The Cultural Impact of IoT on Maintenance Organizations – Addressing the “Aging” Workforce.

IoT and the Aging Workforce

When engaging a customer on current challenges they are facing within maintenance operations, they inevitably begin a discussion of the “aging out” of their current workforce and inability to replace them.  Interestingly, this has been a concern for quite some time.  I liken it to the Y2K hype in the late 90’s with one exception – nearly every company updated their systems to prevent widespread havoc.  Unfortunately, few companies have prepared as well for the current workforce situation.

My esteemed colleague, Terry O’Hanlon, discussed this in an article he wrote back in 2006.  At that time, seasoned veterans were also disappearing from the company ranks, but for somewhat of a different reason – companies were being short-sighted and cutting costs in the form of what then appeared to be expensive labor assets.  Terry went on to discuss how companies were being impacted as talented individuals, in all age groups, began leaving to find work at companies that valued their skills.  He also suggested that within 5 years companies workforce’s would begin to retire.  His comments were supported by a National Association of Manufacturers study that showed 80 percent of manufacturers had a moderate to serious shortage of production workers, machinists, and craft workers. The group predicted that manufacturers will need as many as 10 million new skilled workers by 2020, in part to replace the aging boomers who make up a large part of the 14 million manufacturing jobs today.

Well, here it is 2019 and the problem of the “Aging” workforce is in full swing and current estimates suggest that 2 million of the 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will potentially go unfilled. Whoa.

At the time Terry wrote his article, he spoke of rapidly changing technologies throughout the plant floor and strategies that companies can put in place to manage these challenges around workforce shortages. All of which are still valid today.  My guess is that if IoT solutions were in full swing then, he would have also written of how these solutions could be part of a company’s workforce strategy.  Contrary to the naysayers, who suggest that IoT solutions will remove workers, it is my contention they actually attract the right workers.

Technology has always had an interesting impact on the maintenance workforce – whether it was the complex manufacturing systems, software systems like Maximo, or evolutionary access to mobile devices. IoT solutions, from simply connecting “things” together to advanced analytics and augmented reality, can have an impact far beyond cost savings – it can be leveraged to change the way a maintenance position is viewed by the available labor pool.

My view is that IoT can have a critical cultural impact in three primary ways:

Applications of IoT solutions move maintenance positions out of a pure “blue collar” perception.

This change in perception has been occurring for some time as the complexity of manufacturing plants and facilities has steadily increased.  IoT solutions bring a whole new level of sophistication to managing and maintaining these assets.  It is an interesting combination of hands-on work and pure brainpower.  I like the term “new collar” jobs, coined by IBM’s CEO, Ginni Rometty.  Re-branding maintenance as offering “new collar” makes the job intrinsically more attractive to college recruits who may of looked past engineering as a career choice.

IoT Solutions create a more diverse workforce.

Maintenance has typically been a male-dominated environment.  The changes in how assets are diagnosed and repaired create an opportunity for a more non-traditional workforce.  The increase in the percentage of women entering STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) careers has steadily increased over the years and I see this spilling over into Maintenance.  Anecdotally, I have witnessed this with the significant increase in the WIRAM (Woman in Reliability and Maintenance) membership.

IoT knowledgeable workers add value and subsequently cost more.

Higher paid workers seem counter-intuitive to reducing costs.  However, the value that will be created by these new workers will outstrip the rise in cost associated with the position.  Furthermore, higher salaries inherently attract qualified candidates with greater long term potential to impact operations.

Of course, this impact will not occur overnight, but deploying IoT is a sure way to attract the next wave of maintenance professionals.  And before I forget – be sure to check out Terry’s article – so much is still relevant after all these years. 

How Often Do You Change Your Oil? – A Look at how IoT has Changed Preventive Maintenance

Everyone knows the saying about getting your oil changed, “Every 3,000 miles…..”

I used to take my car in for an oil change every 3k-5k miles, until a recent interview with Senior Director of Maintenance, Nikolaus Despain, led to a discussion of the evolution of car engine maintenance and how it parallels what maintenance organizations everywhere are experiencing – an opportunity to transform Preventive Maintenance with the power IoT.

Transition from Reactive to Preventive Maintenance

Motors were a significant invention, saving both time and physical labor.  Yet motors weren’t always as reliable as they are today.  When engines were first created, they didn’t initially use oil.  Early motors would lock up frequently until someone realized if you put lubricants on the metal parts, it would run longer and extend the life of the engine. This caused other problems with contaminants and sludge that would both build and plug up the engine, so the motor still had to be taken apart and fixed.  Additionally, no one liked the mess of lubricants, so they decided to enclose them – great idea, but the engines still required rebuilding, until someone else decided to filter the oil so the engine would run longer between maintenance.

Finally, a bright industrial engineer did a time study and determined that if the oil is changed on a fixed frequency, the engine would not require rebuilding.  In an attempt to address the build-up that was causing engine failures, we started periodically changing the oil to clean it, resulting in the engine running longer.

Shift to Predictive Maintenance

If you look in most car manuals, you would see that many engines can actually go anywhere from 5k-10k or even 15k miles between oil changes. So, if I take my car in to get an oil change every 3k miles as suggested, I am changing my oil way too often, doing unnecessary maintenance to my car, and spending money that doesn’t need to be spent.

Most new cars today actually have sensors on the engines that can tell when the pressure differentiation reaches a certain threshold that it is time to take the car in for an oil change.

ROI Example:

Consider for the following example that I drive 20k miles/year and the cost of an oil change is $25.

  • If I take my car in every 3k miles
    • 6 oil changes/year
    • Total = $150
  • If my car actually only needs an oil change every 9k miles:
    • 2 oil changes/year
    • Total = $50

This would result in over a 65% reduction in preventive maintenance activities performed on my car. Not only would my overall annual maintenance cost also be reduced by over 65%, but I would be decreasing the opportunity for experiencing an unnecessary failure introduced by maintenance.

“Believe it or not, the last time I had my oil changed my filter cracked, which is a perfect example of maintenance introduced failures… and this happens on the plant floor whether or not maintenance organizations like to admit it.”

– Nikolaus Despain Senior Director of Maintenance 

Challenging the Norm

The Big Oil companies loved the idea of regular oil changes because it generated guaranteed future revenue.  What oil change service didn’t recommend changing the oil every 2,000 to 3,000 miles of travel?  Further Engineering studies revealed different motors can operate reliably for many more cycles than the Big Oil companies initially recommended (5,000 to 7,000 miles or even 10,000 to 15,000 with synthetic oil and/or oil blends – check your vehicle owner’s manual!).  In the name of quality, and reliability, car manufacturers’ engineers came up with a variety of ways to use oil filter pressure differential and engine operational data to determine the optimal oil changing frequency.  Right now, that solution comes to us from the vehicle console with a warning light telling us to “change the oil.” They used Big Data to allow the equipment, in this case, the engine and vehicle, “talk” to us!

Listening into the future with IoT

This is a classic example of IoT! If we learn the language of our machines and listen to them, what can they tell us?  Will they tell us we are wasting our time changing the oil every 3,000 miles?  Will they tell us when we are operating our vehicle with the tire air pressure too low?  Eventually, will they warn us of a potential bearing failure based on vibration data consistently monitored before we take that long road trip?

Machines are already talking to us.  The Automobile manufacturers are already listening.

Do you think, if your machines talked to you, you would have a different perspective on maintenance? Would any of your machines tell you to continue with a one-sided preventive maintenance approach or could you save money and labor costs if you only did maintenance that was necessary?  Our machines are talking, we just need to listen.