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Operator Driven Reliability and Ultrasonic Inspection

Operator Driven Reliability and Ultrasonic Inspection by Jim Hall

Operator Driven Reliability and Ultrasonic Inspection

by Jim Hall

Operator driven reliability (ODR) is a process that involves operators in the maintenance and reliability of their equipment. ODR selects tasks previously performed by maintenance technicians and reassigns these tasks to operators. However, ODR is only effective when operators are focused on specific tasks. Operators must be properly trained and coached in the performance of each task.1

It’s been proven that ODR can make a difference. But, how much more of a difference can be realized with more fundamental training? Finding qualified technicians with the skills needed to perform even the basic maintenance tasks is becoming harder and harder. The same young adults that used to spend time in school learning mechanics, paint and bodywork, metal working, or graphic arts are spending their afternoons and evenings with a video game and joystick fantasizing about destroying alien invaders.

Ultrasound is a technology that is not just affordable, but the return on investment (ROI) is often instant.

Industries today include automation that is more mechanical and electropneumatic. Not to mention technology that is so advanced that training anyone can take years.

What experience from sitting on a couch, at a desk, or at a computer prepares you to repair your car or truck? Or, prepares you to do menial tasks around the home? Bring back those vocational schools that can prepare students to carry on and fulfill the needs of industry and manufacturing.

Now granted, many people have gone to online videos to learn how to tear apart a modern day washer or dryer to remove a sock or change a belt. But, you cannot stop a production line to allow someone to view a video on how to find a vacuum leak or what to listen for on a motor bearing. These are basic, yet fundamental, tasks that every operator should know.

So, where are the industrial plants, manufacturers and utilities going to find these needed resources to fill these positions? Recent online research of this topic found many places where several high-tech companies realize the need to train today’s millennials. This Internet search also found several statements about millennials from many sources, but the next section highlights those that were more on target.

Millennials: Zero Tolerance for Outdated Training and Technology2

Millennials are the first digital natives. When you start using computers, tablets and cell phones while still in diapers, you have a whole different perspective on technology and its role in everyday life. The “lunch and learn” presentations and half-day sessions used in training today are about as old school as dial-up Internet to this generation. As difficult as it is to imagine, PowerPoint® isn’t popular anymore.

So, how do you attract, train, and retain millennials? Here are some tips provided by T.J. Bain of Instructure.

Get social — Include elements for social sharing and engagement. Seventy percent of millennials have friended a manager or coworker on Facebook®.

Stay bite-sized — Millennials switch between tasks up to 27 times per hour. That doesn’t give you much time (around 2.2 seconds or less) to get your message across. Think short videos (under 5 minutes) and resource libraries for self-guided study.

Foster collaboration — Eighty-eight percent of millennials would rather collaborate than compete at work.

Give feedback (and fast) — Ninety-five percent of millennials work harder when they know where their work is going. Remember, this is the instant gratification generation, so provide same day feedback, if possible.

Set the framework, then set them loose — Tell millennials what’s expected of them and then get out of their way! This generation is all about discovery, curiosity and maintaining control of their own destiny.

Establishing a Millennials-Friendly ODR Program

The key to having an operator driven reliability program is to have a person trained in the basics, such as ultrasound predictive maintenance (PdM), infrared imaging and vibration analysis. Of these technologies, ultrasound has the lowest learning curve and is easiest to implement. Yet, very few operators understand the concept of how to use ultrasound, let alone its benefits.

So, why ultrasound? Ultrasound is that one technology that anyone can learn with little training. Technicians can greatly increase their confidence in the operation of the equipment they are assigned just by attending an ultrasound Level I course.

Ultrasound is above the human hearing range, defined as sound above 20,000 hertz or 20 kHz. What’s noisy to you is not detected by the ultrasound receiver, therefore, ultrasound can be used in a noisy environment. Ultrasound is the earliest detection of bearing defects. Think of ultrasound as an early detection system for motor bearings, leakage, electrical faults, etc.

Figure 1 Figure 1: Ultrasound, the earliest detection of equipment condition

Think of a gearbox with a clicking sound. When first noted, it was hardly noticeable; it probably didn’t even scale an additional decibel above the previous reading. But, after several hours, days, even months, the operator hears the clicking sound and it’s becoming more and more pronounced. Bingo! Now, rather than later, a work order is initiated and the shutdown or loss of production is avoided.

Although ultrasound is the earliest detection tool compared to vibration and infrared technologies, this early detection means ultrasound can be very subjective. But, that’s also why decibel readings and recorded wav files play a large role through waveform analysis and the diagnostics of motor bearings. Is it vibration analysis? No.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Operator learning to use ultrasound instrument that allows the individual to find temperature of bearing as well as datalog decibel reading, tachometer, accelerometer, as well ultrasound sensors, bluetooth and record bearing sound for further diagnostics.

The Benefits of Ultrasound

Ultrasound, vibration and infrared are all complementary to each other. But, ultrasound has other benefits, such as detecting vacuum or pressure leaks and motor bearing defects, electrical scanning of switchgear (e.g., arcing, tracking and corona), and hydraulic inspection of valves, solenoids and steam traps. Depending on the manufacturer or industry, there are many more benefits, such as an onboard camera, digital recorder, data logger, laser pointer, on-screen fast Fourier transform (FFT) and/or time series and even a strobe (i.e., optical tachometer).

Figure 3: Today’s ultrasound instrument is more than just air leaks and steam traps. This instrument is touch screen, temperature, laser, optical tachometer, camera, record audio, datalogging, Bluetooth and more. Operators with little or no experience will have a better understanding and ownership when they utilize these instruments.

