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Review Process

I arranged meetings with about 70 production supervisors and their managers,in groups of 10-12 people. In these sessions, I listened to them and recorded their requests and complaints. There were additional meetings with the main service department staff as well, including those in the stores and main canteen. The canteen staff had several requests, some of which appeared quite important for staff welfare. During factory rounds, I spoke to production and maintenance workers and union representatives. My own discipline engineers, supervisors, and contractors also provided their inputs. It appeared that many of the issues were related to stresses on the infrastructure. The company had seen rapid growth over the initial 15 years of its existence, but the infrastructure had not kept pace with the growth in production volume.

Analysis of the feedback highlighted some common problems. These included complaints about the utilities: provision of electricity, water, and air. Factory ventilation, dust levels in the ceramics department, and fume extraction in the plating department were also significant issues.

The main canteen provided food to more than 4000 people in the daytime, about 2500 in the second shift, and about 1500 people at night. Food was served in batches, as the seating was limited to 1500 people. Electrical heating was used for cooking, for which they needed a secure electricity supply.

These issues did not appear in the GM’s list, which generally covered current projects, some staff issues, and a list of complaints from production managers. 

I applied the first two project selection hurdles. Were these expectations related to production or welfare or safety, and were they feasible? This process narrowed the list down to about 10 items that could be handled as stand-alone projects. The next step was to evaluate them for importance. We had to find the money for items that affected health, safety, and environment (HSE) and staff welfare. Items that were critical to production were clearly important. We will not go into the details of how funds were obtained; that is a long story in itself. Suffice to say it needed lateral thinking and agile maneuvering.

The lead time for completing some of the items was two–three years. This allowed us to phase the work within a three-year budget window. The company had an annual budgeting system. This imposed additional challenges of phasing, accruals, and other familiar accounting handcuffs with which most engineers will be familiar. 

Selected Projects

We selected the following projects based on the criteria discussed earlier. A brief description of the work is given along with its justification and timing.

1. Factory Ventilation (HSE)

With conventional north light roof trusses, the temperature inside the large factory buildings reached 85–90°F in summer. There were a few large column mounted air circulators to provide artificial ventilation. We planned to install 40 additional air circulators to alleviate the problem. The lead time was 6 weeks and we could get 10–12 units per month. Summer was approaching, so this became a high-profile HSE issue. The costs involved were relatively low and people on the shop floor would see action being taken. The workers representatives helped decide the sequence in which the new units would be installed, giving them a role in decision making. The sequence was something I preferred they decided themselves, as it would minimize arguments. The project was justified as an HSE item.

2. Electricity Supply

The public electricity supply system was unreliable, due to a serious mismatch between supply and demand. There were frequent power cuts; to overcome this difficulty, the company had installed four 350 kW diesel generators, with a fifth on order. These worked as stand-alone units, supplying isolated sections of the factory. This limited our flexibility to provide power where it was needed to suit the (variable) production demand. With stand-alone units, we could never load the machines fully. To overcome these limitations, we planned to synchronize the generators and connect them to the distribution network. The latter was currently not a ring main; this was another shortcoming needing correction.

This project required major investment in new transformers, circuit breakers, and feeders. Due to the lead time required for procuring the hardware, this project was phased over three years. The cost of the project was high, but so were the expected returns. We expected to reduce the value of lost production due to electrical supply problems by 50–60%, giving a benefit-to-cost ratio of 5:1.

A different issue related to the cost of electricity purchased from the public supply system. The electricity supplier applied a three-part tariff, with charges for the connected load (kW), energy consumed (kWhrs), and a surcharge for power factor below 0.96 (kVA charge). In addition to the thousands of induction motors in service, there were large induction furnaces in the factory. Without correction, the power factor could drop as low as 0.91. We already had a number of power factor correction capacitor banks, which brought it up to 0.94–0.95. We planned a separate project to increase the power factor to a maximum of 0.98. This upper limit was set by the possibility of a large induction furnace trip when we could end up with a leading power factor. The new capacitor banks would be brought into service or disconnected so that the power factor never exceeded 0.98 or went below 0.96. The project was phased over two years, based on hardware availability. The costs were relatively low and the expected benefit-to-cost ratio was 5:1.

