Managing Laboratory Maintenance

Other than personnel-related costs, maintenance is generally the most expensive item in the laboratory operating budget. While the size of this expenditure makes it an attractive target for reduction, all laboratory managers recognize the limitations they face in achieving any real savings. Foregoing maintenance and repair is usually not an option—they are a necessary cost of continued operation. Thus, cost reduction initiatives must extract operational and management efficiencies from the maintenance system without directly impacting instrument reliability. Given the progress that has been made in controlling the cost of laboratory expendables and the effectiveness of budget constraints in limiting discretionary expenditures such as travel, training, and conference attendance, improvements in maintenance management remain one of the few fertile areas to realize additional cost reductions through operational efficiencies.

Evolution of maintenance philosophies

Throughout most of the twentieth century, maintenance was primarily reactive; instruments and equipment were used until they broke and then maintenance was called to repair them. As equipment became more complicated, the philosophy of “run to failure” was augmented by the concept of preventive maintenance to delay the failure. The central idea was to prevent equipment from failing by replacing key parts before they wore out. This approach continues to be used to some extent by virtually every laboratory. While this idea seems eminently logical and reasonable, data collected by a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)/airline industry committee chartered to study maintenance strategies revealed surprising results.1 The data showed that the common belief that reliability declines with increasing age is generally not true for complex equipment and that scheduled maintenance generally has little effect on the overall reliability. In fact, for many instruments, there simply is no effective form of scheduled maintenance.

Even more disconcerting was the realization that preventive maintenance might actually introduce additional risk of failure. For example, the service technician might accidentally damage the affected or adjacent equipment in the course of the inspection, repair, adjustment, or installation of a replacement part, or might install defective parts, or incorrectly reassemble the equipment. It was also found that equipment is more likely to fail early in its life than later—an effect known as infant mortality.

This effect is familiar to most laboratory managers in the case of computers, where problems are more likely to surface within the first few weeks of use than in subsequent years. Thus, each installation of new parts during preventive maintenance reintroduces some degree of risk of the infant mortality effect. This does not imply that preventive maintenance is ineffective or should be discarded, but only that it should be used judiciously within a broader, more strategic approach that considers the effectiveness of each task to ensure that the benefits are commensurate with the risk.

Realizing that it is virtually impossible to prevent equipment failure, the focus shifted from prevention to the concept of preservation of function.1 This philosophy, known as reliability centered maintenance (RCM), accepts that equipment will always fail but seeks ways to preserve function. The basic principles are:

  • Focus on preservation of system function
  • Identify specific failure modes
  • Rank importance of failure modes
  • Identify effective means to mitigate the highest-ranking modes.

Under this system, the objective of the preventive maintenance program is to alleviate the consequences of failure rather than prevent the failure. Thus, if the consequence of a particular failure mode has no adverse effect on safety, operations, environment, or cost, there is no need for scheduled maintenance. Due to the resources required to identify possible failure modes, the scope of RCM programs is generally limited to a small segment of instruments and equipment deemed truly business critical. A decision tree defines the preferred maintenance strategy1 to preserve function for each of the likely failure modes that includes options such as run-to-failure, redundancy, scheduled discard and replacement, equipment redesign, or more advanced maintenance techniques.

One of the advanced techniques used in RCM is predictive maintenance. This approach strives to use technology to detect the onset of equipment degradation and to address problems as they are identified. It differs from preventive maintenance in that needs are based on the measured condition of the equipment rather than on a predetermined schedule. Thus, component operational life and availability can be extended, equipment downtime for servicing is decreased, and maintenance labor and parts expense are decreased. Common technologies used in predictive maintenance are vibration analysis, lubricant metals analysis, and various on-line monitoring sensors to indicate equipment wear and progression toward failure. Unfortunately, the high cost of test equipment and expert resources required to properly employ this technique generally limit its use to large, high-value mechanical equipment.

The popularity of total quality management (TQM) during the 1980s and ’90s extended into maintenance philosophies with the introduction of total productive maintenance (TPM).2 This approach recognizes the importance of the role of the operator and teamwork in achieving and maintaining the highest level of equipment reliability. Proponents of this philosophy believe that equipment should have its lowest reliability on the day that it is delivered and should undergo continuous improvement throughout its useful life. Anyone who operates, maintains, purchases or stores parts, modifies, installs, programs, makes decisions, assigns work, or otherwise has a direct or indirect effect on the reliability of an instrument should be involved in its maintenance. The philosophy embraces all of the elements of RCM, predictive maintenance, risk analysis, and other advanced techniques, but extends to include the softer teamwork, attitude, and behavioral issues common in TQM programs.

Management options

Many laboratories have internal instrument technicians who provide first-level support by performing most repairs on chromatographs, ovens, and other relatively simple equipment. Instrument companies (OEMs) facilitate this approach by offering low-cost training courses on equipment maintenance and repairs that provide sufficient knowledge to perform tasks such as rebuilding detectors or pumps, troubleshooting flow problems, or exchanging circuit boards. Some OEMs also provide excellent call center support to facilitate these in-house repairs by stepping the technician through the diagnostic procedure. However, the majority of an instrument technician’s time is spent on preventive maintenance and calibration tasks; OEMs or independent service providers (ISPs) are typically used only to assist with overflow work or to handle repairs or tasks beyond the ability of the technician after an initial assessment. In addition, service contracts are purchased for certain complex or potentially hazardous equipment such as X-ray spectrometers, in which the OEM is the sole service provider. This operational model can produce relatively low costs provided there is sufficient work to keep the technician busy. Fully burdened labor rates for internal resources are typically less than OEM service technician rates, and travel-related expenses are avoided.

