Protecting Assets For Longer Life Is Even More Critical Today

September 2009 Vol. 236 No. 9

Robby Johnson, Director of Asset Management, Valerus, Houston


Whenever the energy industry might happen to be in its predictable “boom-to-bust” cycle, maintaining a company’s assets in today’s troubled economy should be a key priority for each person who has responsibility for designing, servicing and keeping equipment operating safely and reliably.

Assets should be designed and maintained for optimal service with the purpose of obtaining the maximum service life while providing a reasonable return on investment. Systems should operate at levels that do not encourage failure while in service. When equipment is operating at or above capacity 100% of the time, reliability will suffer if the equipment is not properly maintained.

Decisions on whether to rebuild or replace equipment need to be made long before a component fails while in service. Maintenance budgets should not suffer in a downturn, but should be kept in line with the business model to ensure equipment can continue to operate safely, efficiently and productively. In fact, properly managing assets is of utmost importance to the long-term viability of the organization.

Keys To Asset Management

Companies that want to successfully manage assets should consider implementing three operational practices:

1. Manage Expectations. Processes designed to protect assets should fully outline the goals and objectives, how progress will be measured and evaluated, and how the process is kept on track. Maintaining communications with customers, employees and other stakeholders throughout the process is critical, as are sharing the final results of the measures.

2. Encourage Open Communication. Encourage employees to have open and honest communication with their respective audiences to keep them fully informed of the progress being made toward an organization’s goals and objectives. Employees should not only be fully trained and accountable, but also empowered to make decisions.

3. Design And Execute On Processes. Designing and executing on processes provides a road map for achieving goals and objectives and clearly defines the leader. Without this clear direction, the chance for success, even in good times, is hard to achieve. Slowdowns from sharp turns and road blocks need to be minimized.

When all three best practices are implemented throughout an organization, the results can easily be measured by 1.) safe operation, 2.) engaged and productive workforce, 3.) better return on investment and 4.) excellent customer relations.

Customers have the right to demand a good product and even better service. Knowing your customers’ needs is only part of the equation. Maintaining a reputation for equipment longevity and backing it with knowledge, expertise and responsiveness is equally as important.

As budgets tighten during a downturn, there is a higher expectation that equipment will run safely, reliably and productively. Excessive downtime is not an option at any time – but especially not during a shrinking market. It is critical to both keep a customer informed and meet his or her expectations.

At Valerus, for example, when a problem vexes even the most veteran field personnel, the company dispatches a team of seasoned field technicians known as the “V-Team.“

This group, whose members vary depending on the task at hand, brings experience and knowledge to the field to assist with getting the equipment back on line as quickly as possible. Equally important, they bring the experience of understanding good customer relations and top-of-the line problem-solving skills. These analytical skills may not only solve an equipment problem, but may also assist in revealing a problem area for the customer. An added bonus is the V-Team’s role as mentors as they share their knowledge with the field.

The second-best practice that closely aligns with managing expectations is open and honest communications – among employees as well as customers and other stakeholders.

Communications among field offices is especially critical during a tight market, but the downturn also presents an opportunity for companies to evaluate best practices in field offices and how they might be implemented throughout the company. Organizations should use the time to examine and measure long- and short-term trends, while observing abnormal patterns in a specific region. An evaluation can help an organization rectify what is contributing to premature equipment wear in certain locations, leading to the creation of a process that can better protect an asset.

Field technicians serve as front-line ambassadors. Providing these employees with the right tools and empowering them to share their observations with management is good business in any market.

The third and final best practice is having solid, tested processes in place that address maintenance as well as employee recruitment, retention and placement. It comes down to having the right employee in the right place.

Planning procedures for maintenance and scheduled replacement projects produces more consistent production schedules, helps meet delivery dates and supports other functions such as cost control and financial planning. A good maintenance program provides a safe working environment for employees, protects the mechanical integrity of the equipment, enhances run time and maximizes the viable life of an asset. Equally as important is the safety of personnel and the environment.

It is not possible to confidently schedule production if the equipment is not maintained in top operating condition. Downtime can be expensive. Irregular production – not being able to deliver on time – will lead to lost customers and further worsen the downturn.

Another consequence of not having a solid maintenance program is the cost factor – both in the short and long term. As an example: When operating rotating machinery, if operating hours between preventative maintenances are excessive, there may be a component failure before the scheduled overhaul. Start-up costs can skyrocket to bring equipment back online after it has been idled for extended periods, has had it maintenance curtailed, or has been abandoned. Equipment that has been idled for long periods of time must either be properly preserved or mothballed. Preservation or mothballing are often not practiced when budgets are shrinking.

It is just good business to have scheduled and planned maintenance policies and procedures in place. Maintenance data analysis provides the verification of procedures or shortcomings. Tasks must be properly allocated between personnel time and material. If the same task is being performed on different equipment and the task times and materials are not consistent, the differences need to be analyzed and adjustments made. This may be a process and/or personnel training situation. Statistical data from oil samples may indicate that the equipment can run more hours between oil changes or show that operating hours can be extended.

Having this solid process in place also prepares new employees to be successful. With an aging workforce in the energy sector retiring or nearing retirement – and the cyclical nature of the energy business – there is a continuous influx of inexperienced personnel. You cannot teach experience, but you can teach the experiences of others. With proper training procedures in place and equipment training that includes passing on the experiences gained by others who performed the operation and maintenance functions, new employees will have an accelerated learning process and have increased confidence in their ability to perform their jobs.

It has never been more critically important that new employees be helped to develop a “want to” attitude and a good work ethic. It also is good if companies place them in the right position.

Expending resources on system maintenance is especially critical during economic times that may be less than favorable. A proper maintenance program will promote safety and reliability and it will extend the life of an asset while providing a better and longer return on investment. A company with policies and procedures in place provides a roadmap for success – not just for the company, but for each employee, too.

The Author
Robby Johnson is Director of Asset Management for Valerus, Houston. He has 25 years of experience in the industry and has served in various roles during his career including field service; materials management; operations management; quality, health, safety and environment; and technical training. His primary responsibilities include strategic growth of the fleet, application and configuration of current assets as well as policies, processes and standards regarding the operations, maintenance and reporting for the existing fleet of assets.