A Little Respect

The next time you see a Caterpillar construction vehicle take off your hat. We have a lot of extreme climate variations on our planet. I've had the privilege to visit two of them. I saw heavy equipment at work in both and I was impressed.

Imagine driving in snow and sub zero temperatures for most of the year, dust and cold rain the rest, and you have the conditions in the interior of Alaska. Now imagine a large reserve of a product that sells for around $25 a ton that you have to move a ton or more of dirt to get to and you have the only coal mine in Alaska, Usibelli Coal.

I was tasked to study the operations of the fleet and make cost saving suggestions (and also give them advice on choosing computerized maintenance management software). The complication here was that the average age of the master repair people was 54 and at least 20 percent are looking at retirement within two to three years. It was fitting because some of the hardest working vehicles and equipment were bought when the crew were young too.

It is so cold that some of the equipment is started in October and not shut down until May. The cold increases the viscosity of both the motor oil and hydraulic oil to the point that starting the unit is dangerous to the health of the equipment! Even with the auxiliary heaters it is better to keep it running. It helps that they mine 24/7 in the winter (of course there are only a few hours of sunlight in the winter, so working in the middle of the night is not much different than daytime). They have a Cat heavy fleet and the Cats just keep crawling.

They were having an unusually large number of field service calls. I was thinking that perhaps the equipment was not up to the severe service. When we looked at the problems most seemed to be traceable to lack of basic maintenance or accumulated deterioration that had never been addressed. It turns out that a few years ago they had a drop in sales and had a layoff. They never fully rehired the crews even though the sales had recovered (hiring is particularly tough in that neighborhood). There was too much work for the current crew. It wasn't the equipment at all!

About as far away as you can get from Alaska is the desert of the Arabian Peninsula. My next assignment was in Dubai, UAE, across the Gulf from Iran. Fortunately for me it cooled off while I was there: when I arrived it was about 45 C, which, after two or three minutes of heavy math, I realized was 113 F. It felt dangerous just to be outside mid-day let alone working. The brightness of the sun was painful.

I was there to give a series of classes in maintenance management to the maintenance department of Emarat, the largest gasoline and bottled gas distributor in the country. They are trying to perform maintenance at a world-class level under harsh desert conditions. To complicate their problem, four different languages are spoken among the members of the maintenance crew.

After the heat the second thing you realize is that the dust and sand is blowing everywhere. Some particles are smaller than talc. Filters and breathers are continually getting fouled. Keeping oil clean is a challenge. The whole maintenance operation is exacerbated by the high ambient temperatures.

Breakdown rates were excessive considering the amount of PM being done. I assumed the problem was sand and heat, and made some suggestions to look at the root cause of the failures. They did and it wasn't the sand but rather the tires that caused the road calls.

The country seemed to be under complete reconstruction. As a result there was construction debris everywhere. FOD (Foreign Object Damage) was killing the tires. So the heavy original equipment manufacturers had even worked the sand and sun problem.

Construction is booming. The skyline was dominated by tower cranes and the ground was covered by crawlers of every description. Here was where I realized that the heavy equipment manufacturers should be acknowledged.

I saw the same Caterpillar units I saw in Alaska in this opposite environment. It made me think about the difficulties of designing heavy equipment that will survive in both environments. That kind of reliability is quite an achievement. My hat is off to the OEMs who design and build the vehicles that we keep running.

It's good to be reminded every now and then that we maintain some pretty remarkable machinery.

Joel Levitt has trained over 6,000 maintenance leaders from over 3,000 organizations. Since 1980, he has been the president of Springfield Resources, a management consulting firm that services a variety of clients on a wide range of maintenance issues.