While the in-house maintenance model appears to be a cost-effective option, there are often hidden costs. For example, in large companies, inefficiencies in management of capital inventory and coordination of multiple service contracts can result in higher costs and the loss of any potential savings.3 Roles and responsibilities shared with other departments such as purchasing or central maintenance are often ill defined, and the laboratory manager who has primary responsibility typically lacks sufficient time to properly manage this function. Laboratories in regulated industries or those that have achieved accreditation to the ISO 17025 standard face an additional administrative burden in providing documented, auditable records of all work performed. Reporting requirements are significant and tend to be neglected or degrade in quality over time unless aggressively audited and managed.

Over the past few years, several commercial vendors have developed maintenance services to introduce efficiencies into this function, improve equipment reliability, relieve much of the burden of management, and bring a new order to the entire system. Instrument service contracts and point-of-need repair services have been supplemented with more complex and comprehensive programs that promise not only higher reliability but also 15–25% lower costs. The most sophisticated plans extend to include often badly neglected areas such as equipment inventory control and disposition services. Some of the common commercial options are managed maintenance, multivendor repair, and comprehensive or total facility maintenance services.

On-site multivendor repair (MVR) services are offered by ISPs and several OEMs, where a single vendor performs maintenance on all brands of equipment. This service is similar to the internal model except that management and staffing of the function is delegated to the commercial provider. Laboratory labor rates for MVR instrument technicians include the provider overhead and are typically similar to or greater than internal rates but still offer savings over OEM contracts. As with in house services, these providers typically limit repairs to a relatively few types of commodity equipment that constitute the bulk of the laboratory’s capital inventory. They may also maintain parts inventories to speed repairs and provide generic repair training for their service technicians. Negotiated OEM service contracts or demand services may stay in place for the remainder of the equipment. While managers appreciate the cost savings of this approach, scientists responsible for the instruments are often concerned about relinquishing control of the quality of repair to the MVR vendor and are reluctant to turn their instruments over to technicians they view as less qualified. The skill gap is a greater concern with newer, more complex equipment, where it is difficult for the MVR providers to keep abreast of the latest technology when they do not have access to the OEM training resources. For this reason, most laboratory managers take a very cautious approach to selecting this option.

The managed maintenance model continues to rely on OEM repair services but provides a single administrative point to manage all contracts. By maintaining accurate inventory records and aggregating contracts, service providers are able to guarantee cost savings while providing additional value-added management services. The primary concern with this model is a potential decline in service response time if the OEMs give preferential treatment to their direct service contract customers. The reality is that OEMs are typically customer oriented and provide good service levels regardless of the maintenance funding mechanism. This issue can also be addressed during the purchase negotiations for any of these services by identifying the truly mission critical instruments and equipment and designating them for guaranteed priority service. The service provider can then secure priority service for the designated equipment. Fortunately, only a small number of instruments are typically critical to the operation of a laboratory; thus a reasonable downtime is acceptable for the rest in order to achieve the cost savings and retain the quality relationship with the OEM—the objective in this model is to optimize performance rather than maximize uptime at any cost. While any instrument downtime is an inconvenience, scientist productivity is typically not impacted since they simply switch to other equally important tasks until repairs are completed. Since the managed maintenance model does not compete with the OEM, the customer continues to benefit from factory-certified technicians, access to parts and diagnostics, application support, and continued remote troubleshooting services that can quickly and accurately identify and fix the problem.

For those managers who prefer to employ advanced maintenance philosophies such as TPM, managed maintenance is still an attractive option for the coordination, administrative, and reporting tasks. The instrument and equipment operators provide daily preventive maintenance service to the instruments, while the managed maintenance program provides a disciplined and systematic approach for low-cost supplemental repair services to relieve both the manager and staff from the administrative burden. This model can be more difficult to implement, but could offer the highest reliability at the lowest cost if successful.

Conclusion

Maintenance, a fundamental element of laboratory operations, is expensive and requires tedious administration to function effectively. This makes it a prime candidate for outsourcing to one of the new commercial services. Full service vendors with core competencies in asset management, managed maintenance, validation and compliance services, and disposition services (e.g., the LIFECYCLE® program [Thermo Electron Corp., Waltham, MA]) are able to bundle service options to deliver higher quality at guaranteed lower costs while allowing the laboratory manager to focus on laboratory operations and business issues. In addition, a complete suite of metrics and reports provide feedback and assurance that the system is functioning properly—a luxury that most managers today do not enjoy.

References

  1. Moubray, J. Reliability Centered Maintenance, 2nd ed.; Industrial Press, Inc.: New York, NY, 1997.
  2. Wireman, T. Total Productive Management; Industrial Press, Inc.: New York, NY, 2004.
  3. Doberstein, T. Managed maintenance: more than just savings. Man. Mod. Lab. 2005, 7(4), 41–3.

Dr. Collins is Laboratory Services Manager, Asset Management Services, Thermo Electron Corp., 1410 Gillingham, Sugar Land, TX 77478, U.S.A.; tel.: 713-272-2282; fax: 713-272-5334; e-mail: Wayne.Collins@thermo.com.

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