MRO Magazine

Chicken Run

Growing and processing poultry is big business in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley, so many companies in this sector have invested in modern technology and systems -- including those for preventive maintenance (PM). This is especially true at the AC...

September 1, 2004 | By Carroll McCormick

Growing and processing poultry is big business in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, so many companies in this sector have invested in modern technology and systems — including those for preventive maintenance (PM). This is especially true at the ACA Co-operative Ltd. processing plant in New Minas, N.S., where PM is as advanced as you will find anywhere.

“We are all about PM,” says Malcolm Keith, maintenance supervisor at the 5,573 sq m (60,000 sq-ft) facility. “In our industry we use every piece of equipment, Monday to Friday, every week of the year.

“There is very little downtime. We do not have the luxury of rebuilding something in the fall or the end of a season. Most pieces of equipment are hinged to the next piece, so if one piece of equipment breaks, the whole plant shuts down, with just a few exceptions.”

That dramatic impact of downtime is what drives the focus on preventive maintenance at ACA Co-operative.


“If you didn’t believe in PM, you soon would, as the whole plant stands around waiting for you to get things going,” says Keith. “Our PM program has to be top-notch so we can make the plant run every day. I’m not going to quote downtime in numbers, but it is essentially zero. It’s phenomenal.”

Compounding the challenge are the demands that the harsh operating environment, the need for obsessively good hygiene, and the product itself make on the production equipment.

The plant’s production area, which processes 28 million kilograms of poultry annually, is divided into three rooms: The receiving room, into which live poultry are delivered from farms in the Annapolis Valley, is a hot, steam-filled place where seven very busy men carry out the first steps in preparing the poultry.

Although the whole production process is antagonistic to the machinery, particularly during the daily clean-up shift, the receiving room is especially unfriendly for the equipment during the production shifts. The cooler air coming through the receiving doors combines with the incredible humidity created by hot water baths and the endless flushing of equipment by rivers of water, creating a tropical environment.Even worse, regular blasts of arctic air are thrown in during winter.

In this environment, the mechanical systems take a severe beating. Stainless steel is everywhere — a necessity for food processing — but critical in the battle against corrosion in the production and clean-up environments. There is also plenty of electrical and electronic equipment that, by any normal measure, is operating way out of any reasonable comfort zone.

In the processing room, the poultry is further processed and closely inspected. During production, the temperature is more moderate than in the receiving room, but still damp. Cleanup, however, turns the room into a steam bath.

In the third room, clutches of workers in white lab coats, hard hats, yellow gloves and yellow rubber aprons sort and prepare poultry for the cutting and packaging operations that ultimately yield shrink-wrapped, brand-labelled, priced, vacuum-packed and boxed food.

This room is normally so cool that workers can see their breath, but during the nightly cleanup it more resembles the inside of a dishwasher.

The poultry processing industry has a reputation as the nastiest there is for equipment, explains Keith. “Water is splashing on everything all the time. After a chicken passes through a piece of equipment, the machine is washed before the next chicken is processed. The room that is very cold for processing is very hot for cleaning, creating condensation inside the equipment.

“The cleanup uses harsh chemicals and lots of high-pressure water. This place just gleams every morning. A lot of our bearings are dry. Many pieces of equipment are not allowed to be lubricated.

“This equipment sees everything that you could possibly see out there. This has made us, over the years, be very creative; for example, the way we mount a motor or electrical switch so it will drain better or last longer. We have come up with all kinds of ways to improve things.”

Keith’s maintenance team includes two millwrights, one electrician, two welders, one machinist and one technician. However, he explains, “These designations mean absolutely nothing. They all do similar work. If I need something to be machined, I would ask whoever was available. If we were welding, sometimes the welder might be holding the piece and the electrician would be doing the welding.

Ongoing training

“We were very particular in who we hired. We picked out guys who could do all these things. A lot of guys brought their own [multi-disciplinary] skills, and we supplied ongoing training.”

