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Maintenance Software: Choosing the right CMMS means looking at more than just cost


Although maintenance has historically been viewed by management — and the general public — as being dirty, unattractive, a "necessary evil," and a job for "grease monkeys," the mighty computer has created a new legitimacy for maintenance over the past 10 years. Today’s computerized maintenance management systems are at least as sophisticated as accounting and finance systems, and embrace all the latest hardware and software technologies, including Internet-based applications.

A decade ago, management would tell me, as a consultant, that maintenance people were incapable of data entry because their fingers were too big and greasy. Selecting a computerized maintenance management package was seen as the responsibility of the Information Systems department, in most cases with little or no consultation with maintenance. Maintenance people were not considered experts in this area. This perception became increasingly absurd as production equipment and facilities maintained by maintenance people incorporated more and more sophisticated electronics.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that CMMS receives a disproportionate amount of attention by management, far more than it really deserves. This is because many companies believe computers are the panacea to all the problems facing modern maintenance departments.

This misconception began just after the recession in 1982, when maintenance departments were still reeling from the effects of extensive cost-cutting programs. In most cases, budget cuts included staff reductions, especially maintenance planners and clerical support for maintenance management systems. Thus, even maintenance departments boasting good manual systems had to carry the burden of increased clerical responsibility shared among fewer people. This was the death of many maintenance management systems.

When the cloud lifted in the mid-1980s, companies saw the computer as a means of saving the annual salary expense associated with hiring back clerical support personnel lost in the recession. Firms rushed into computerization without proper planning for such a major change. Thus, systems were purchased which did not satisfy the specific needs of the users, and were too rigid to mold to the company’s specification.

Probably the greatest mistake made by management was skimping on the user training budget to keep implementation costs reasonable. Additionally, as was stated earlier, users and key stakeholders such as operations people were often not involved in the initial decision-making process. This created bitterness and resentment towards both the system and the people that shoved it down their throats. Finally, some companies made the critical mistake of selecting a vendor who could not provide adequate support.

These problems still persist today. Most companies that do make the investment in CMMS, however, reap some benefits. The greatest savings stem from improved maintenance department productivity and reduced downtime. This, in turn, comes from better planning and scheduling for preventive maintenance and regular work orders, as well as quicker response time. A comprehensive equipment history allows good management decisions respecting equipment replacement and labour utilization. There can be significant material savings as well through reduced maintenance inventory levels, better purchasing, and improved material planning and control.

Since microcomputer-based maintenance management systems were first introduced, hundreds of vendors have appeared offering a wide range of packaged software. Prices range from several hundred to several million dollars. As is true with other software applications, high price does not necessarily coincide with high functionality. Many high-cost packages have not kept pace with market trends because of the excessive research and development costs, especially those born out of a mainframe environment. As well, client server, Internet, relational database and other technologies leveled the playing field for applications traditionally developed for micros, minis and mainframes. Thus, many low-end systems are newer and built with leading-edge tools thereby allowing more features and functions than older, more expensive packages.

The difference then, primarily comes down to number of users, but also to the degree of specialization, integration requirements, database requirements, third-party tools, degree of customization, and so on. There are of course some differences in features, but this is not necessarily related to the price of the package. Higher-end packages do, however, tend to have a greater overall quantity of sophisticated features across all four key components as described below.

1. Preventive maintenance (PM)
Many top management groups have identified PM as an easy means of keeping the high cost of unplanned downtime to a minimum for critical parts and equipment. Every company should strive to find the optimum balance amongst reactive, preventive, and predictive maintenance. Reliability-centred maintenance (RCM) is another technique for reducing reliance on breakdown maintenance as the modus operandum. All CMMS packages are weak in providing advanced analysis tools for determining which combination of techniques is optimum for a given piece of equipment.

One area of strength and growing importance for most CMMS vendors is condition monitoring. This allows users to track key measures and ensure they are within an acceptable range. When a hard measure such as downtime or a even a soft measure such as the number of days a PM routine was missed hits a setpoint or trends outside control limits, an alarm is activated, notification is given, an action is initiated through workflow software, and/or a report is generated.

2. Work order control
Work order control provides the means to plan, schedule and control labour and material. Sophistication in this area lies primarily in how budgeting and scheduling are accomplished, and how easy it is to enter and analyze data for a given project or job.

For example, the ideal system provides a split screen for scheduling with a bar graph on the top half of the screen showing available hours versus planned hours. Jobs can be dragged and dropped dynamically to balance the workload. The bottom half provides a listing of the work orders depicted graphically in the top half. The planner can sort, filter or even change trade availability or work orders by due dates, crewing, etc. on the bottom half of the screen and watch the graph on the top half refresh as a result. The full work order and availability calendar by tradesperson should also be accessible via another window, by drilling down on the summary listing on the bottom half of the screen without leaving the scheduling module in "simulation mode". Once the planner balances the workload, the corrections and final schedule are saved.

3. Supply chain management
What used to be referred to as simply "inventory control," then "materials management," is now lifted to new heights under the banner "supply chain management" as companies continue to adopt inventory reduction programs such as lean manufacturing. It is incredible to see how far and fast CMMS vendors have taken this concept since the rise in popularity of the Internet. Some vendors have created separate divisions or spin-off companies that provide e-commerce, e-business, e-procurement and e-marketplace products and services for their customer base. Other advanced features include vendor performance analysis, service level management and simulation, sophisticated economic order quantity algorithms, and ABC/XYZ analysis.

4. Equipment history
Every CMMS package must provide a summary of labour, material, and downtime costs associated with maintaining a given piece of equipment. But the more comprehensive packages provide such analysis tools as asset reliability and performance, production impact assessment, maintenance statistics, activity-based costing/management, and reliability-centred maintenance analysis done up front to determine all possible failure modes and effects. Some packages have even developed a troubleshooting database linking problem, cause, and action codes using a lightweight form of "expert system".


David Berger is a regular contributor to PEM.