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Several years ago, a U.S. trade journal noted that, “Successful lean implementation needs reliable equipment to prevent disastrous consequences. Together, lean plus reliable increase production capacity, decrease downtime/maintenance spending, and maximize impact and results.” At first glance, that seems quite logical. Translation: “We want to maximize equipment uptime, have no environmental incidents, and make lots of money while keeping everybody happy.”  As always, the issue is how to get there.

A disturbing gap between what is being said and what is being done in the fields of equipment maintenance and reliability continues to exist, and we don’t seem to be closing this gap. An honest appraisal of the facts has long ago convinced us that too many omissions and commissions and a lack of accountability on many levels have prevented managers from achieving tangible equipment reliability.

Of course, not all managers are oblivious to the situation, and many expend honest efforts to support sensible remedies. We, for our part, try to gage the intensity and relevance of issues (and answers) from an exposure to all kinds of media, also technical conferences, reader feedback, course presentations and plant visits. What we discern and feel obligated to report as to why certain professed goals are as difficult to reach as ever is, we hope, enlightening.

A reader with assignments in Exploration & Production (E&P) asked the above question and noted that his management believes reliability is a function of any branch of engineering and is not a “stand alone” or recognizable discipline. He went on to say that few universities offer “reliability,” even as a graduate elective and, at his corporation, Discipline Engineers are generally focused on projects. Even Production or Operations Engineers are engaged in substantial small-project work at his facilities. Rarely, he said, were any of those project-focused engineers available to assist plants with failure analysis or troubleshooting. In other words, except where Reliability Engineer positions exist, “reliability” seemed to be an unfocused topic, at best (except in tracking production losses, as a lagging indicator).

This reader wanted to know if full-fledged reliability-engineering positions existed on the E&P side of major petrochemical and refining companies. He believed his managers considered reliability engineering an adjunct function to be handled by Discipline Engineers, strictly on an occasional basis within their specific areas of expertise. He also was curious if many of the “majors” recommended or required certification as a Reliability Professional.

Since maintenance spending was mentioned, let’s start with the definition of maintenance. We believe that its role is simply to maintain equipment in the as-designed and as-built state. It stands to reason that a certain skills set is required to be a competent maintenance person; indeed, skills and motivation are always needed to add value to an enterprise.

In our view, the definition of reliability engineering is considerably more precise. Its role is to:

(a)  specify to judiciously design-out maintenance;

(b)  define if upgrading is feasible at the bid or proposal stage, as well as on equipment
already in operation at the owner’s facility;

(c)   if “yes” on the above, define if the upgrading is cost-justified

(d)   if “yes” on the above, take full charge of upgrade implementation planning;

(e)   help inculcate a mindset that will not tolerate repeat failures, because repeat failures
are indicative of not having found the root causes of a problem or, even worse, knowing
the root cause and deciding not to do anything about it.

While it would be desirable for a reliability professional to be fully versed in the maintenance skill set, to be proficient in reliability engineering requires supplementary skills and abilities.

Within major “Best-in-Class” (BiC) petrochemical companies, one will find Subject Matter Experts in Piping & Vessels, Machinery, Instrumentation & Controls, Welding, Metallurgy, and the like. Sometimes, these experts reside at a Central Engineering or Headquarters organization. In other instances, a Machinery Specialist resides at and is paid by affiliate “A,” but spends 40%-50% of his or her time on issues that affect all affiliates. The Piping & Vessel Specialist resides at and is paid by affiliate “B,” but concentrates on and communicates issues that affect all affiliates, etc.

At BiC operations, Subject Matter Experts spend a large percentage of their time on failure analysis and prevention. From our role definition, failure prevention implies intelligent specification, accurate determination of weak links, and immersion in systematic upgrading. That said, a Subject Matter Expert is so valuable that he or she cannot be burdened with routine maintenance involvement.