A lot of training is done through modules purchased from Nova Scotia’s provincial virtual campus, accessed via the Internet. “You do the courses, and the work is corrected by an instructor. Occasionally the guys have to go to Kings Tech [a community college a few kilometres away in Kentville] to write tests in front of the instructor. It has worked really well for us. It is done on the employees’ own time and at their own pace.”

Keith purchased Datastream’s MP2 Computerized Maintenance Management Software in 1997, and has 347 pieces of equipment logged on it, along with work histories. “I generate the PM tasks at specific intervals, which are turned into work orders and assigned to the technicians, along with the parts. I also do projections to see where we might have time to do in-house manufacturing,” Keith explains.

“We have a massive computerized inventory system, with min-max levels. We have to be self-sufficient in parts. We purchase our equipment from worldwide sources, and some have long parts-delivery times. Parts replacement is automatic, depending on the levels we set,” says Keith.

“Everything in the plant that can break, we have. Everything we don’t have, we can repair.”

Keith is passionate about PM. “I have colleagues in different industries who say they are too busy to work on their PM programs — they are too busy fixing equipment. How do you make people understand that if you are not fixing equipment, you have time to work on your PM program … you are not out there wrenching and fixing and sweating.

“All of our guys believe in PM and support it. They are not running in [to the plant] and missing their supper. Instead of spending time fixing things, we can spend our time making things better.”

Keith’s strategy is to replace parts before they break. He set the original replacement cycles based on his experience. “I knew that this bearing would only last six months; that motor only four months; we’ve determined how long every piece will last. There are some things [on the schedule] that are one day, four months, two years, five years …. Over time, we’ve done a lot of these things countless times, so we understand the cycles pretty well.”

There are three maintenance guys on the day shift, two on the afternoon shift — from 2:00 p.m. until 10:30 p.m. — and one on the night shift. The production workers rarely see them tearing apart equipment, because they slip in during the breaks, replace bearings and other parts or swap out complete units with ones that the technicians have overhauled in the comfort of the repair shops.

For big jobs, Keith staggers the PM timelines, breaking them down into manageable chunks so equipment is never out of service. Keith’s team has three to four hours a day between production and sanitation for maintenance; the weekend is their only big open time for maintenance.

Keith has always had an eye on the replacement cycles, and his guys break open and study the wear patterns on swapped-out parts. More recently he has begun a closer analysis of the work histories to see if the replacement cycles need to be tweaked. “Now that PM is paying off, we are at the stage of determining if we can effectively extend timelines on the replacements, furthering the benefits of PM,” he says.

“Uptime is a successful part of the program, but we aren’t done there. Can we put in a bearing that costs one dollar more, but lengthens the replacement time from six
months to a year? We are constantly experimenting with new, possibly better parts. We are always studying the costs and benefits. It never stops.”

Keith has solid relationships with vendors, many of whom are local. “They do show us new products, we’ll test the new products, but we have to be careful what we do,” he explains. “If they are in a critical area, we’ll do some real research and watch a part very closely. I also try to get out and inform myself at trade shows … to keep abreast of things.”

Keith confesses to having no surprise maintenance challenges. “An event like that would be a nightmare for us. Plants with breakdown maintenance are in control of the people. With PM, we are in control of the equipment.”

Montreal-based Carroll McCormick is a senior contributing editor for Machinery & Equipment MRO.



Although an electrician by trade, holding interprovincial standards, Malcolm Keith is also a qualified Fourth Class stationary engineer, Class 1 pump installer and communications cabling specialist. He has taken supervisor, PLC and hydraulics training courses, among others. And, he is nuts about PM.

“I think for me it is natural. No one is making me do this. In my own personal life I don’t want things broken,” he explains. “I race off-road trucks and have a PM schedule for them, which resulted in seven consecutive overall points championships in the BF Goodrich Offroad Racing Series. You can’t win a race if you are lying broken on the track.

“I look at the business in the same way: You can’t be successful if the plant’s not running. I believe that it’s not worth doing if it’s not done right. The guys believe the same thing. We all have the same common vision.”


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