MRO Magazine

Maintenance Profile: Riding Herd

Three decades ago the Natrel dairy products plant was surrounded by fields. Now it is in the centre of the city of St-Bruno, about 25 kilometres east of Montreal. Inside, one part of the production ar...

December 1, 2000 | By Carroll McCormick

Three decades ago the Natrel dairy products plant was surrounded by fields. Now it is in the centre of the city of St-Bruno, about 25 kilometres east of Montreal. Inside, one part of the production area is occupied by dull-looking machines filling and delivering two-litre containers of milk to conveyors that take them to packing machines.

Another area is a humid, floor-to-ceiling jungle of thousands of feet of gleaming stainless steel piping and highly-polished homogenizers, purifiers and other vessels. Cold piping glistens with condensation. Other piping, carrying milk just 21C below the boiling point, is dry and hot to the touch. Everything is absolutely spotless.

Every morning before production begins at 7:00 o’clock sharp, a maintenance worker does a two-hour preventive maintenance (PM) inspection round, checking off items on a long list as he goes. Jerry Verhoef, the plant manager, explains how Gilbert St-Pierre, the maintenance team leader, has taught the inspectors to do this job: “If they find something wrong–unless it takes just five minutes to fix or is really important–they leave it so it can be scheduled into normal maintenance or slotted into a free time.”

Inspection is separated from repair, eliminating the possibility of ever taking a shortcut. “If (a person on PM inspection) had to do repairs too, he might not write it down,” says Verhoef.


The maintenance team follows a detailed PM schedule, which is broken down into a list of daily, weekly, monthly and yearly inspections. Every part in each piece of equipment is listed and must be checked. According to Verhoef, one of the reasons the plant’s pencil and paper maintenance system works so well is that St-Pierre is very strict about following it. The maintenance team also follows a detailed schedule for routine maintenance.

Another secret of St-Pierre’s system is a fastidious approach to cleanliness. “Teachers and professionals always say that mechanical parts have to be kept clean so you quickly see if there is something wrong,” explains St-Pierre. He has worked in the St-Bruno plant for 28 years and talks with the animation of someone still in his first, exciting week on the job. Verhoef finishes St-Pierre’s thought: “If you have to take 10 minutes to clear away grease to see a bearing, you’re not going to do it.”

“The biggest challenge is to control our production stoppages,” says St-Pierre. We do that with a very rigorous PM program. Eighty per cent of my time is spent with my guys doing PM. It is very, very important. Parts delivery can take a long time because the machinery is made in Germany.”

“We can never stop the equipment for a week,” says Verhoef. “Only once in the last three years has the St-Bruno plant failed to start production at 7:00 a.m. exactly. Year after year we are either on or under budget (just under $500,000 per year). I haven’t seen many times when we had a problem for the next fiscal year that (St-Pierre) hasn’t already anticipated.”

Natrel, which has its head office in Longueuil, was created in 1990 from the merger of the Agropur Cooperative’s milk business and the Purdel Cooperative’s milk business. In 1997 Agropur, which has its head office in Granby, Que., bought out Purdell’s remaining share of Natrel and Natrel became fully-owned by Agropur. In April 2000, Natrel and Agropur became one company.

Natrel in St-Bruno makes fluid milk, flavoured milk, cream, butter, ice cream mix and lemonade. Says Verhoef, “We are the plant that receives all the excess cream from all of the other Natrel and Agropur plants.”

Production is a 16-hour-a-day, five-day-a-week operation, except for a five-month period when butter is a 24-hour-a-day operation. Four hours a day is devoted to wash up. The annual plant production includes 40 million litres of milk, five to six million litres of cream, ice cream mix and lemonade, and four million kilograms of butter.

The production cycle varies according to the day of the week; for example, Natrel does 15% of its milk production on Tuesday, 23% on Thursday and 25% on Friday. On the lower-production days, production coordinators can take equipment off-line for maintenance. Special maintenance projects are done on weekends. “On average, I have just one of my maintenance guys coming in on Saturday,” says Verhoef.

There are four maintenance employees: St-Pierre, who is an electro-mechanic, plus three mechanics. Verhoef has hired a young electro-mechanic fresh out of school to work on production but, he explains, “When he has some free time I put him on maintenance or a special job. I am preparing my next generation of maintenance employees.”

The maintenance shop is very basic and the parts inventory, worth about $175,000, is just large enough for the plant’s day-to-day needs. The St-Laurent, Quebec City and Toronto plants have a big parts inventory they share with St-Bruno.

“We contract out very little, only for the sanitary welding,” says Verhoef. “For the rest it is pretty much done here. When we have to work on HTSTs (high-temperature, short-time) pasteurizers, separators, homogenizers and milk or juice fillers, we will be assisted sometimes by special technicians sent up from the equipment suppliers.

“In some cases the Natrel head office negotiates contracts with suppliers for inspections or special maintenance for all its plants.” But most of the time the St-Bruno maintenance crew works autonomously, without outside assistance. There is also in-house expertise in using vibration analysis equipment, which the St-Bruno plant rents when needed.

In March 1998, Natrel became the first dairy in Canada to be certified for the hazard analysis critical control point (HACCP) program, generated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. “This program analyses all of the critical control points that are a possible health risk to consumers. It includes a very strict maintenance program for the sanitary part of the plant and we have matched our maintenance program with the HACCP program,” says Verhoef. This has contributed to the success of the maintenance program in the St-Bruno plant.

The best maintenance programs cannot catch everything, and last June the unforeseen happened when the drive for the butter machine failed. The St-Bruno plant is the only Natrel plant in Canada that makes one-pound butter packages and it cannot afford to have this machine go off-line.

St-Pierre immediately got on the phone, only to discover that the only stock replacement drive would take a week to arrive from out of the country. But within four hours St-Pierre had found a local supplier with a different drive and figured out how to modify it so it could be installed on the butter machine. Three hours later the butter machine was back in service.

“I usually refer to myself as Saint Peter when I call suppliers for parts,” jokes St-Pierre. Verhoef doesn’t miss a beat and quipps, “And he does miracles too.”

Senior contributing editor Carroll McCormick is based in Montreal.


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