Of the many challenges power and industrial plant maintenance teams face, stretching the capabilities of their ultra-lean staff is one of the most critical. Assets can range from industrial generators, to warehouse forklifts, overhead doors, corridor lighting, and on-premise security systems. Unexpected downtime can be disastrous—and costly.

To prevent operational failures or delays, technicians as part of enterprise asset management (EAM) teams must possess broad skills and be well-prepared to handle numerous types of service calls, from power outages to valve failures or pipeline cracks. With budgets stretched thin and a shortage of skilled maintenance technicians, the challenges compound. However, technology can help the maintenance team work smarter, not harder—the key to modern plant maintenance.

Defining the Problem

The power industry, like many others, is facing a severe skills gap. Experienced service technicians are difficult to recruit. Retiring baby boomers are leaving gaps that incoming millennials and Generation Z workers cannot (or will not) fill. Despite recent grassroots efforts to improve the sectors image, recent graduates still seem reluctant to consider a career in the industry.

Plant assets are increasingly complex, as embedded sensors, the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, and automated equipment change the way equipment operates. Keeping mission critical assets in optimal condition is no easy feat. Computer-aided design (CAD) drawings, service history, risk assessments, design configurations, safety mandates, and inventory of replacement parts/components all must be managed with accuracy. It is easy for maintenance crews to fall into the chaotic cycle of one emergency repair after another, unable to get ahead of the demand and build a prescriptive maintenance strategy. That can change.

Technology Can Help Overcome the Pressures

The IT director and team are often called on to help the over-taxed maintenance department address data collection and management. The goal is to track condition assessments, risks, state of good repair, maintenance history, and any custom configurations. Generating reports and creating lists of assets and needed repairs is only a stop-gap solution, though, doing little to overcome the bigger issue of the strained maintenance workforce.

1. Advanced enterprise asset management solutions often include built-in analytics and artificial intelligence, which can support plant maintenance. Courtesy: Gerd Altmann / Pixabay

A strategic approach to stretching the abilities of the existing team is needed. Technicians must work smarter to optimize their time by eliminating unneeded dispatches and empowering technicians to resolve work orders quickly. An advanced EAM solution with built-in analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) (Figure 1) is a highly effective way to support the needs of plant maintenance. Here are 10 examples of how technology can help overcome the shortage of skilled technicians:

IoT. Sensors embedded in machinery can capture and communicate physical conditions, like temperature or vibration. The data is then sent to the cloud where it is sorted and analyzed, looking for predefined anomalies that may indicate a problem. Responses can be automated, like rerouting workflows, shutting down a line, or notifying maintenance. Spotting early warning signs of impending failure helps prevent the issues from escalating and causing a complete shutdown. This is a major time-saver for the maintenance team.

Knowledge Base. Some advanced EAM solutions contain tools to help the maintenance team prioritize work orders, separating the non-critical issues, like a leaking faucet, from the ones that pose a safety threat or potential production line failure. On the surface, some calls may seem low priority—like a pipe with a slow drip—but further inspection may reveal the resulting standing puddle may be a major safety hazard. Using the knowledge base of scripted questions and risk assessments, the dispatcher can help collect the necessary information to make informed decisions and accurately determine priority.

First-Call Resolution. Collecting the right information upfront about service requests will help pinpoint the location in the plant, assets involved, and safety issues requiring precautions, like specialized suiting. Such information can help the technician determine if any specialized replacement parts, tools, or safety gear should be brought to the repair site. This improves first-call resolution rates, a metric for efficiency.

Checklists. Advanced EAM solutions contain highly flexible checklist capabilities that can be used to capture the “tribal knowledge” of the existing team and document a wide variety of insights and best practices. This tool allows the experiences of senior technicians to be documented in formats easily consumable by the next generation.

Automated Workflows. The shortage of skilled technicians means maintenance teams are often forced to hire candidates with little training or experience. Fortunately, advanced EAM solutions can automate processes, leading the user through prescribed workflows, automatically opening the next logical screen, and pushing relevant contextual data for consideration. Such automation helps the recent recruit follow prescribed procedures with minimal supervision required, making it easier to onboard new technicians.

Augmented Reality. Modern image recognition, sensor connectivity, AI, and machine learning (ML) capabilities help users employ digital tools to view added information about an object while in the field. This access to information can be achieved hands-free, so the technician can continue working. Proximity to the asset or verbal cues can launch overlay screens that depict the component configurations and if the asset needs to be repaired or replaced.

Behind the Scenes. Screens (accessed by glasses or mobile devices) can also be used to see what is behind the surface level, such as any power lines that may be inside walls. Such critical data about an asset can be very helpful in making quick decisions about best solutions. It can also be helpful for safety and ensuring the worksite is not further compromised. Access to information can save time, boosting the technician’s productivity.

Shared Visuals. Apprentices or junior-level technicians can be dispatched to work order sites, with a senior technician staying at the central office and offering feedback or guidance to multiple technicians at once. The on-site technician can be equipped with a video camera, sometimes attached to a helmet or glasses, so what the person sees is projected back to the office. This gives the senior technician a real-time view of exactly what is happening so they can provide feedback as needed.

Virtual Reality (VR). As assets become increasing high-tech and complex, training technicians on proper service techniques becomes even more critical. VR is a technology that can be used to give new technicians valuable practice time on simulations. The virtual experience can be very helpful, giving the technician an opportunity to boost skills and confidence level, before being dispatched to work on mission critical equipment. VR can also be used to certify technicians and ensure their skillsets match the job requirements.

Predictive Analytics. Maintenance teams are often asked to project their budget needs for assets, equipment, and changing workforce needs. As the shortage of skilled technicians continues to challenge organizations, it is important that the maintenance team can analyze, predict, and accurately project future needs, including technicians required. Predictive analytics give users the ability to use data science algorithms to project likely outcomes based on patterns. Easy-to-use reporting tools will help the maintenance team delve into the costs and benefits of recommending repair or replacement options.

The shortage of skilled maintenance technicians is not going to disappear overnight. Taking actions to optimize the current workforce, and improve productivity and efficiency is one way to combat the issue. With technology helping them work smarter, existing technicians and new recruits can better manage the workload. Technology can also help new hires, even those with minimal previous experience, make smart decisions and follow best practices. These are important steps for building the workforce of the future—and maintaining the assets that are critical to a plant’s operation.

Kevin Price is technical product evangelist and product strategist for Infor, an enterprise software company.