One area of ultrasonic testing (UT) training that many either fail to comprehend or never actually think about is how to use ultrasound in a noisy environment when there’s competing ultrasound. Don’t lose out on potential profits. Avoid downtime and save energy by learning the basics!

Besides being the simplest of the technologies to learn, ultrasound is a technology that is not just affordable, but the return on investment (ROI) is often instant. So, why aren’t you employing this technology in your facility?

Meeting ODR Goals With Ultrasonic Inspection

The purpose of operator driven reliability is twofold. The first goal is to free up maintenance technicians by involving operators. With operators performing tasks that maintenance technicians usually perform frees up maintenance resources to be redeployed on higher level predictive and reliability focused tasks.

The second goal is to find tasks that create less downtime for the operators to perform than if a maintenance technician was required to perform the task.

Both ODR goals must be balanced against operational tasks already assigned to operators to prevent any loss of production caused by the operator performing maintenance reliability tasks on the equipment.3

ODR Workforce Development

ODR personnel are focused on the operation of a particular asset. However, as the whole maintenance program evolves, ODR personnel need to evolve within. They need to be able to change a filter, tighten a bolt, secure a panel or housing and perform other basic maintenance.

ODR personnel should be taught to be leaders who can perform tasks on equipment under their responsibility.

Very basic skills should be owned by ODR personnel. For instance, these basics include leak detection and ultrasonic inspection of motor bearings, along with other minimal tasks, such as how to change a filter.

Dean Cotton, CRL, CMRP, and the Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professionals (SMRP) Florida Education chairperson, shares his opinion regarding ODR and workforce development. “Manufacturing operators coexist with their machinery day in and day out. Due to the nature of continuous operation and a desire to improve, operators gain the craft knowledge of what their machinery needs on a daily basis. The key to ODR is giving its operators the basics or essential skills to perform rudimentary, routine PdM on a daily or biweekly basis and as needed for troubleshooting.

“While many advanced manufacturing plants might have four to 10 PdM technicians, this may not be enough to cover even a modest sized plant due to the thousands of assets. By leveraging the operators, say fifty percent of the operator workforce of 200, you now have an additional 100 PdM basic technicians for ODR. Having an increased insight into the condition of the machinery ahead of an actual catastrophic failure or even functional failure is a key component to a successful PdM Program. This isn’t a replacement for PdM technicians, but an extension for increased reliability. Your next generation of PdM technicians could come from ODR.”

He further points out, “Using ODR ultrasound for pre- and post-preventive maintenance (PM) surveys will help to focus the maintenance performed during the PMs. With pneumatics, the best time to catch a leak is as early as possible for savings, rather than months or years later when the savings have leaked away.

“In the end, everything comes down to risk and value. With available resources and minimal training (i.e., low risk, high value), operators can significantly increase the granularity or resolution of a PdM program and increase overall reliability with minimal costs.”

ODR personnel should be taught to be leaders who can perform tasks on equipment under their responsibility. Or, as some refer to as, they “own it.”

How about a leak on a pneumatic line that maneuvers a product into place to be drilled? You want to empower them to find defects and report them. Other tasks will need input prior to repair in most cases, especially in a unionized plant.

Teaching the basics of ultrasonic inspection should be part of ODR workforce development. As a receiver of sound, an ultrasound instrument is a translator of high frequency sound waves that, once received, are amplified, heterodyned, or demodulated to a low frequency so you can discern them and, perhaps, diagnose a problem by listening with headphones.

Figure 4: Technician using ultrasound to locate air leak on robotic arm. (Photo courtesy of All Leak Detection & Locate, LLC)

Here’s an example of how ultrasonic training can be valuable. As part of a maintenance team’s training, the group had trouble looking for a vacuum leak on an asset. The plant had purchased an ultrasound instrument 24 months earlier and had very little luck locating vacuum or pressure leaks in this one area. One team member described how the ballast from the fluorescent lights emitted competing ultrasound and interfered with finding the leak. The operator had entered the area where the suspected vacuum leak was and began scanning using the headphones and the instrument set at 40 kHz. After just two to three minutes of scanning, the individual gave up trying to identify the leak.

This particular asset was a printing operation that uses vacuum to hold the paper in place during the operation. Shutting down the operation and finding the leak was a large job requiring many man-hours and the loss of production was substantial. But, the decision was made to hit the stop button, shutting down the asset.

Had this operator been taught the basics in the use of ultrasound, particularly how to locate a leak in a noisy environment, he/she may have learned how to utilize the frequency tuning option, lowering or raising the frequency one to two kilohertz to eliminate or simply greatly reduce the interference, this unscheduled downtime may had been avoided.

Another operator in a paper mill in southwestern Alabama had several steam traps to inspect, but didn’t know that another department within the plant had an ultrasound kit that had been purchased just to locate compressed air leaks. Had the operator and others been trained in the use of ultrasound, they would have known about the contact module that was included in the ultrasound kit. This contact module would have allowed the end user to ultrasonically inspect the traps’ condition.


When implementing an operator driven reliability program, you must clearly understand why ODR is being implemented. In other words, it must be made clear that implementing ODR is going to produce additional equipment availability or reliability, or is going to free up maintenance resources to be redeployed in higher level predictive or reliability activities. An organization needs to have the proper focus in order to be successful in implementing ODR.


  1. Credit: Introduction, Uptime® Elements™ Passport Series for Certified Reliability Leader ODR Booklet
  2. Referenced from "An informative guide to working with Millennials" by T.J. Bain; Published on LinkedIn, November 11, 2015: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/informative-guide-working-millennials-t-j-bain?forceNoSplash=true
  3. Credit: Chapter 3, Uptime® Elements™ Passport Series ODR Booklet