3. Air Supply

There were two problems, one relating to pressure fluctuations and the other to entrained water. The latter issue had been so serious in the past that the main air supply lines in the factory buildings were sloped in a saw-tooth fashion, with manual drains at the low points (see Figure 3.1). Pressure fluctuations were due to peak demands exceeding installed capacity and because of pressure drops in the pipelines. The entrained water came from the humid air. The water should have condensed in the after coolers of the air compressors, but a simple calculation showed that the cooling water temperature was far too high to be effective. In turn, this was due to an overload on the closed circuit cooling system. The original cooling pond was suitable for two diesel engines and three air compressors. The equipment numbers had grown to four diesel engines and four compressors. One more generator and two compressors were on order.

Figure 3.1 Original design of 4” air mains.

The air compression capacity was marginal and the projected demand increase was 30 percent. We decided that a third one would be needed to provide buffer capacity. In order to reduce the pressure drop in the pipeline distribution network, we planned to add four new air receivers located close to the main consumers. Peak demands could then be met from these receivers. They would also act as additional knock-out vessels to trap entrained water.

We planned to install industrial cooling towers to absorb heat from the cooling water used in the engine and compressor cooling jackets and after-coolers. This would eliminate the bulk of the entrained water at source.

These two projects were planned for completion in 18 months. The cost of the third compressor, air receivers, and cooling towers was in the mediumrange. We expected to reduce the value of lost production due to air supply problems by 90%, giving a benefit-to-cost ratio of 15: 1.

4. Water Supply

The city municipal water supply system provided about 70% of the factory’s requirements. The company had installed many bore wells to draw groundwater to meet the remaining requirements. The city accepted our justification for requesting additional water supply, but were not willing to invest in a new pipeline from an existing reservoir about four miles away. We offered to underwrite the capital costs while the ownership remained with the municipality. I convinced the finance manager that we should pay a grant towards  the capital cost of a city asset that would benefit the company.

We also decided to accelerate investment in additional bore wells in plots of land owned by the company in the vicinity of the existing factory site. These projects were also in the medium-range of costs. Most of the additional water requirements were for welfare facilities.

Without these projects, production levels would eventually have to be drastically curtailed, but we justified the project on staff welfare and HSE grounds.

5. Dust and Fume Pollution

The dust pollution in the ceramics department and the fume problem in the plating department were potentially serious health issues. The existing extraction systems were clearly not effective, but the solutions were not obvious. At this stage, the project scope was to study the problem carefully, understand the causes, and identify solutions. We employed a specialist consultant to assist us, and the work took several months to complete. The problem was traced to the particle size of the ceramic dust. These were so small that much higher velocities were required at the extraction unit inlets. The project scope included the installation of cyclone separators and powerful extractor fans.

At the plating department, we found that the fume extraction issue was more complex. The extraction hoods had to be redesigned and repositioned. Extraction velocities had to be increased, so new fans were required.

The costs of these two projects were in the medium range, and the lead time of the equipment required meant that the project had to be scheduled in the third year. We justified it as an HSE project, but the results showed that there were other benefits as well.

6. Security of Energy Supply to the Canteen

The scale of the problems that the canteen faced on a daily basis was staggering. The local culture required that freshly cooked and piping hot food be served. The main staple was cooked rice, of which we needed on average, 10 oz. per employee. About 1500 meals were served in each batch.

The rice was cooked in large electrically-heated cookers mounted on trunnions. Each batch had to be cooked in 20 minutes, and the vessel cleaned and ready for the next batch in 5–10 minutes. The water temperature had to be raised from the ambient 60–70°F to 212°F, and this could take 10–12 minutes. The canteen manager was visibly under stress. If there was any glitch, food could not be served—to at least 1500 and possibly up to 4500 waiting people!

The electrical cooking system was excellent, but consumed significant amounts of energy. Because sunshine was available in plenty, we planned to install solar water heater panels on the concrete roof of the canteen. Each panel would be about 120 square feet in area. With four of them in series, even on a cloudy day we could get the water to 150–160°F in about 10 minutes. We decided to install two banks of four panels each along with an insulated hot water storage tank. This allowed us to supply hot water rapidly, and stored enough water for the second and third shifts as well. A structural design check of the roof confirmed that it was suitable for the additional roof loads.

The project costs were in the medium range. Delivery of the solar panels would take 6–8 months, so we phased the project into the second year. The primary purpose was to get rapid supplies of fairly hot water to the cooking vessels, so that cycle time could be reduced. This would give recovery time to the canteen staff in the event of a power supply glitch. The bonus was that electrical energy savings made it economical as well. The project was justified as a welfare item.


We completed all the selected projects within three years. When computing benefit-to-cost ratios, we measured or estimated the benefits over a 3- year period (thereafter, they would be influenced by other initiatives as well). The results are described below.

