MRO Magazine

Maintenance Is Smokin’

Maintenance at Imperial Tobacco Canada's Montreal plant covers a massive complex, thousands of pieces of equipment, and round-the-clock production, so it relies on a highly trained team working with l...


April 1, 2003
By Carroll McCormick

Maintenance at Imperial Tobacco Canada’s Montreal plant covers a massive complex, thousands of pieces of equipment, and round-the-clock production, so it relies on a highly trained team working with lots of technology, including SAP software modules, networked computers, Internet-based inventory management and outsourced expertise. No matter where you look, this busy operation is smokin’ with activity.

Behind the walls of the five buildings that make up the ITC cigarette manufacturing plant (one of several in the country), a vast and bewildering network of equipment occupying 300,000 sq ft of floor space is used to make 116 million cigarettes a week. That’s not all. The facility also produces tinned and pouch tobacco and supports R&D operations, all in a 24/7 operation that keeps 527 employees and a modest-size maintenance team hopping.

When Machinery & Equipment MRO visited the facility recently, it put us among a very small handful of journalists to have ever toured this labyrinthine plant, which was established in 1906.

Our tour began in the R&D room where the air is sweet with the smell of fresh-cured tobacco. Here, researchers test-mix tobacco using equipment that is a small scale version of that found in ITC’s Alymer, Ont., facility. The complex of equipment found here — mixers, moisteners, dryers, fluffers, temperature sensors, conveyors, motors and much more — is a child’s playroom compared to the production equipment, which is spread over 25 floors, between which mazes of stainless steel tubing and hose bring together filter rods, tubes and tobacco in an arcane process that yields such a simple-looking product.

Considering the amount of equipment to look after, the maintenance team seems small: There are 22 technicians, five technical instructors, 18 electrical technicians, four technical supervisors, four machinists and a sheet metal worker in the repair shops.

Machine operators do not do any maintenance. Groups of production equipment make up modules. A technician is always ready to support each operator at the modules. The technicians have access to dozens of banks of red tool boxes located everywhere on the production floors. The technicians also work with the maintenance staff when maintenance is required.

The Montreal facility’s maintenance budget for 2003 is $3.1 million, although Richard Blain, engineering director, and Robert Sauv, maintenance coordinator, have done much to keep costs down. Two changes in the maintenance tradition at ITC that have helped control maintenance costs are a switch from calendar-based maintenance to running-time maintenance, and more outsourcing.

“Every week we measure the running time and based on that we schedule maintenance,” Sauv says. “For example, it could be every 900 hours for quarterly maintenance; or every 300 hours to perform lubrication maintenance.

“In the past we had calendar-based maintenance, but we moved to running hours and this has saved many unnecessary shutdowns. Going by running hours is better because although it is a 24/7 facility, the production lines do not all run at the same time, nor do they run continuously.”

As the scheduling of maintenance around production has become more complicated, the importance of reducing unnecessary maintenance and downtime has increased. “This is why we record the number of hours per week that a machine has run and schedule maintenance according to the number of running hours,” Sauv explains.

For maintenance purposes, each group of equipment that makes up each cigarette making module is currently divided into four portions. “We want to divide it into 12 portions. This will mean shorter stoppages and faster restarts,” says Blain. “One of the special challenges is to have the machines available for production and planning. We try to focus on 24-hour shutdowns.

One of the biggest challenges for maintenance, says Blain, is to ensure that when the machines are stopped, all the right parts are on hand, along with the necessary documentation, so the equipment can be restarted at the right time.

In addition to running-time maintenance, ITC uses carefully-controlled breakdown maintenance. “Instead of changing a part automatically, we may wait till a part breaks, but not parts that will stop the machinery from running,” Sauv explains.

“We try to optimize our parts replacement program,” says Blain. “In 2004 we are going to implement a Reliability Centred Maintenance (RCM) approach.” Part of it the system will be adopted from ITC’s Guelph, Ont., plant and part will have to be newly developed for the equipment that is unique to the Montreal facility.

Computer screens installed at many modules give operators information about the status of their equipment, and the computer system also collects statistics for the maintenance team. During inspections, maintenance workers check parts and enter go or no-go decisions into portable displays. This information is later extracted, reports will be printed and work orders will be issued.

Years ago the facility’s maintenance shops, of which there are many, used to make their own replacement parts. Today the shops, outfitted with lathes, grinding machines, welding equipment, drill presses and sheet metal equipment, are used mostly for emergency repairs.

“We still do some parts fabrication, but very little, says Sauv. “We outsource the replacement parts. Our guys are dedicated to emergencies, unless they are not busy. If it is not a rush, we will go to an outside company.”

Blain adds, “Sometimes we will buy parts from suppliers and they need to be modified. But mostly the approach is for the supplier to do the modification for us.”

ITC outsources specialized work, such as vibration analysis, thermal imaging and annual maintenance on the three robots that stack boxes onto pallets in the shipping area.

“We just began an oil analysis program last year and this year we are expanding the oil analysis to all our equipment,” says Sauv. “We use more and more predictive technology, such as lubrication analysis and thermal imaging.”

Oil analysis is performed on an annual schedule. Sauv adds, “We outsource it because the testing equipment becomes obsolete very quickly. We are specialized to do cigarettes, not vibration analysis or thermal imaging.”

ITC keeps about 20,000 spare parts in inventory, worth about $14 million. “There are not a lot of parts, but they are expensive because they come from Germany, England and France,” says Sauv. “We manage all of our inventory through SAP [ERP software] so we have min/max rules and we keep safety [reserve] stock. We have a logical system to ensure the availability of parts. We use many modules. This is a complete, integrated software system.”

“One of our strategies,” explains Blain, “is to develop a Vendor Management Information System, a partnership between us and our suppliers. Our suppliers can see our inventory. They keep a certain portion of our inventory at their place to reduce the size of our inventory.”

Sauv adds: “We use web networking so the supplier can see whenever we take a part out of inventory. We have started this approach with one of our vendors and this year we want to start it with our second-biggest vendor.”

ITC offers its maintenance staff many training programs. “We have two instructors for the packing machine, two for the cigarette-making machine and one for the rest. We have one electrical trainer,” says Sauv. “It is a big challenge to keep our technicians trained so they will know every part of many kinds of equipment.”

“Usually,” says Blain, “we have two guys full-time in training, to support internal movement and new technologies. Every year we get new technologies like robots and bar coding. Industrial PC technology will be coming this year. All of the electrical and mechanical crew will go through training this year for it.”

“We also get upgrading or optimization kits from the manufacturers. Trainers from the manufacturer will train our trainers, who then train our technicians,” Sauv adds.

The maintenance team faces many challenges, including the simple cost of mainten
ance, the incredible complexity of the equipment and working on the machinery made overseas. One area the team expects to make improvements with is the provision and updating of maintenance information from manufacturers.

“We are putting a lot of effort on technology transfer from the suppliers to the trainers to the technicians,” says Blain. “We want to give the right information, better information and quicker access at the floor with electronic catalogues: drawings, procedures and basic settings. The e-documents will have drill down capability.”

Instead of paper modifications of multiple paper catalogues, the modifications will be done electronically and simultaneously in the computer system, saving a lot of time.

Senior contributing editor Carroll McCormick resides in Montreal.

“I made an impact on one segment of our economy today — the unemployment statistics.”