Imagine a medium-sized company, Ephemeron Manufacturing, with three plants dispersed throughout North America. In renewing its ISO certification, the company has become increasingly aware of the importance of not only maintaining its measurement system components, but also of keeping track of preventive maintenance and being able to demonstrate to auditors that the company is indeed tracking gage maintenance in a more systematic way than simply updating a sticker on each piece of equipment and filling out a 3x5 card to record the information.
The management team has met to review the new maintenance requirements, and the gage management group has reviewed all of its maintenance activities. Relieved, they find absolutely no problems in the system-a discovery that is consistent with the way in which they view everything about their organization. "Of course, there are no problems; we have an excellent operation, certified by ISO," they say.
Someone points out that although a gage went dead during the third shift, and no battery was available, there was no problem-the shift workers simply did not check any parts for the rest of the night.
Another team member brings up the fact that some gages are out of calibration because they have not been rebuilt on schedule. Since measurements have continued to be taken, that was not a problem, said another manager. "Our records are up-to-date, at least, even if they're a little off."
This pattern of potential problems-of course they were not real problems, since Ephemeron is an excellent company-nonetheless comes to the attention of one of the plant managers, Rose E. Outlook, who suggests that there must be software available to oversee maintenance records related to scheduling calibrations and repeatability and reproducibility (R&R) studies. "We've never thought of checking that possibility because we know that what we're doing is fine," she says, but suggests that the program might indeed address some of the "small challenges" the company faces.
"All we need is a calendar that shows which gages need maintenance, by day, week and month," says Wel Spryng, a second plant manager. "We could hire a new employee at minimum wage to keep these records. All it would take is a calendar and a pencil." He explained further that a single staff person would notify the person responsible that a gage requires maintenance, indicate its location and describe the required maintenance, verify that the work has been done, and set the next maintenance date. Of course, that person would do this for all the gages in the company.
Recognizing the scope of this job description and its implications for the company's large gage inventory, the sales manager points out tentatively that there may be software available that could track the maintenance records without incurring the additional expense of a dedicated employee and the probability of human error during the process. He volunteers to research the possibilities that such software might present to the company. The plant manager assigns a team to assist him in that search.
Investigating, the team discovers software with the very scheduling feature they need, as well as a procedure file that could be accessed on screen or printed. "We can list the steps to be done so that every worker knows what's required," said the sales manager. "And look-here's a calendar feature, and a way to customize the gage list to show which information is desired."
Transferring a gage maintenance process from "sticker information" to a database may represent the first step toward developing a preventive maintenance system. "But then what?" says Spryng. "We'd just have a big database that no one would look at."
Certainly, databases sometimes languish on shelves or servers, with records failing to be updated regularly in order to keep the database information vital. For these records to be useful, they must be up-to-date and available-an advantage that software provides.
Rose E. Outlook points out that the software can keep track of maintenance processes in a consistent way, in order to make all information related to maintenance immediately available, not only for internal improvement steps, but as a response to ISO 9001: 2000 standards relating to preventive maintenance processes.
Referring to the company's ISO manual, she points to the key requirements of the ISO 9001: 2000 standards as stated in 6.3, Infrastructure: "The organization shall determine, provide and maintain the infrastructure needed to achieve conformity to product requirements. Infrastructure includes, as applicable:
• buildings, workspace and associated utilities
• process equipment (both hardware and software)
Process equipment includes all gage calibration maintenance, since gages and other measurement devices represent an integral part of infrastructure and underpin an organization's quality efforts.
"Maybe we can just divide this up so someone is responsible for every gage's maintenance records," persists Spryng. "That way, nothing will slip through the cracks. I think human surveillance is always superior to anything a computer program can do." He overrides the objections of other team members, and the company reverts to its former paper-and-sticker system. Ephemeron apparently believes that this system offers the "infrastructure needed to achieve conformity to product requirements," and continues to do what it has always done.
Of course, companies like Ephemeron will undoubtedly never face the need to track maintenance records; after all, its gages never break, its maintenance process-putting stickers on gages that have been calibrated-is flawless and its above-average workers are committed to keeping maintenance under control. Like Mary Poppins, Ephemeron is practically perfect in every way. They will continue with their sticker system, regardless of the possibilities that may exist for supporting maintenance of their process equipment.
But for ordinary, earthbound companies, infrastructure maintenance can be a nightmare at worst; a headache at best. When things slip through the cracks, quality and productivity will slip. An electronic calendar and software that help track maintenance processes could help organizations keep all gage maintenance records in a single place. Records for everything from simple battery replacement to major gage refurbishing would be available at a touch.
Until something brings about an ideal world where gages could magically provide their own maintenance as needed, measurement systems could indeed benefit from a systematic, computerized process.
For Ephemeron, a guy with a pencil is the closest they'll come to achieving that kind of process. Q
By Barbara A. Cleary, Ph.D., is vice president of PQ Systems Inc. (Miamisburg, OH). For more information, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tech tipsp> • Available software oversees maintenance records for scheduling calibrations and repeatability and reproducibility (R&R) studies.
• Software helps eliminate the potential for human error.
• Gage software can provide up-to-date and useful information.
• An electronic calendar and software that helps track maintenance processes could help organizations keep all gage maintenance records in a single place.