Software solutions for tracking maintenance requirements can ensure proper identification of priority equipment needs.
by Jory Lamb, VistaVu Solutions Inc.
March 27, 2013

An oilfield service company only gets paid when equipment produces. If the equipment fails on the job, it is a costly operational issue and could hurt the reputation that the company has worked long to build. Striking the right balance between profitable uptime and long-term reliability is the heart of today’s preventive maintenance challenge.

Jesse Waters, co-owner of Waters & Waters Services based in Goldsmith, Texas, acknowledges the importance of maintenance issues.

“We have a large investment in equipment, so you want to get the longest life possible out of it,” says Waters. His company offers oilfield services—from pumping unit installation to fabrication to field services. “You also want to maximize operational runtime. The more robust your preventive maintenance is, the more uptime you have. We want to take care of our assets and take care of our customers.”

White-Board Maintenance Tracking

Waters & Waters has long used one of the more common tools for maintenance information—a dry-erase whiteboard mounted on a wall of the office. It lists the company’s equipment assets, their location and importantly, when each piece of equipment is scheduled for any needed maintenance.

Naturally, conflicts can arise when equipment is urgently needed for operations but is simultaneously scheduled for maintenance. In this case, who wins? As Waters explains, by corporate policy, a scheduled date for equipment maintenance must be respected regardless of operational requirements. It is a commandment, not a suggestion.

“There is definitely a challenge to address, but it’s about the difference between proactive and reactive maintenance,” he says. “If you’re practicing reactive maintenance, there is never a good time for a breakdown, so maintenance needs to be scheduled out. But if you are thinking proactively, you need to define a day that every piece of equipment goes down for maintenance.”

For many years, the dry-erase whiteboard approach served Waters & Waters well. During the past two years, however, the company has experienced significant growth. Newer staff members have not had the same long-standing familiarity with this manual information system. An expanding equipment roster also has Waters considering how well or how long the old-school whiteboard can keep up.

“It is just the best practice that we have found, and it is up there so that everyone has visibility, and we can forecast resources like parts and mechanics,” says Waters. “I wouldn’t say that our system is mature. It’s still developing and growing, and it’s a work in progress.”

How Growth Changes Preventive Maintenance

Whether it is a whiteboard, a binder or a stack of file cards, manual information systems win points for simplicity, ease of use and low cost. Still, the day often comes when such a system stops making money and starts costing money.

When an organization begins to run multiple office locations and its equipment portfolio grows beyond the capacity of the company’s system, a different approach to maintenance scheduling and organization may be necessary. Many companies have too much at stake to continue using a manual system indefinitely. Economically, operationally, environmentally and in terms of worker safety, an electronic system will pay for itself in short order.

Rather than depending on a manual maintenance schedule being observed, an electronic information system can accommodate more robust maintenance scheduling. It can notify everyone who needs to know—operations, sales, maintenance and accounting—that a given piece of equipment is unavailable and for how long. An electronic system can automatically schedule the resources, such as hours of labor and value of parts, needed for the maintenance and track its cost with precision.

One oilfield company rents two different brands of air compressors. Using a software system for preventive maintenance allowed the company to compare the cost of operating and maintaining each brand through a period of years. When it was time to buy more compressors, the company had a highly credible set of data to support a decision on which brand to buy.

In one electronic maintenance system, a maintenance recommendation report allows end users to see the relative priority in terms of red, yellow and green indicators. If someone fails to do a scheduled oil change, for example, this is expressed visually in the system. If it is in the system, it is not only visible, it is auditable. Using a software system for preventive maintenance helps ensure that the highest priority items are taken care of first.

Important Questions

Some companies use manual information systems to schedule preventive maintenance. Others increasingly have chosen integrated computer information systems.

Still, what kind of system is best for operators and end users? Norm Poynter, a Calgary, Alberta-based maintenance reliability consultant, has been through this journey many times during engagements with North America’s oil and gas industry leaders.

Poynter believes that it is important for companies to take the discussion back to first principles and build the conversation from there. He recommends companies start by asking the four following questions.

Why Are We Doing This?

A company’s motivations and needs regarding preventive maintenance are a significant indicator of which system it should choose. In Poynter’s experience, two if not three objectives are typically in sight.

“One objective is safety. A second is reliability and availability and a third is analysis,” says Poynter. “We should be aiming at one, two and three so that we can continuously improve performance. You can look at preventive maintenance as a cost center versus a profit center or as a problem that you have to deal with. But if you look at it more holistically and you have your sight lines on Objectives 1, 2 and 3, everyone can have a stake in that.”

What Are Our Assets?

Companies in this sector—whether they are in oil and gas services, exploration and production, transmission, or refining—are typically asset intensive. Even so, companies can sometimes struggle to define precisely what is and is not an asset that should be included in an asset registry. Poynter’s go-to definition of what to include in an asset registry is something about which an end user wants to know the history, location, cost or state.

“If you ask whether you want to know the history, location, cost or state of something, and you answer yes to just one of these, then that asset needs to be part of your asset registry,” says Poynter. “Otherwise, you are forever arguing about what to track and what not to track.

“For example, in my experience, things such as fire extinguishers and ladders are constantly in or out based on someone’s opinion. This definition removes the subjectivity and puts objectivity into your asset inventory.”

How Do We Need to Manage Those Assets?

A simple list of assets can reside comfortably on a sheet of paper, a whiteboard or a basic spreadsheet. In Poynter’s experience, a higher need for functionality exists that ultimately calls for business software.

“You can create a library for those assets that is a virtual facility that matches the physical facility of those assets and represents the true state of it,” says Poynter. “You can create, as Gartner Group terms it, a 360-degree view around every asset. This includes when it must be maintained and what this will cost. I would then start to build up data that supports future decisions with information in this electronic format.”

How Ready Are Our People for the Change?

Today’s business software is increasingly powerful, capable and versatile. It can serve as an advanced tool to manage essential functions such as preventive maintenance. Even so, Poynter emphasizes that an operator’s needs must be reflected in any preventive maintenance information system.

“It’s important to keep in mind that the system comes empty, and you have to populate it,” he says. “You are asking somebody to use a computer system to capture data and essentially to be an analyst of that data. The activity had better not turn into a burden or it won’t be done. There is an entire human factor that has to occur long before implementation.”