Downtime, in the electronics industry, can cost corporations millions of dollars. In the past two years, deferred maintenance on equipment and facilities, fueled by Covid-19 and a global labor shortage, has led to an unprecedented number of disruptions.
Predictive maintenance systems, which can anticipate equipment failure so it can proactively be repaired, help keep operations humming. One U.S. manufacturer sees the technology as customer-service differentiator in mission-critical verticals.
“We have a decades-long history with our customers of design-through-manufacturing services,” said Scott Baum, vice president for strategy and growth, Elbit Systems of America.“We want to take the next step as a partner. How do we help with uptime? How do we make predicted and planned maintenance decisions? During the throes of Covid, businesses were dealing with this issue constantly.”
Elbit subsidiary KMC Systems designs and manufactures medical instrumentation used in cell and gene therapy, diagnostics, biopsies, pharmaceuticals and related applications. In the healthcare market, Baum explains, delays have serious consequences. “When you delay test results, for example, it has an impact on the patient. It increases anxiety. And where patients need certainty, we want to keep our systems operating.”
There’s also an impact on public health. When diagnostics are delayed, so is treatment. “That can compound a health problem throughout a community,” said Baum. Covid-19 is a classic example.
Predictive maintenance systems allow operators to predict the failure of an asset so it can be repaired or replaced in advance. This maximizes the life of a product and reduces maintenance costs and equipment downtime. The technology has extensive application in the manufacturing, energy and utilities, aerospace, defense, transportation and logistics, and healthcare industries worldwide, analysts say.
The challenges of maintenance
OEMs, users or third parties may take the lead in equipment or facilities maintenance. KMC is looking to help clients improve operational efficiencies and maximize uptime. “Today’s maintenance model is to replace parts at a certain time, so we spend a tremendous amount of effort optimizing systems and data to make sure everything’s operating,” Baum said.
But maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) is a financial risk for corporations. There are labor and service costs, plus replacement parts are acquired and stored for an indeterminate amount of time. This ties up capital that could be better used for R&D or similar purposes. Businesses also run the risk of holding inventory they never use. Many tech companies have outsourced their MRO to second- and third parties for this reason.
KMC’s programs are still a work-in-process, said Baum, but its customer base is well-suited to predictive maintenance. Products are designed for the supply chain. “Every relationship we have is multi-year, but we have to tailor our maintenance solutions. One size doesn’t fit all. We have to consider what data customers will share, and we must keep it secure whether it’s in the cloud or on premise. We have to be flexible.”
Elbit, which provides solutions for the defense, commercial aviation, homeland security and medical diagnostic instrumentation markets, has experience in cybersecurity, Baum noted.
Complexity and precision
Clients also have specific needs. “In conversations with hospitals,” Baum explained, “there is a clear trend of pushing diagnostics farther out, closer to local physicians or local labs. The number of systems and complexity increase, but you can’t compromise performance. When you push systems farther out, you see supply chains shutting down because of a lack of skilled labor. So, you automate.”
Predictive maintenance systems rely heavily on sensors. Data from those devices has to be customized and precise. “Much of it is electronic flow and vibration; ambient temperatures or liquid flow and analysis,” said Baum. “Disruption of flow or humidity are all indicators of how a system is operating.” Diagnostic tests themselves have to be done under controlled conditions.
In any industrial process you also have drift, he added. “What we are doing is looking at all the contributing factors and that are going on inside the system in developing solutions.”
There are costs associated with predictive maintenance that can also vary by customer. In wake of Covid, corporations recognize that keeping equipment operational has a huge impact on their bottom line. In 2017, Aberdeen Research found 82 percent of companies experienced unplanned downtime within a 3-year period which cost as much as $260,000 per hour. The automotive industry lost an estimated $200 billion in downtime in 2021 because of the semiconductor shortage. Inventory and replacement parts are now at the forefront of customer conversations, said Baum.
“The reality is, your ability to keep systems up impacts revenue,” he explained. KMC and Elbit are constantly monitoring new sensor technologies. Predictive maintenance systems provide a window into the need for spare parts based on a variety of factors. Additive manufacturing and 3D printing have the potential to build replacement parts on-demand.
KMC just celebrated the 1,000th system deployed globally during the Covid pandemic. “When you talk about supply chain and resiliency, we were able to scale the manufacturing of our products during an extremely challenging time. Helping our customers optimize their uptime makes sense. It’s one element of a long-term business partnership,” Baum concluded.