Redefining Industrial Maintenance in the Tech-Driven Era: From Mandatory Cost to Value Generator
New intelligent technologies offer numerous opportunities to improve the efficiency of business operations in various sectors – including the maintenance industry, However, the ongoing technological revolution also raises concerns such as – will there be enough jobs in the sector in the future? Is it possible to guarantee the operational reliability and safety of fully automated production plants of the future?
Juha Ryödi, Vice President of Life Cycle Services at Vaisala Oyj, sees that technological change will inevitably affect not only the work of maintenance professionals, but also the image of the maintenance industry. This is a good thing, especially now that the industry fears a growing labour shortage in the future due to retirement trends and cuts in training spending in technical fields.
Ryödi says that new modern technologies and maintenance tools are making the job of a maintenance technician more specialised than routine tasks. New technologies are also making the industrial maintenance sector an attractive career option for young people entering the engineering field. The potential of machine vision, for instance, is being widely explored and tested in the manufacturing industry today. Many believe that it has almost limitless potential for use in condition monitoring and, for example, in improving the efficiency of logistical operations.
Despite recent progress, technological advancement has not yet reached its full potential.
According to Ryödi, new technologies are also bringing a new level of transparency to maintenance operations. Consequently, the results of maintenance activities are more readily visible to other organisations.
– I think maintenance is becoming a fascinating field because it was a somewhat "dark
area" for many years. Thanks to today's technologies, we can now view maintenance as a productive unit that adds value to the company, rather than just being seen as an obligatory expense, Ryödi says.
Technological progress has not yet reached its full potential
Despite recent progress, technological advancement has not yet reached its full potential, Ryödi states. Much of this is because companies have not yet been able to fully monetise their maintenance services to customers because the benefits of maintenance are more long-term than quick wins.
At the same time, the maintenance sector – like many other sectors – still struggles with the challenge of recruiting sufficient qualified personnel, especially tech-savvy younger generations equipped with the skills needed to adopt new technologies effectively.
– However, as the baby boomer generation retires, skills and knowledge must be transferred and replicated within organisations. This will require adopting different systems and, for example, new digital tools. It will also create future competitive advantage and scalability, which will act as drivers for the evolution of the service business, says Ryödi.
The time for cost efficiency is here, Ryödi continues. On the other hand, industry is undergoing a major energy transition that is creating new investment needs. This situation is creating even more demand for the efficiency of maintenance operations and, ultimately, the adoption of new technologies.
– Traditionally, industrial maintenance has been viewed as a necessary but costly function. It typically involved routine inspections, repairs, and downtime management. However, the advent of cutting-edge technologies is reshaping this narrative, turning maintenance from a liability into a strategic asset.
Modern facilities are hybrid
Factories of the future are forward-looking manufacturing facilities that take full advantage of Industry 4.0 opportunities. Factories of the future focus on digitising their processes, making the most of new production technologies, and managing energy and materials increasingly circularly. What do such factories look like today?
Ryödi stresses that although the word "hybrid" is currently a very overused term, it could be used as a metaphor when describing factories of the future.
– Increasingly, factories are looking for solutions where technology enables as much as possible but still under human control in some aspect – either in terms of physical assembly or through a process control system. The Covid pandemic has greatly boosted the potential for, for example, remote monitoring. Meanwhile, various types of measuring and data collection are a growing trend that allows scaling knowledge in factory control, for example.
What is the role of machine learning in factories of the future?
Machine vision is a very quality-focused technology in industry, and many applications are still related to quality, quality monitoring and reporting, Ryödi says.
Machine vision still has much potential, especially when combined with AI-based decision-making, as different cameras and sensors are becoming more accurate and faster. One exciting area to follow is chip manufacturing and how machine vision will be able to serve – and potentially control – these very high-frequency processes even more efficiently in the future.
Are manufacturing facilities moving towards full automation?
Ryödi notes that there are still relatively few factories that can be called fully automated due to the level of intelligence of the technology and its replicability in relation to repeatable processes. Meanwhile, manufacturing chains are currently struggling a bit to find their place on a global scale. This affects the level of automation in industry because increasing the level of automation means making significant investments, and large investments almost always mean showing a return on investment.
However, at the same time, evolving technology is enabling more and more, and as component shortages ease, the prices of industrial robots, for example, will continue to decline and accelerate their uptake. Highly repeatable and heavy processes have already achieved a high degree of automation. However, how, and when they reach a fully automated level remains to be seen.
How will the role of the maintenance manager change in a fully automated factory?
Modern technologies are making the industrial maintenance sector an attractive career option for young people.
The role of a maintenance manager is crucial in ensuring the smooth and efficient operation of machinery, equipment, and facilities within an organisation. Their primary responsibilities have traditionally included a wide range of tasks to preserve assets, minimise downtime, and promote safety and reliability.
Ryödi anticipates a definite shift in the role of maintenance managers within organisations as automation levels continue to rise.
– I think there is a clear trend here to be more proactive in understanding and planning. Many industries, such as pharmaceutical manufacturing, will soon move to so-called continuous processes instead of batch production, and this will also change the role of maintenance to be more proactive and planned.
– In the future, the maintainer will have to be able to interpret more data and better plan their work, and, on the other hand, to carry out and document it very accurately. However, many things remain constant, such as understanding mechanics or electrical engineering. This is still highly valued.
– A skilled workforce enables us to overcome the small margins that distinguish us from other countries in comparison, Ryödi says.
All eyes on information security
Juha Ryödi adds that although technological change will benefit the sector, it is not without risk. One of the biggest fears associated with increasing automation is currently security.
– In my opinion, information security is the most significant single risk now. Whenever we talk about automation and its connectivity and integration with different systems, we must consider information security and its requirements.
The so-called Hyppönen's law is also good to remember in maintenance (If It's Smart, It's Vulnerable - Mikko Hyppönen), Ryödi says. Mikko Hypponen is a global security expert, speaker, and author. He is the Chief Research Officer at WithSecure and Principal Research Advisor at F-Secure.
Maintenance tools, such as maintenance systems, have become much more cloud and web-based, and on the other hand, many practical tools or customer processes are connected to the web.
– A major transformation is taking place, but so far there have been relatively few security incidents. This is partly because the interconnection of different systems and tools is just reaching its acceleration point, and partially because industrial companies are taking information security risks very seriously. In maintenance, it is also worth remembering that the responsibility of maintenance workers is often greater than that of many others. Maintenance personnel may have greater access to many systems, which puts them in a more critical position.
Text Nina Garlo-Melkas Images Vaisala Ltd., SHUTTERSTOCK
It is self-evident that cranes and heavy equipment are indispensable in various industries such as construction, mining, rigging, and notably in hydrocarbon sectors. Consequently, property owners and contractors are required to adhere to high standards of maintenance, in accordance with OSHA guidelines, to ensure a safe working environment for all employees.