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Regular servicing on-site pays off

02 August 2021

With the pandemic increasing strain on budgets, regular servicing of plant equipment has taken a hit. Ben Green talks through the numerous benefits maintenance can bring to on-site productivity, and the possible dangers that are invited without it

THROUGHOUT THE various sectors of the UK manufacturing industry – whether it be food and beverage, automotive or others – there is one constant between the unique production lines of each plant. Any highly optimised process owes its output to the reliable performance of its subsidiary components, with the mechanical failure of a single part presenting a risk to overall plant productivity. As such, it is clear that the regular maintenance of equipment is key to avoiding breakdown and ensuring excellent on-site efficiency levels.

Without regular maintenance, components will become increasingly inefficient until they cease to function

Despite this, as the effects of the pandemic place an additional squeeze on UK manufacturers’ already tight budgets, some operators are choosing to chance running their equipment without servicing. Naturally, without regular maintenance, components will become increasingly inefficient until they cease to function, which can have a profound detrimental impact upon the wider process – sometimes causing it to shut down entirely. The negative implications of process breakdown are not just limited to productivity, with health and safety hazards also a concern. With this in mind, it is critical that plant operators continue to regularly service their equipment if they wish to avoid a number of on-site complications.

Declining component health

One of the most commonly cited reasons for forgoing routine on-site maintenance is cost, with many believing that the expense of regular check-ups outweighs that of repairing equipment as and when is necessary. However, this is a common misconception, with consistent servicing leading to much larger savings in the long-term. This can be attributed to three reasons. Primarily, breakdown’s impact on operation, the premium cost of emergency repairs and decreased equipment efficiency caused by the declining health of mechanical parts.

It is important to remember that the condition of process equipment is not binary – i.e., operational or non-operational – with breakdown representing only one extreme on the spectrum of mechanical health. However, this is a common mistake that many manufacturers continue to make, assuming that while equipment is functioning, it is without need of servicing. This presents a number of risks, with fouling and corrosion prime concerns.

Fouling is a term used to describe the build-up of crystalised matter used in reactions, and can be commonly observed on the transfer surface of equipment like plate heat exchangers (PHEs) – an invaluable technology that can be found in almost every avenue of the UK manufacturing industry. This build-up leads to reduced efficiency of thermal exchange, meaning more energy is required to complete the same thermal transfer. The greater the size of the fouling deposit, the less efficient equipment becomes, which can quickly cause energy costs to skyrocket for the operator.

Fouling is also a leading cause of corrosion, which can compromise the insulative seals on PHEs and other equipment. This can accelerate the decay of components, and presents a more serious risk in sectors such as food and beverage. A leaking seal has the potential to contaminate entire batches of products, posing a major health and safety hazard while putting a sizeable dent in profit margins due to waste.

The effects of breakdown

If fouling’s effects on productivity and health alone aren’t a strong enough indication that regular servicing is the saftest and most cost-effective solution, then operators should consider the impact that a complete breakdown can have on their processes. The strategy of ‘run-to-fail’ employed by some manufacturers may save on maintenance expenses while equipment remains operational, but the advent of even a single breakdown can easily render this a false economy.

Without routine check-ups, it is nigh-on impossible to predict when an outage may occur, meaning that it may strike at an inopportune moment for the manufacturer. This can lead to severe dips in production, in turn rendering whatever savings were made by forgoing maintenance obsolete due to diminished output. If the operator is unprepared for the outage, it may also take weeks to get the process back online, with reduced profits or even losses for each day that it is not functional.

Moreover, if the breakdown is the result of a serious mechanical failure, then third-party specialists may need to be brought in to complete the repairs. This demands a premium fee – particularly if the callout is a short notice, and may not prove a comprehensive solution. Without a full service history of the equipment on site and their components, it can often be hard to determine what caused the breakdown in the first place, potentially leading to costly recurring faults.

Long-term benefits to servicing

When the plethora of risks are set out, it is clear that the model of ‘run to fail’ employed by some manufacturers in increasingly unfit for purpose. Instead, operators should adopt a policy of regular servicing, in order to create a safer, more efficient process line that remains profitable throughout the year. Crucially, this strategy ensures that fouling deposits and corrosion are dealt with before they hamper efficiency or become a health hazard, while rendering the risk of an unscheduled outage to an absolute minimum.

Comprehensive maintenance packages, like those offered by Alfa Laval, adhere to rigorous, multi-stage processes during servicing check-ups, ensuring that the mechanical health of equipment is returned to its maximum at the end of each visit. Firstly, equipment is visually examined to ascertain any overt problems. If issues are found, the relevant parts are taken to one of the company’s workshops and  disassembled, with all parts placed into a chemical bath. This removes all but the most stubborn of fouling deposits, which are blasted off with a high-pressure washer.

Components are then scanned with a UV light for any microscopic holes caused by corrosion, and logged accordingly. Equipment is then re-assembled, with PHEs fixed with new gaskets before being sealed with an oven-cured glue. The operator can then choose to undertake an optional pressure test, with a certificate issued alongside a report of recommendations upon the part’s return. Notably, this allows manufacturers to identify their equipment’s more serious faults, dealing with them if possible, otherwise tracking them and taking effective steps to mitigate their impact on performance. If an outage appears unavoidable, this also allows manufacturers to induce voluntary downtime, affording them the chance to put measures in place that will reduce its impact on productivity.

Overall, the sense of security and consistency that a comprehensive maintenance plan offers to a plant operator is second to none. In a small number of circumstances, manufacturers may be able to make marginal savings by forgoing regular maintenance. However, with the margin for error so narrow, and a single mistake proving so costly, operators simply cannot afford to gamble on their equipment. By scheduling regular maintenance check-ups, manufacturers can all at gain a complete knowledge of all equipment on-site, maintain peak performance of equipment and guarantee breakdown will not strike without warning.

Choosing the right partner

While choosing to employ a comprehensive maintenance plan is the first step to ensuring high-performance of process equipment, it is equally crucial to choose the right partner when doing so to achieve optimum results. Specialists like Alfa Laval benefit from nearly 100 years’ experience in a variety of industries, meaning that the correct solution can be ascertained regardless of the unique requirements of each site. Moreover, with the UK’s largest PHE service centre at hand, maintenance can take place quickly, minimising process downtime for the operator.

Ben Green is food & water divisional manager at Alfa Laval UK & Ireland