Elephant in the room 306x172

Article   |   Neil Arthur   |   24.03.2021

Maintenance backlogs: Tackling the elephant in the room

Read our interview below with Dr Neil Arthur, Head of Maintenance at Lloyd’s Register, who addresses the maintenance challenges faced by both the oil and gas and renewables sectors, and more importantly how to overcome those challenges and optimise maintenance.

Given that the cumulative cost of maintaining a facility over its lifetime can rival the capital costs required to design, construct and commission the facility, it makes the commercial context of maintenance noteworthy.

Why is maintenance such an issue?

Oil and gas operators are pressured to maintain uptime and production, often postponing maintenance viewed as non-essential, stalling shutdowns and turnarounds. This naturally leads to maintenance backlogs. This is compounded by offshore accommodation limitations, the perpetual reduction in people resource to undertake tasks and uncertainty relating to the rationale for existing maintenance programs.

It's like the proverbial elephant in the room; people know it's an issue; however some continue to work through the backlog without addressing the problem.

So what is 'the problem'?

The problem is that deferral and not maintaining the right equipment at the right time, is a very short term gain which increases unreliability, impacts negatively on production levels and poses a safety risk.

One of the causes of the problem is that many oil and gas assets operate with a maintenance strategy and plan which are a legacy of a past economic era. Many strategies have typically remained constant over the asset life, irrespective of changing production, commercial realities and life stage of the asset.

Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) recommendations can go unchallenged resulting in unnecessary maintenance burdens which place significant pressure on asset teams and operational budgets. OEM recommendations only need to be followed whilst items are under warranty to ensure cover, after which the frequency and level of maintenance required can be readjusted.

There's nothing worse than being taken to task and asked by your Head of Operations, your client if for example you're a drilling contractor or industry bodies, "can you justify your maintenance strategy?" or "Is the maintenance regime adopted the most effective".

Another problem is that in a buoyant market, the oil & gas industry is habitually very reactive to maintenance issues because they can afford to be. I was at a workshop recently when one of our oil and gas clients highlighted the age old issue of being reactive due to the pressures of sustaining uptime and maintaining production. This reactive approach results in throwing money at the problem after a failure event, a costly strategy, which can impact other equipment and workflows and lead to longer non-productive time to resolve. Yet this situation can be avoided if maintenance is prioritised based on criticality and what-if scenarios.

Having said that, allowing items to run to failure is also acceptable, if it's planned. However another cause of the problem is not understating the taxonomy of equipment. Not everything needs maintained; some equipment can be left to run to failure with minimal impact on other equipment and processes. Compare it to your domestic environment; you don't change the light bulbs in your house every year, you change them when they blow as it doesn't usually impact other bulbs in the circuit or other electrical appliances.

For the renewables sector, maintenance management is relatively immature given the young age of turbines and lack of data in relation to failure causes and consequences. However the significance of failure is just as impactful, with unscheduled stoppages leading to loss of electricity sales.

What is key to being able to understand and optimise maintenance?

Data! Operational and industry data is the foundation from which we can understand the history, usage and variables such as corrosion, vibration, failure and consequence. It allows us to predict, plan for and mitigate failure.

Even though data is not always available, for example, if the facility is in design stage is new or, as mentioned above in the case of the renewables sector, the industry is still in its infancy, other data sources can be analysed.

So what's the solution?

The solution requires the elimination of unnecessary maintenance activities and the extension of planned maintenance intervals where justifiable, this will ultimately help in tackling the backlog. This also means focusing on production and safety critical elements which may conversely require additional planned maintenance being introduced for these, with the benefit of increasing reliability and uptime.

Ensuring maintenance strategies fit commercial and safety objectives doesn't have to be an onerous task, it doesn't expose your operation to increased risk, it doesn't require huge CAPEX spend or more resource. It will however lessen the maintenance backlog, reduce costs and also help create transparency and increased understanding of the maintenance regimes adopted.

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