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Improve Your Facility Maintenance
Facility maintenance is one of the most critical functions for a pallet company. Several industry members share what practices have helped make their maintenance routines more effective.

By DeAnna Stephens Baker
Date Posted: 3/1/2012

In a pallet company, the maintenance team is the equivalent of a medical team. It is their job to fix what is broken and, just as importantly, find and fix little problems before they become big problems.

                If done properly, maintenance practices will result in reduced downtime, increased lifespan of machine parts, and savings for your company.

                The Pallet Enterprise staff spoke with representatives from several pallet companies about their maintenance routines to find the following tips and ideas that can improve your maintenance practices and save your company money.


Choose Good Personnel

                Deciding whether to handle most maintenance issues in-house, or by calling outside help is up to each company. However, having experienced and knowledgeable maintenance personnel on staff has the benefit of reducing downtime by eliminating the time that would otherwise be spent just waiting for someone to arrive. Many pallet companies employ skilled tradesmen within their maintenance crews for this reason. Skill sets that can be particularly useful in a pallet plant include electricians, welders, and millwrights, among others. This enables the team to handle a wider variety of problems on their own, without waiting for an outside company to arrive, and can also save the costs of hiring outside help. By employing workers with specialized skill sets on its maintenance team, Madison County Wood Products (MCWP) is able to handle around 99% of its maintenance needs in-house. As a fully integrated forest products company in Missouri that manufactures and recycles pallets, MCWP has to tackle a wide variety of maintenance challenges on a regular basis. Its in-house approach allows for fast response to ensure downtime is limited as much as possible.

                No matter if you use in-house expertise or outside assistance, it is important to have established relationships and guaranteed response times to reduce downtime. Part of your maintenance program should be knowing who to call before a need arises. You don’t want to be left scrambling when a critical breakdown occurs.


Maintain Routines

                Repetitive routines may seem, well, repetitive. But maintenance checkoff lists can prevent important issues from being overlooked. Most of the companies we spoke with use daily and weekly inspection lists or check sheets as part of their regular maintenance routines. According to Steve Marrs, facilities manager at John Rock, a Pennsylvania-based pallet manufacturer, his maintenance crew has daily, weekly and monthly routines which all depend on the type of equipment and the type of use it gets. The first thing on their daily routine is checking all safety related issues, such as machine guards.

                “All safety issues are number one,” Marrs said. “So all guarding and safety switches need to be checked every day. From there any wear item that may end up being worn, we make sure they are inspected and lubricated.”

                They have also created checklists that are tailored to each piece of machinery.

                “Each machine has its regular maintenance check sheet that the operators will check off that they go through and check,” Marrs said. “The list of what they go over is huge. A lot of it is just visual. We look for broken parts and we look for worn out parts and we replace them on all wear areas.”

                Any problems that are found while going through the check lists are fixed right away.  “If it’s got an issue it gets fixed on the spot,” said Marrs. “Chances are it’s going to break during production, instead of any other time.”

                Not only do these check lists provide a safety net to ensure regular inspections of important issues, but they can also help management keep track of issues different machines have which can help predict future problems on similar machines and track how well  workers are performing their maintenance duties. At John Rock, all checklists are kept for future reference.           

                “All repairs get put into a database, of what happened, when it was, and what parts were used to create a history on that machine,” Marrs said.

                At a minimum, regular checklists on most machines should include cleaning, greasing, oiling, and a visual inspection of wear parts.


Assign Responsibility

                Some companies prefer all maintenance needs to be taken care of by members of the maintenance team. Others, however, have operators perform some basic maintenance tasks. At SCP, Inc., a pallet manufacturer and recycler with three locations in Wisconsin and Ohio, machine operators are asked to fix small issues on their own, such as nail jams and simple pull and replace issues. At MCWP, however, machine operators are only responsible for some greasing and saw sharpening. Everything else, including welding, electrical and general millwright activities is handled by the maintenance team. However you decide to split the maintenance responsibilities, make sure that anyone who is responsible for any of it knows what it is he is responsible for, how often it should be done, and how to do it properly.


Open Communication

                Good communication between machine operators and the maintenance team is also important. Because the operator is the most familiar with how the machine runs and is there when it is operating, they can more easily spot problems when they are first starting, before they become large issues. Part of this communication should include training operators on what basic maintenance tasks they are responsible for.

                Because many operators do perform at least basic maintenance on their machines, it is important that they communicate any unordinary issues to the maintenance team as part of the machine’s history. At SCP, operators are required to report any issues that they see with their machine to the maintenance staff for evaluation. Any parts that get replaced on the machine must also be reported to ensure inventory levels are kept up-to-date.


Maintain Important Inventory

                A well stocked shop can keep your maintenance team moving along on essential tasks instead of waiting for parts to arrive. 

                “We keep many spare parts on hand for each machine to try and limit downtime that can occur when waiting for parts,” said Charlie Luedtke, General Manager at SCP.

                If you don’t already have one, consider making a list of what parts you should always have in inventory. This would include anything that is replaced on a regular basis, as well as anything that would take a while to order. If your shop can’t run without it, you need an extra one on hand.

                At John Rock, Marrs said that having a number of duplicate machines makes their parts inventory easier as they stock all wear items.

                “We stock everything from motors to gear boxes, through all the wear items. Chains, everything on the nailing machines that’s a wear item we stock.”

                Based on years of experience, the John Rock team has learned what parts are necessities.

                “We’ve built up a list of ‘have to have’ parts,” Marrs said.

                Also, make sure you have a system in place to ensure that whenever one of these parts is used, another is ordered to take its place in inventory.


Consider Unusual Shifts

                Instead of having your maintenance personnel all arrive at the same time; consider scheduling them in staggered shifts. At MCWP, three of the five maintenance personnel work the evening shift, allowing members of the maintenance team to be available for a longer period of time each day.

                For companies that run multiple production shifts, this may not be as simple. But if you run only one production shift, this would enable some of your maintenance team to easily work on issues, particularly ones that require machines to be down, outside of production hours. At SCP, they often schedule large jobs to occur at night or on weekends so they do not interfere with production schedules.


Ask for Help

                Machinery suppliers or manufacturers are also a good resource for maintenance needs, especially those that require more in-depth knowledge of the inner workings of a machine. No one knows a machine better than its manufacturer. If you have any recurring problems or issues your maintenance team needs help troubleshooting, consider contacting the manufacturer or your supplier for a second opinion. According to Doug Gaines, co-owner of MCWP, though almost all of the maintenance is done in-house by their crew, they do consult with all of their manufacturers from time to time. MCWP also works with their suppliers for help with grinding saws, welding and making hydraulic lines.


Prevent, Don’t React

                Moving from reactionary maintenance to preventative maintenance is not a quick journey. But the benefits make the journey worthwhile. 

                “We are changing from reacting to make repairs to more of the preventative side,” said Luedtke. “This saves us downtime in the long run and saves money by catching small issues before they can become major issues.”

                A big part of making the transition to a mostly preventative maintenance approach is improved worker training. All workers that come into contact with any machine need to know what issues to be on the lookout for. It is also a good idea to review operator experience and the latest new insights on a particular machine in team meetings.

                “Since we’ve gotten a really good check list, I’ve gotten a couple of good maintenance guys that are on top of things and are checking things throughout the day, everyday,” said Marrs. “And the employees running the machinery are conscious of what it should be doing, or not doing, so they bring it to our attention before it’s a catastrophe.”

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