The Strategic Role of the Reliability Engineer

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We asked members of the operations team in process manufacturing: What is the role of the Reliability Engineer (RE)?

The answers vary from a good understanding of the strategic impact of a reliability engineer to more simple responses like “fix the equipment”, “keep us running”, and “respond to emergencies”.  These responses indicate that the responsibilities of the RE role are not clear to the organization and management; and in many cases is not considered a strategic role.

Most existing reliability training programs for reliability engineering are focused on RCM, reliability math, design, analysis of data, and maintainability. All of these skills are good and necessary for a reliability engineer to understand. However, in many cases we find that reliability engineers are thrown into the position with very little knowledge and coaching about what he/ she is supposed to do. The manager that hired the reliability engineer may not even have a formal job description in place before he/ she selects an individual for the job. Sometimes RE hires are new college graduates with a strong foundation of theoretical knowledge, however, that theoretical knowledge does not exactly correspond to what they will actually be working on. 

Let’s step back for a moment and review the engineering definition of reliability. Reliability is defined as:  “The probability that an item will perform a required function without failure under stated conditions for a stated period of time”. Interestingly enough, this can be interpreted as a type of quality criteria with a time aspect. Quality control is normally considered as more of a pass or fail criteria. Organizations are better at recognizing the need for quality and the impact on the business. I hope that reliability and maintenance will be looked at in the same light one day.

Reliability engineers in the manufacturing and process industry are not always clear on their roles and responsibilities leading to the completion of work that is not strategic. The ideal job description is focused on strategic work within the following three areas of asset management:

Prevention ensures the life and function of a component; and possibly extending the life.

Prevention includes the following main elements:

  • Design for reliability and maintainability
  • Design for life cycle cost
  • Installation quality, handling, and storage of equipment
    • New equipment installation
    • Alignment and balancing
    • Repairs and rebuilds
    • Storage of equipment, spare parts, and lay-up
  • Equipment operations procedures
  • Cleanliness and environmental controls of the equipment
  • Lubrication technology

Finding failures and early detection of problems.

Basic inspections

  • Condition monitoring
  • Predictive maintenance
  • Continuous monitoring, machine learning, and lloT

Analyze equipment and process data and select what problems should undergo Root Cause Problem Elimination (RCPE) analyses.

The overall goal of this process is to minimize risk for:

  1. Safety incidents, internal, and external
  2. Environmental impact
  3. Interruptions of product flow
  4. Unplanned production cost

The overall outcome of optimized risk mitigation will directly impact the overall production/manufacturing cost per unit output. This results in a competitive edge and make-to-make profit.

The focus of the reliability engineer is to make sure that equipment performs as intended or better. The goal is to identify risk at all times. Risk is defined as probability x impact. In most cases, this will be a perceived risk (subjective) since we may not have the data or have very little data to prove how the equipment will perform under certain conditions. Despite that, with good reliability engineering practices and methods, we can minimize the risk and decrease cost and improve profits.

These are the ways in which emphasizing the strategic role of the reliability engineer can benefit your company:

  1. Good design, proper operation, and maintenance will minimize the risk for employees and customers. Proper access for the maintenance of equipment decreases the risk for injury. Example: The last plant I was in, the drive motor and gearbox for the conveyers were mounted 30 feet up in the air and were very difficult to access. Changing the design of the upper platform in order to create easier access would have decreased the risk and also the long term cost of renting manlifts and/or setting up scaffolding. The role of the RE is to develop maintainability standards and assess the life cycle cost.
  2. The environmental impact of the process often depends on properly functioning equipment. Example: A company’s wastewater transfer pump to the remote secondary pond failed. Without a back-up pump and the rental pump on the way, the primary pond overfilled and emptied out in the nearby creek. The company was fined for the spilling the wastewater into the creek. The role of the RE is to assess the risk and impact of equipment failures to develop the PM strategy and contingency plans that could have eliminated the spill.
  3. It is very important for many businesses to meet their production targets and to deliver products on time. The equipment reliability and throughput are directly connected to the Overall Production Efficiency (OPE, also called OEE). The total throughput in a manufacturing unit and the process is based on OPE = equipment availability * performance * quality rate. This means the equipment/line/process is available to produce, is running at the designed rate or speed, and the units produced meet the quality limits. Example: If a plant increases output through OPE and can sell more units, then the company can increase revenue. If a company cannot produce products 24/7, there are other ways of benefiting from increasing OPE; such as: cost savings for scrap or rework, less use of raw materials, and less use of overtime or decreasing FTEs.
  4. An optimized maintenance process where all the known current best practices are implemented and optimized will lower overall manufacturing cost. At IDCON we believe that “Cost reduction does not generate improved reliability. Improved reliability results in lower cost”.

Suggested times spent on each area can be:

  • Prevention: 30% of their time
  • Finding Failures: 30% of their time
  • Analyzing equipment and process data: 40% of their time

We have some survey results showing the following results:

Prevention:

About 50% of respondents spend less than 30% of their time on Prevention and 30% of respondents spend less than 10% of their time on Prevention.

Finding Failures:

About 65% of respondents spend less than 30% of their time setting up inspections and predictive maintenance systems and 25% of respondents spend less than 10% of their time on this.

Analyzing Equipment and Process Data:

About 85% of respondents spend less than 30% of their time on Root Cause Problem Elimination and 30% of respondents spend less than 10% of their time on this. These results may be due to the fact that some respondents work in very reactive maintenance organizations and, as a consequence, they do not have much time to focus on Root Cause Problem Elimination*.

The role of the Reliability Engineer should be common sense for us that work with reliability and maintenance, do you agree?

Let’s figure out how we can better promote the duties and responsibilities of the RE position. Feel free to send your comments to o.forsberg@idcon.com, I look forward to discussing this further.

Owe Forsberg

Owe Forsberg

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