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Planned Maintenance Optimization

Taking the guesswork out of lab equipment failure

by Dick Auger
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Equipment failures can set research back by weeks, months—or even years. Just last year, autism research experienced a major setback when a freezer malfunction and a faulty temperature gauge in a hospital laboratory inadvertently destroyed samples. This event, along with other high-profile equipment and facility glitches, heightened awareness that the strongest traditional maintenance program may not be enough to prevent potentially disastrous equipment failures. Planned maintenance optimization (PMO) is one way that laboratories are avoiding these nightmare scenarios.

Let’s look at the setback to autism research last year. The laboratory staff at McLean Hospital’s Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center checked the freezer temperature twice a day. However, the broken gauge did not show that the freezer had failed. An estimated one-third of the world’s largest bank of autism brain samples had begun to thaw, and the samples were quickly becoming unusable. Scientists said the loss could not be expressed in dollars because the collection was “priceless.”

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Putting a price on priceless

Yet lab managers must put a price on equipment replacement. Cost pressures on the clinical research, pharmaceutical, and biotech industries are mounting, and lab managers are feeling the brunt of it.

In the average research laboratory, most noncritical equipment is operated on a run-to-fail basis and replaced upon failure, while critical equipment is maintained and checked more frequently. But neither of these approaches is enough to predict or prevent a relatively sudden failure of a critical piece of equipment, which can be a disaster all by itself. The failure of even non-critical equipment can lead to the worst-case scenario: a broader system failure or even a building-wide power failure. One relatively simple malfunction can set off a chain of increasingly critical failures.

For example, a faulty temperature gauge might cause a cooling fan to run too slowly, which in turn can cause a related piece of equipment to overheat. When one component of a system fails, the other components must work harder to make up the difference. Left unchecked, this overworking can lead to equipment failure—and the domino effect of failures can bring down a research facility.

Preventing equipment failure

To combat these threats, many life science companies today follow an extensive set of standard preventive maintenance protocols involving periodic inspections, testing, and cleaning and calibration to ensure that equipment is running to specifications. A preventive maintenance schedule often involves replacing equipment when it gets close to the end of its life expectancy per the manufacturer’s specifications—whether or not it shows signs of wear.

Preventive replacement makes sense if the lifespan of the equipment is predictable, but that is rarely the case. All equipment breaks down sooner or later, but sometimes it happens sooner and sometimes later. The more components in a piece of equipment that can fail—computer chips, moving parts—the more difficult it becomes to predict when a failure will occur. Since an expensive piece of equipment that’s properly maintained can conceivably last twice as long as its life expectancy or fail short of the halfway mark, preventive replacement is an expensive and potentially inadequate solution.

Planned maintenance optimization

For laboratories, R&D buildings, and other life science facilities requiring 100 percent uptime with minimum risk of failure, the answer is planned maintenance optimization, an advanced form of predictive maintenance. In a PMO system, the condition of equipment is monitored using a set of criteria for detecting signs of wear. Each piece of equipment is replaced when it shows signs of stress, whether this deterioration emerges years before or years after the average lifespan for that type of equipment. In effect, a PMO strategy replaces the guesswork of equipment replacement with evidence of need.

Nonintrusive monitoring: The science must go on

In a traditional maintenance program, equipment often must be powered off before it is tested. With a PMO system, equipment can be monitored during ordinary daily use. This nonintrusive approach helps in two ways. First, it permits more consistent monitoring to ensure the best possible chance of catching performance stress that might indicate a need for maintenance or repair.

Second, the process of shutting down equipment to test it before starting it up again carries its own degree of risk. Even in a highly controlled process, shutting down critical equipment and systems can be a major undertaking and somewhat disruptive to sensitive operations. The disruption can be mitigated with careful planning and execution, but the easier approach of a PMO system greatly simplifies the task and removes the risk element altogether.

The condition of equipment can be monitored in several ways, but three techniques in particular are most useful for identifying weakness or signs of impending failure in equipment: thermography, or infrared scanning; tribology, the analysis of oil and other lubricants; and vibration analysis. A system that uses these three basic monitoring techniques and includes analytics to recognize when the signals point to potential problems can reduce the risk of failure to nearly zero, ensuring that the domino effect has no chance to happen.

PMO systems not only improve facility reliability, but can reduce cost over time by empowering facility staff to work more efficiently and by reducing the premature replacement of parts and equipment. Plus, when all equipment is working properly, components are not stressed to work harder to compensate for faulty components elsewhere.

At its most basic, PMO determines the optimum set of maintenance tasks to be performed on systems and equipment, and it documents the basis for each task. Some of these maintenance tasks are obvious, such as the recommendations from the manufacturer. Vibration analysis is an example of a less obvious, but still critical, driver of optimal performance and maintenance. PMO balances maintenance requirements with the regulatory, economic, and technical considerations so the people, spare parts, consumable equipment, and facilities are all utilized properly, safely, and at maximum efficiency. This holistic, living process identifies adverse failure trends, conducts root-cause analysis of failure events, reports maintenance feedback, conducts predictive analysis and criticality analysis, monitors system performance, predicts trends, and introduces equipment design modifications.

The result is a maintenance regime that’s not only optimized for high reliability and low cost, but one that also enables continuous improvement over time. By pinpointing performance issues, a PMO system enables facility staff to fine-tune equipment performance. Convenience is another benefit, as some of the newest systems even send an e-mail alert to a facility manager when a piece of equipment needs to be replaced or is close to failure.

Reduced maintenance costs

The payoff of a PMO program can be substantial. In addition to improvements in system availability (or uptime), equipment reliability, and system safety, a PMO program reduces overall maintenance costs by an industry average of 25 percent—saving an average midsized life sciences organization $20 million annually.

Some of the world’s largest life sciences organizations are already seeing the direct and indirect benefits of PMO programs, and the benefits are scalable to smaller portfolios. The typical direct payback period of 12 to 24 months includes only the measurable benefit of reduced maintenance costs. In the larger picture, the value of reduced shutdown risk is incalculable.

The concept behind PMO isn’t brand-new, but only in recent years has PMO been adopted in life sciences facilities. The monitoring techniques and analytics have been used since the early 1990s in nuclear power plants— where a building shutdown could have consequences far more dire than in a life sciences facility.

However, the cost of installing monitors on all equipment was prohibitive for most organizations until fairly recently. Today, the availability of affordable new monitoring technologies has made PMO a cost-effective approach for many kinds of facilities. Wireless technology has made the installation of monitoring devices more affordable and easier because it circumvents the need for hard wiring within a building’s walls. In addition, system analytics have improved, in part because the advent of smart building systems has helped create broader market awareness and acceptance and spurred development of new monitoring systems.

Without a maintenance optimization strategy, the safety, operational efficiency, and profitability of a life sciences facility may be at risk. Whether a laboratory stores irreplaceable test samples, performs sensitive research procedures, or houses potentially dangerous equipment such as an NMR spectrometer, a building shutdown can be costly and devastating. A PMO program enables a research facility to avoid this worst-case outcome while improving the bottom line.