If an organization accepts the above principles and implements job functions and assignments along those lines, there’s no need to use the formal title “Reliability Engineer.” However, it would be implied that every one of these Subject Matter Experts is performing exactly as we would expect from a Reliability Engineer. Recall our definition: It must be accepted without equivocation.

We believe that our term “Subject Matter Experts” and what some readers might think of as “Discipline Engineers” describe individuals with identical educational backgrounds. But there’s a huge difference. It exists because those readers’ employee-associates devote most of their time to project work. It’s our position that, to be worthy of ultimately contributing to a project, a Subject Matter Expert must have considerable prior plant-related knowledge. Therefore, the importance of making this expert a resident at facility “A,” “B,”, etc., can’t be overemphasized. A close substitute for continued in-plant involvement would be intense prior exposure to multiple plant startup assignments.

Finally, a few comments on certification as a Reliability Professional, or notions regarding membership in a professional association. We see these and other endeavors as evidence that an individual is reaching out and investing time to gain a measure of recognition. While that would be quite commendable, it is rarely worthy of reward in and of itself.

Although they might provide tests aimed at determining if in-depth knowledge exists, professional associations or entities, in our opinion, aren’t always able to impart all the in-depth knowledge that is sorely needed. Case in point: The home facilities of most members of certain professional organizations have repeat equipment failures and are making few inroads toward eradicating them. Others have, for decades, been immersed in the computerized collection of elementary statistical data (“bearing replaced,” “bearing failed,” “bearing replaced,” etc.) without ever establishing the root cause of a particular failure event or replacement need. What does that tell us?

In any case, the reliability job function can be covered by Discipline Engineers if management understands the issue and is willing to let certain experts share their expertise. We certainly believe that an individual should be rewarded based on performance and contribution. An association member with certification but no motivation is worth much less than a self-starter who, despite not being a member of a professional association, reads, and implements, and applies. It’s pointless to argue otherwise.

We certainly are familiar with the grooming, mentoring and professional development practices of a leading multinational petrochemical and refining corporation. Each year, this corporation reimbursed its employees for two professional-association-membership fees. While the expectation was that this acted as a catalyst for professional growth, such growth didn’t always occur. It was also hoped that the professional would share his or her knowledge by communicating and networking with other potential beneficiaries. Granted: It was not mandatory to be a member of anything. But a non-communicator had trouble rising to the top of his performance group.

When an engineer with a Bachelor’s, Master’s, or Ph.D degree was hired, his or her initial advancement was based on the salary curves for a given performance grouping plotted for people with such degrees. After seven years of employment, all salary curves merged, and salary treatment was based on performance rankings alone. We believe that’s what should be done throughout industry.

As to the title of our this article, we are painfully aware of the pitfalls of benchmarking against work-order backlog, closed work orders, and so forth. This approach rewards managers for accepting as “job done” certain maintenance endeavors, which, sadly, set the organization up for repeat failures. Rewarding managers based on failure avoidance would force them to understand that multi-million-dollar failures cannot be avoided by a cursory look at failed parts.

Smart organizations don’t just maintain: They upgrade and avoid repetition of errors. Even more important, they groom and mentor professionals. Finally, such organizations reward managers based on their leadership in eradicating repeat failures, not on pushing to meet work-order backlog benchmarks and other numbers that, with all due respect, are of little value.TRR

Editor’s Note: Click Here To Download A Full List Of Heinz Bloch’s 24 Books

Heinz Bloch’s long professional career included assignments as Exxon Chemical’s Regional Machinery Specialist for the United States. A recognized subject-matter-expert on plant equipment and failure avoidance, he is the author of numerous books and articles, and continues to present at technical conferences around the world. Bloch holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in Mechanical Engineering and is an ASME Life Fellow. These days, he’s based near Houston, TX. 

Tags: reliability, availability, maintenance, RAM, Total Productive Maintenance, Reliability-Centered Maintenance, Streamlined Reliability-Centered Maintenance