Recently, I had the opportunity to sit and chat with Rick Cromer, a recently retired long time veteran of the Specialty Chemical Industry, and ask him several questions about important considerations when specifying or purchasing equipment, preventative maintenance, product reliability and more.

Woebkenberg:  Rick, first off, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to visit with me and respond to some questions.  It is always a pleasure to chat with an expert.  You were in the specialty chemical business for a long time.  Can you give me an overview of your career?

Cromer:  I was in the specialty chemical business for 36 years.  I started on the production floor for a short time and shortly thereafter, I did a stint in the Environmental Health & Safety department.  I transferred to maintenance following my time in EHS.  We were responsible for maintaining all manufacturing and process equipment including repairs, preventative maintenance and some new installations.  From there, I stayed on the mechanical side of the business, taking a position in the utilities department as lead engineer.  Responsibilities included maintaining all equipment and processes that supplied utilities to our manufacturing units and processes.  I was also responsible for spreadsheet analysis on utility reliability, cost, usage and efficiency.   I was also the lead in our plant energy conservation and cost cutting efforts.  Although I never quite severed ties with the utility department, I ended up working in our project-engineering group as project coordinator for new installations, changes to existing installs for compliance to best practice guidelines, upgrades to current processes and equipment.  My responsibilities as project coordinator included facilitating MOC (management of change), EHS review and accruing monies for approved work.  Most all of this work was out-sourced so I secured the contractor to perform work according to cost and qualifications.

Woebkenberg:  Rick, you had quite a career!  What considerations and other factors were most important when you chose, specified, or recommended equipment such as pumps, valves, etc.?

Cromer:  Early on, 30 plus years ago, the main consideration for new or replacement equipment was cost and availability.  As time went on, reliability and EHS issues became a more significant part of the selection process.  We developed an AVL (approved vendors list) based on quality and reliability but they also had to measure up to EHS standards including sound levels, safety guards, etc.  Any replacements that were not ‘replacement in kind’ had to go through the MOC process for review and approval.

Woebkenberg:  Did you have a preventative maintenance program when you started?  How did preventative maintenance evolve in your work environment?

Cromer:  To some degree, we always had a PM program.  Very rudimentary in the beginning, but it eventually evolved to cover the majority of the equipment in the plant.  At first, PM’s only covered the most important equipment. Units that, if out of service, would shut processes down for extended periods of time until repairs could be completed or replacements procured. Minor equipment would usually operate until they failed or EOL.  As time went on, the PM program developed more and, as I stated before, covered the majority of the equipment in the plant. This was brought about with dedicating people from each processing unit to define equipment that needed better PM attention in their areas and from being under different ownership.  We changed hands several times during my career.  Each time a new ownership group would come in, they would have their own unique business plan/best practice manner of operation; Dow chemical being the last that I worked for, and the most thorough in regard to; PM, reliability, compliance and best practice.

Woebkenberg:  Rick, just how important was product reliability and did it become more important over the course of your career?

Cromer:  Reliability was always important but we initially just went with the tried and true method as far as replacing equipment. We never really looked into other available options. For instance, we used the same type/manufacturer of ball valve for years; just for the fact that we had always used them and had an enormous amount of them in the plant. There were better options available and we did finally change.

Eventually, with new engineers, new ownership and process team leaders coming on board, new and better options were explored. Changes were always reviewed and choices made were based on best practice with reliability being a primary consideration.

Woebkenberg: Way back in the day, when I called on the Dow facilities in Midland, Michigan and Ludington, they were starting to explore Subject Matter Experts, or SME’s.  Can you tell me a little bit about why Dow went in this direction?

Cromer:  I’m not sure when Dow initiated this. It was already in place when they acquired us. SME’s are an important part of the Management of Change (MOC) process. Even prior to Dow, they were part of our MOC reviews. The big difference with Dow was that the SME’s for MOC came from a wide range of people from different facilities, processes and different parts of the world.  This way someone with previous knowledge or expertise regarding the proposed change would review it and help decide if it was the proper course of action.  Our previous MOC process only dealt with personnel within our facility.

Woebkenberg:  Over the past decade, we are hearing the term Reliability Engineer with increasing frequency.  I don’t recall Reliability Engineers being around 20 years ago.  When did they show up and why?

Cromer:  There was no such thing back in the day. Now they are an integral part of all aspects of manufacturing including preventative maintenance, compliance to best practice initiatives and of course reliability.

Originally the process engineers acted as reliability engineers for their individual units. This was never very effective due to the time necessary to evaluate the ability of a system or component to function. This made it necessary to dedicate someone to this task. In my experience, this did not come about until Dow acquired us.

Woebkenberg:  When speaking with end users, particularly those with maintenance responsibility, I hear they are more concerned than ever with the effective service life of products.  They want to install a product and never think about it again.  Minimizing or eliminating downtime is critical.   How did this play into the initial purchase price versus total cost of ownership equation?

Cromer:  When considering the purchase of equipment, life expectancy and required maintenance were big factors.  Purchasing less costly equipment that required a lot of attention causing downtime was not an option.  Processes going down due to equipment failure could cost tens of thousands of dollars.  In my experience, the initial purchase price was always a consideration but never at the expense of reliability and / or life expectancy.  In the long run, purchasing better, more reliable equipment at a higher cost is much more cost effective.  It is very important to consider the long term cost of ownership.

Woebkenberg:  Rick, how did things like maintenance, technology, and reliability change during your career?  How do you see things changing in the next 5-10 years?

Cromer:  Based on our discussion to this point, you can see we went from a very minimal focus on preventive maintenance using less than cutting edge technology and more or less hoping for reliability, to a much more focused effort on PM, to taking advantage of advances in technology and equipment improvements to ensure reliability.  The many review processes adopted over the years brought about many improvements; management of change (MOC), Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) reviews, and pre-construction reviews to name a few.

We also started outsourcing a lot of our mechanical work, which we had previously handled internally with our maintenance group. This brought about another reliability issue. We had to find contractors with qualified personnel to perform the work. We went through an audit process before contracting with the right ones.

In the future, I would expect continuing advances in process technology and further improvements to available options for equipment.

 Woebkenberg: How did priorities change?

Cromer:  Put simply, we went from running around putting out fires (unscheduled repairs, breakdowns, equipment failures) to a more predictive and preemptive type of maintenance. This took our reliability for all processes to a new level. With global competition continually growing, reliability is a must.

Woebkenberg:  Rick, it was a pleasure having the opportunity to visit with you.  Thanks again for chatting with me.