MRO Magazine

Cover Story: baking bits

Like many other Newfoundlanders, Jack Hickey has had to adjust to the demise of the local fishing industry. When the National Sea fish plant closed 11 years ago, Hickey had been on the maintenance tea...


November 1, 2002
By Judy and David Van Rhijn

Like many other Newfoundlanders, Jack Hickey has had to adjust to the demise of the local fishing industry. When the National Sea fish plant closed 11 years ago, Hickey had been on the maintenance team for 22 years.

When he became the maintenance manager at Weston Foods’ St. John’s bakery soon after, he found a completely different set of equipment, specific to the baking business. To keep that machinery moving, and the food staples — bread, buns and other baked goods — in timely production, he finds he must always keep in mind the special challenges of working on “The Rock.”

Apart from dodging moose on the way to work, isolation from suppliers — compounded by severe weather — are the main concern for maintenance staff working in St. John’s. Hickey currently has a maintenance team of three, comprising an electrician, an industrial mechanic like himself, and an apprentice industrial mechanic.

Hickey is only interested in employing those who have a millwright’s ticket or are well on the way to getting one. “You really need to understand machinery to repair these machines,” he stresses. “There are mixers, the oven, proofers (for yeast fermentation) and baggers. New employees may know regular conveyors, but you have to employ them for a couple of years before they know the fundamentals of these machines.”

The team operates from a small repair shop, following a Master Preventive Maintenance plan. “We use PM sheets, spaced at a month,” Hickey explains. “Every piece of equipment is on a sheet and assigned to week one, two, three, four, etc. Each piece of machinery has its own breakdown sheet.” The sheets are put on the maintenance crew’s clipboards each week. “They’ll take a description of a job and they tick it off. If they see any problems, they make comments.”

Added to this are directives from monthly occupational health and safety meetings. They can generate an action sheet of problems that must be rectified before the next meeting. As many repairs require the observation of lockouts, the team has to attack problems during slow time or downtime.

Usually, there is no time for major repairs during the week. “Saturday is our only downtime,” Hickey says. “We don’t go around looking for work on a Saturday. It’s all worked out through the week.”

Sometimes the team gets an unexpected slow day or a down day. Weston’s does not run a 24-hour operation in St. John’s, and as bakery orders are phoned in a day ahead, the running time of the production equipment varies each day. While there are big days at the end of the month and when there are special sales of the products made, some days the line may stop running as early as 2 p.m.. The order of production also gives a window of opportunity. “While the roll machines work, the bread line is idle. When the bread starts up, the rolls stop, but there’s only one proofer and one oven,” so the advantage ends there.

There are up to 20 operators to keep busy on the bread and roll lines, so Hickey has to be well-organized to cope with Newfoundland’s isolation. Parts cannot be obtained easily when the machines break down.

It’s slow getting repair parts

Hickey gives priority to having any part in stock that could cause the line to shut down. “Newfoundland does not have an industrial base,” he explains. “It can take a week or two weeks to get parts. You can’t drive them in. You have to fly them in, and anything explosive or with oils can’t fly. The only way to get them here is in a container boat to the harbour, or a transport.”

Even these methods of transportation can be dicey if the harbour has frozen over and the ships can’t get in, he notes. Severe weather can even delay delivery of the flour — every bakery’s nightmare. Just as Newfoundlanders are known as extraordinary hoarders of food, food plants have to have plenty in store as well. “There is no such thing as same-day service,” Hickey jokes.

He strikes the same problem when seeking technical assistance. “The engineering staff in (Weston’s facilities in) Ontario help us out with all our problems, but to get someone to come here, we have to pay for a plane fare and a hotel room. Sometimes we can’t bring people in for small problems. It’s too expensive.” This can pose a real concern if there is not a local tradesperson who has the special knowledge required.

The plant is only 11 years old, but much of the machinery in it is older, but proven. However, because the machines have been computerized, their repair is often outside mainstream know-how of the plant’s staff.

For this reason, Hickey concentrates on always having the equipment in good running condition. He keeps documentation on each piece of machinery, and even though he calls himself “computer illiterate,” he ensures that he has backup systems for all the computerized equipment.

Whether dealing with loaves or fishes, prevention must be a priority when help lies over the sea.MRO

Judy van Rhijn is freelance writer. David van Rhijn is a systems integrator and proprietor of SD Control Systems. Both are based in Kitchener, Ont.