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If past is prelude, we should soon be seeing the return of robust reliability and/or maintenance conferences and exhibitions. Many of us have attended these annual events in years past. Some that quickly come to mind include, among other things, those organized by the American Fuels and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM); Texas A&M University’s Turbomachinery Laboratory; the Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professionals (SMRP); and Reliable Plant (Noria). 

Those conferences, in particular, have been around for quite a while. For example, this author made a presentation about “Predictive Maintenance Monitoring at Exxon Chemical’s Baytown Plant” at AFPM’s predecessor conference in New Orleans, over 46 years ago. (It was published in the Proceedings of the 1975 NPRA Maintenance Conference as Paper CC-75-76.) In the years and decades since, we have observed good and not-so-good trends at various venues.

On average, such conferences used to draw between 200 and 300 exhibitors (although some drew over 600, and up the four times that number of paid attendees). Occasionally, exhibitors/service providers and their staffs have been known to almost outnumber attendees from targeted user- and potential-customer companies. Even so, attendance at such conferences and exhibitions can be a valuable training and networking opportunity for many end-users (in this case, RAM professionals). The most valuable such opportunities are those where an end-user-employee-attendee’s manager will explain expectations and ask the employee to provide a one-page summary of “new things learned “shortly after attending an event. That summary must be shared with other employees who, in turn, will benefit from the information update.

Regrettably, some managers still consider conference attendance and related training a deferrable option. In such cases, we might assume that not investing in targeted training shows up nicely on a balance sheet. On the other hand, deferred training is a very unhealthy trend if it continues over the long term. Consider what could happen if training of medical professionals were deferred and, accordingly, all ailments were treated with benign neglect or doses of whiskey. . .

Fortunately, savvy RAM pros know the difference between presenters and exhibitors deserving of commendation, and a few below-average events. Significant value can be received from presenters that convey their personal commitment to and demonstrate their employer-company’s consistent leadership model. Their collective norms of behavior are based on shared values and beliefs (a slow but commendable trend). Respective lists of conference registrants also can be useful indicators of who tends to convey value to specific audiences/attendees. At times, we have been impressed by seeing more attendees from the value-adding Best-in-Class (BiC) companies than from companies that are known for heavy advertising and risky involvement in unscientific guesswork.

While unscientific guesswork will backfire sooner or later, we see favorable trends in the emergence of service organizations whose worldwide experience is anchored in combining analytical and implementation tasks. To be more specific, there are companies that can explain massive opportunities hidden in a client’s present maintenance routine or data.

Suitable analyses and comparisons with other locations and competitors can help uncover opportunities that have remained untapped because we either 1) lacked solid proof or 2) had no access to relevant databases. We may not have had time (or adequate training) to properly examine workflow or asset-upgrading opportunities in a complex petrochemical-processing environment. Or we could not readily challenge an often-elusive benchmarking technique devised for someone else, but not fully applicable to our own company.

As we learned at certain conferences, shutdown management and work definition are deserving of accurate data gathering and detailed cost justification. There also are elements of risk management that are frequent prerequisites to turnaround work. In summary, the time is again right to entrust risk management to competent service organizations that can place all needed analysis and auditing tasks under the same umbrella, so-to-speak.

In a follow-up review centered on just one asset-management/operational-excellence provider, we came away with the impression that sustainable efficiency gains, massive and accelerated learning tasks, plus effective management of future processes and decisions are very much needed these days. Working with highly experienced consulting companies and service providers is taking on greater importance than ever. We were pleased to see such providers well represented at conferences prior to the onset of COVID-19 and hope that this desirable trend will soon resume.

We must add that at one notable conference six years ago, the organizers had picked an unusual, but highly relevant keynote speaker (Captain D. Michael Abrashoff, author of It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from The Best Damn Ship in The Navy). When put in charge of a vessel, he had a realization unlike the ones we typically see in industry.

To drastically improve the performance of the people under him, Abrashoff needed to change his own leadership style from the traditional command and control model. In the process, he created a high-performance culture (one worthy of imitation). His approach, i.e., encouraging individuals to identify problems when they were still small and also empowering them to take corrective action, was in synch with the approach of BiCs in the petrochemical industry. It’s now time for industry as a whole to take note and imitate both, meaning Captain Abrashoff, the conference keynoter, and BiC petrochemical operations.

The optimist in us hopes to hear about other companies joining Best-in-Class ranks and the steps they have taken toward growth. There’s a real need for more of today’s organizations to stress problem-solving/become problem-solvers and mature in status and reliability performance. For example, they must find and cure root causes of problems instead of just treating symptoms with additional layers of temporary adhesive tape. To that end, we would like to see more companies work closely with competent solution providers.

Finally, keep in mind that there is true merit in training and grooming professionals in salaried and wage positions alike. And, if you and/or your organization are among the very best, in sharing your wisdom and experience with others, wherever and whenever possible. That should include presenting and networking at professional conferences and participating in related training offerings.

Alas, because this article is now filling the space allotted for it, there’s no room to elaborate on what the pessimist in us is thinking and saying.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, workforce issues, skills development, training and qualification