Shannon Wetzel

One summer in college I worked in a factory that packaged dry goods like Hamburger Helper and Lipton onion soup mixes. It was assembly line work and every hour we would rotate positions on the line; each day we were assigned different lines to work. Some lines ran smooth as glass and the shift rhythmically ticked away the minutes. 

One line in particular was a mess, though. The hot glue machine was never distributing correctly, the dry mix wasn’t filling in the right quantities, or the bags wouldn’t seal properly. Not only did this effect productivity—it also lowered morale. Those shifts dragged, and gave you time to think about finding a different job.

The cover story for this issue explores the importance of maintenance in foundries and the work required to keep machines running efficiently. It’s a hugely important facet of manufacturing but moving beyond a reactive maintenance program is difficult. Modern Casting’s new contributing writer Kim Phelan lays out the difficulties plainly in her story on page 20: Foundry maintenance managers work in an environment that is brutal on machinery, they bear the burden of putting out fires to keep operations running, they get the blame when equipment can’t be fixed quickly enough, and are in danger of burning out on the job from the stress. 

I saw this happen in just one summer at the food packaging factory—particularly the burden, blame and burnout. As soon as a line went down, we called the maintenance technician like we were sending up the bat signal. “Help! Save us!” 

But if the repairs took too long, the grumbling started. “What is it taking so long? This tech doesn’t know what he’s doing. Why won’t the company replace this machine already? They are paying us to just sit here and wait.”

Maintenance in manufacturing is a high pressure job and it directly affects the company’s bottom line, but when you are busy fixing broken machines so operations can get back up and running again, preventive and proactive maintenance can seem out of reach.

Yet, improving a maintenance program is possible with the right champion and a supportive management team. 

At St. Marys, plant manager Steve Barry (now retired) had a goal to take the company from 95% repairing breakdowns and 5% prevention to 85% prevention and 15% reactive repair; the foundry is nearly at that goal.

“For any organization and for maintenance, this constancy of purpose means it’s not a one-time deal,” Barry told our writer. “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.”

Equipment that is running well increases your capacity, boosts morale, improves energy effiency and saves money.  Maintenance is a department worth investing time and money in.  

One final note. At my summer job those many years ago, the occasional down times for line repairs were frustrating, but for the most part, the maintenance techs were viewed by the line workers in as heroes who saved the day. It was a position that carried stress but also garnered respect. 

In the maintenance article, John Grahek, operations director at Dension Industries (Denison, Texas) sums it up nicely: “We’ve just got to make sure everybody understands that we’re all in this thing together.”