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Proper Maintenance Keeps Companies Running Smoothly
Maintenance Tips: Industry members share insights on structuring an effective maintenance division.

By DeAnna Stephens Baker
Date Posted: 3/1/2014

                The maintenance division may not be the most glamorous of positions, but it is critical to the efficient running of any wood products manufacturing facility. Good maintenance practices will reduce costs, increase production and keep equipment functioning smoothly.

                The Pallet Enterprise spoke with several pallet and sawmill companies of varying sizes around the country to learn some of their secrets for an effective maintenance division. They shared insights on how to set up a maintenance shop, keep equipment performing well and what they consider to be critical elements of a maintenance division.


Stay Organized

                Mel Watkins, vice president at Riteway Pallet, a wooden pallet recycler and manufacturer in Albuquerque, N. M., said that he considers organization to be the most important aspect of running a maintenance department. This can apply to storage of parts and tools, maintenance records, and performing tasks.

                Being able to quickly find the needed part or tool will save maintenance personnel a lot of time and the company a lot of money. Riteway organizes parts inventory by machine type into different storage rooms. Within these rooms, different parts are assigned specific cubby holes or shelf space, making it easy to tell when a part has been used so it can immediately be reordered.

                Riteway has also created portable workshops using small shipping containers. Each one is dedicated to a different type of task – such as welding or electrical – and contains all the related tools and parts. Not only does this keep parts and tools together and easy to find, it also eliminates time wasted by maintenance personnel walking back and forth in the middle of a project to bring different tools or parts from the storage area to where the work is taking place. The containers can be moved using forklifts and placed close to where a project is being done.

                “It’s easy to pick them up and move them where they’re working,” said Watkins. “All the tools are close by, he can keep them under lock and key if he needs to go on break or to lunch and everything’s still there when he comes back.”

                Bay Wood Products, a manufacturer of wooden pallets, rough cut lumber, dunnage and crates in Robertsdale, Ala., uses Excel spreadsheets to track both tools and parts inventory. It uses one spreadsheet for each piece of machinery. This spreadsheet lists the most common parts, the last time it was used, how many are in stock and what vendor it is ordered from. The tool spreadsheet is used to check out tools to employees so that there is a record of who last used each one which has reduced the number of lost tools.

                “It helps us keep track of the parts and helps keep track of the tools,” said Wayne Golden, operations manager at Bay Wood Products. “Since we’ve been doing it we haven’t lost half as many tools, and we don’t have to second buy parts because we can’t find something. So it’s paid off for us.”


Plan Ahead

                Taking the time to plan ahead and prepare for problems that could arise will save a lot of time in the long run. Creating schedules or checklists of daily, weekly, monthly or annual maintenance tasks will ensure that they are done on time and nothing is forgotten.

                But perhaps the biggest part of planning ahead for a maintenance team is performing preventative maintenance on equipment and machinery. At Meisters Forest Products, which operates two pallet sawmill locations in Wisconsin, maintenance staff schedule a time once a month on a weekend when the production line is shut down to do any needed repairs as well as preventative maintenance.

                “We change things that need to be changed and if we can tell something is showing wear, we fix it during this time,” said Cody Meister. “About 90% of our monthly maintenance is preventative. We change things before they go down and hit the bottom line for production.”

                Another key aspect of planning ahead is ensuring that needed parts are on hand. Riteway Pallet keeps any part that is used at least once a year on hand to minimize downtown that waiting for parts to arrive would cause.

                “We don’t hesitate to keep parts on hand,” said Watkins. “Anything that we see we are replacing more than once a year, there’s going to be a part on the shelf for it. We don’t want to have to run looking for it or wait for it to come in.”

                Though keeping a lot of parts inventory on hand ties up some cash value for a company, the savings realized by minimizing downtime can make this worth it.

                “With the amount of money you save by having a part you can grab and put on versus having to run it down, it makes much more sense to have it on the shelf,” said Watkins.

                As part of this strategy, Riteway always reorders parts as soon as they are used to maintain its inventory.

                “When it’s used, it’s immediately replaced,” said Watkins.


Be Smart about Outsourcing

                Taking care of issues in-house can sometimes save money. But depending on the situation, it can also have hidden costs. Riteway Pallet found this to be true for blade sharpening due to the amount of time it would take non-specialists to sharpen them.

                “I think it costs more to do it in-house,” said Watkins. “The equipment for sharpening blades isn’t expensive, but the guys would spend three times the time it takes when they’re sent in.”

                Bay Wood Products has a similar approach for electrical work. By using contract electricians for machinery installation and upgrades, the company avoids having to come back and fix issues a second time due to an improper fix.

                “I’ve found out it’s much better to do it that way because then I can hold the contractor responsible,” said Golden. I’ve found that since contractors have a certain clientele they won’t shortcut it. They fix it by the book, and I like it that way.


Use Supplier Resources

                Most machine suppliers have resources available to help a maintenance team understand their machines and troubleshoot issues. These range from basic operator’s manuals to tech support available by phone to field technicians and repair services. No one knows a machine better than the company selling it, so utilizing any information they have available will be helpful.

                According to Golden, Bay Wood Products has found that closely following the maintenance routines prescribed by the manufacturer for each machine works best. Its staff reads the operator’s manual for each machine to ensure they know all manufacturer recommendations.

                “It’s always better to go off a manufacturer’s routines,” said Golden. “That’s how they designed the machine and it’s a lot easier to stay with their specifications. If you stay up to speed with that, your production will be better.”

                Meister Forest Products believes that vendor input is crucial to learning a new machine and being prepared for the lifetime maintenance of it.

                “If we put a new machine in, we usually require the company that we purchased it from to send someone that knows the machine inside and out along with the machine,” said Meister. “We’re capable of installing it ourselves, wiring it ourselves, plumbing and hydraulics. But what we’re looking for with having that guy come along is that we’ve got to know that machine in and out. If it goes down for a simple problem we need to be able to have that thing going again in the shortest amount of time possible.”

                By having a supplier representative come walk through it, Meister ensures that the maintenance staff knows the machine inside and out – not by trial and error but by having someone who knows it there to explain it to them.

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