1. Factory Ventilation (HSE)

The air circulation fans were installed more or less on schedule. Some installations were late, caused by delivery delays from the vendor, but all the fans were in place within four months. Our departmental credibility went up a notch in the eyes of the workers.

2. Electricity Supply

There were budget overruns, as the transformers and circuit breakers cost nearly 30% over the estimate. This had to be offset by savings elsewhere. On the plus side, the value of production lost due to electricity supply problems went down by nearly 80%. The benefit-to-cost ratio was 5.5:1.

The power factor capacitor banks and their control systems were very effective. The reduction in electricity bills was better than estimated, and the benefit-to-cost ratio was 6:1.

3. Air Supply

We installed pressure recorders at key points in the three factory buildings. The charts showed that after installing the air receivers, the pressure fluctuations were minimal and well within acceptable limits.

Once the new cooling towers were connected, more than 95% of entrained water was trapped at the supply end. A small quantity was drained from the air receivers, but there was no water to be drained from the low point drains on the air mains any longer. The saw-tooth pipeline design described earlier was abandoned whenever new air lines were laid.

Production loss due to air supply or quality problems all but disappeared once all the new facilities were installed. Computing the benefit-to-cost ratio proved difficult, as there were questions about the number of compressors to be included in the cost figure. The range was 11:1 to 16:1, depending on the cost figure selected.

4. Water Supply

Laying the new water mains proved very time consuming, as the municipality had complex and slow tendering processes for procuring and laying the pipe. There were city streets to be crossed; this required coordination with other city departments and utility companies. Eventually it was completed after about 30 months.

We made better progress with the additional bore wells, about half of which turned out dry while the rest yielded varying amounts.

Meanwhile, the demand was rising continuously. These two projects helped us to meet the demand, but there was no doubt that the problems would worsen in future. We did not compute a benefit-to-cost ratio as it was a survival and welfare issue.

5. Dust and Fume Pollution

The ceramics departments used to be in a permanent dust haze before we installed the new cyclones and larger extractor fans. The haze cleared visibly and quickly, so the workers were happy. But there was an attractive spin-off as well. Most of the ceramic dust recovered from the cyclones could be reused, allowing a small production volume increase and cost savings. What started off as a welfare/health project gave a benefit-to-cost ratio of 2.5:1.

The new fume extraction hoods and fans in the plating department worked well from the beginning. The number of workers reporting sick dropped significantly, so we felt quite pleased with the results.

6. Security of Energy Supply to the Canteen

The solar water heater panel project produced dramatic results. The canteen people were relieved from the tension that prevailed earlier. They could go about their work calmly and with less anxiety. The savings in electrical energy paid for the project within eight months, which was a bonus.


When management gurus talk about vision, mission, and objectives, we may find our eyes glazing over. However, this experience taught me that the gurus are quite right. A systematic approach allows us to objectively evaluate what needs to be done and why.

As engineers, we do not always think in commercial terms; technical excellence is what most of us find appealing. Without an effort to do a cost-benefit analysis, I suspect these projects would have been shot down. When the benefit is 250% of cost (in some cases it was over 1000% of cost), it is easy to convince management. Funds suddenly become available to maintainers and engineers, instead of the much-favored Production and IT departments.

We found that shop floor workers can be quite realistic in their expectations. When it comes to recognizing infrastructure weaknesses, their inputs are often quite useful. Visible feedback that they can see through our actions helps build trust and confidence. Shop-floor staff helped identify the main weaknesses during the two-week review period, not outside consultants. The items they highlighted proved valuable, as all of them had excellent economic or HSE benefits.

That the boss is an important customer is not in question; not recognizing this can be career limiting! However, we should pay heed to the other customers as well, and include their ideas in our plans.

Expectations should be vetted to ensure that they add value and are manageable within existing cost constraints. Only those projects that pass the hurdles should be used to formulate the plan.


1. Deciding a line of action pro-actively is distinctly superior to playing catch-up. The vision and the current status give us the means to do a gap analysis and set our objectives.

2. Knowing the customer’s expectations is important, whether these are from management or the shop floor. Asking them directly is better than making assumptions.

100 Years of Maintenance and Reliability: Practical Lessons from Three Lifetimes at Process Plants by V. Narayan, James W. Wardhaugh & Mahen C. Das

100 Years of Maintenance and Reliability: Practical Lessons from Three Lifetimes at Process Plants by V. Narayan, James W. Wardhaugh & Mahen C. Das is available at the online bookstore and is well worth the read!

V. Narayan

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