Targeting "Bad Actors" to Pass the Generation Uptime Test

by Dave Abecunas

Bad actors don’t just haunt Hollywood. All across the U.S., room for error in the power industry is shrinking as generation capacity margins compress and transmission system bottlenecks grow. While the industry works to squeeze more juice from existing generating assets, the implementation of an equipment failure analysis program that identifies, tracks and eliminates equipment “bad actors” presents a major opportunity that utility executives should carefully consider. Blocking and tackling maintenance and reliability programs that emphasize equipment failure analysis of current assets serve as a small “operating hedge” in a market challenged by political pressures against new base load coal and increasingly expensive gas-fired generation.

While many power companies have seen positive results from the implementation of maintenance optimization initiatives, they are nevertheless plagued by persistent and redundant equipment failures that are a drain on valuable plant resources. These bad actors that assail power plant equipment with the reoccurring, and often unnoticed, failures can be effectively reduced and managed with a program that utilizes Root Cause Failure Analysis (RCFA) to identify and prevent future reoccurrences. The Bad Actors Program relies on the analysis of data that allows the reliability engineer, assisted by a reliability team, to determine the causes of failure and a methodology to prevent future reoccurrences. (See Figure 1.)

The reliability team

Today’s power industry is faced with the challenges of reduced budgets and resources, increased environmental and regulatory controls, consolidation of power plant staffs in ownership changes, and aging equipment. As power generation plant operators seek to manage costs while maximizing reliability, these factors are compounded by the loss of experienced veteran maintenance workers due to increasingly high levels of retirement and staff reductions brought on as cost-cutting measures.

In the complex environment inherent in a power plant, individuals amass a wealth of knowledge and expertise in their specific area of focus. Expertise is obviously a desired asset in the workforce, and the impending personnel shortage could ultimately create a substantial loss of expertise that must be resolved. According to federal government data, 40 percent of all U.S. workers will be 55 years of age or older by 2010, and the problem is particularly severe in the power industry where estimates are as high as 50 percent. The shortages will become critical if steps are not taken to assuage the negative impacts of these losses.

Developing a reliability culture that leverages technology to secure the maintenance expertise of veteran operators and engineers while educating and involving personnel across the organization can be one portion of a larger strategy that addresses both reliability issues and the critical loss of workers that have spent years acquiring their seemingly innate knowledge.

A Bad Actors Program contends with this by establishing a reliability team composed of personnel from departments throughout the power plant. While the reliability engineer leads the team, representatives from other areas of the plant, including production, safety, maintenance, administration, environmental, engineering and purchasing, not only bring their distinct perspectives and knowledge to the process, but also gain insight and knowledge in areas that may not typically be within their realm. This cross-functional team assists the reliability engineer to identify and prioritize the bad actors, participates in the Root Cause Failure Analysis process and approves recommendations for changes resulting from the analysis.

Although the reliability team and engineer carry out the Bad Actors Program, by no means should the process be a clandestine affair. In fact, communicating information about the bad actors throughout the plant is essential and can provide an opportunity for others to contribute relevant information that may assist in resolving the problem. Total employee involvement is vital to establishing a work culture committed to reliability improvement that fosters higher levels of generation output closer to name plate capacity and at a lower operating cost.

Establishing and evaluating the bad actors

Implementing the Bad Actors Program requires an organized, focused approach that systematically assesses the power plant’s equipment and systems to ascertain which are guilty of being bad actors and then evaluating the offenders to determine the severity and redundancy of faults as well as their overall impact on performance. After uncovering the causes and effects using Root Cause Failure Analysis (RCFA), the reliability team is armed with the data to develop a strategy to control the faults and prevent the unwelcome return of the bad actors. The disciplined approach of the Bad Actors Program can be a valuable feature of a power plant’s proactive maintenance and reliability strategy, which is inherently preferable to reactive maintenance and can lead to a significant reduction in outages and failures.

Establishing a list of the bad actors begins with an examination of data from the enterprise asset management system to identify the 15 assets with the highest number of repair and emergency work orders. After reviewing the work orders for redundancies, the reliability team pinpoints the top 10 offenders based on production losses due to failures, safety issues or judgments derived from team member experience. Finally, the team prioritizes based on factors such as criticality level, number of emergency work orders and repair work orders and cost to repair. This determines the order in which the failure analysis process will be performed.

The failure analysis process

For power plants working to ensure peak performance while controlling expenditures, RCFA is an effective tool that requires little investment yet yields results that assist in the prevention of unplanned failures and ultimately lead to cost savings. In cases of minor failures, the RCFA can be performed by the reliability engineer alone, the most common process and also the least time-consuming, but in more complex cases a team analysis is preferred, particularly when multiple disciplines are involved. Training in RCFA is a required prerequisite for performing an analysis. Reliability engineers typically receive formal training from an outside source, while the other team members are trained upon his or her return to the site.

Basic RCFA requires the reliability engineer to put on a detective’s hat and start digging for information. The key to any RCFA is locating data. If the plant has a sound work order process in place with thorough completion data as well as issuing data, the history in the maintenance management software system will be invaluable. Unfortunately, this is not the case in many situations, where interviews, paper records and multiple guessing takes the place of factual data. Dependence on memory is unreliable—in some instances, the investigation may go back a year or more. The time spent on initial proper documentation can prove indispensible when faced with a subsequent failure. Data for an analysis is based on fact, not hearsay.

Team RCFA is more elaborate and requires the reliability engineer as chairman to maintain organization. Team analysis usually requires assignments to certain parts of the equipment, maintenance procedures or whatever area the member will add value to as a subject matter expert. Communication is crucial in a team RCFA, and meetings are scheduled frequently to compare notes, monitor progress and stay focused on the problem until solutions are found.

Whether conducted individually by a reliability engineer or with the reliability team, clear organization and thorough documentation are critical to the analysis process in order to render the findings meaningful to all involved. The analysis process includes an examination of all the factors regarding the particular failures and can be conducted with tools such as MS Excel, Visio and specialized RCFA software. This normally includes an inspection of the equipment, reviewing maintenance records, examining pictures if available and conducting interviews, although factual documentation is preferred. In addition, calls to manufacturers, sister plants or other sources of information should be utilized as appropriate, which can reveal a common problem and prevent substantial work or frustration.

Figure 1: The process to identify, prioritize and communicate about “bad actors.” Click here to enlarge image

Causes and effects on the system or equipment are identified first, followed by an examination of the possible failure modes, which provide the key to the solutions. After the root causes—there can be more than one—are found, solutions must be determined to prevent the failures from reoccurring. Solutions will vary from changes in maintenance procedures to operational procedure modifications. Whatever the solution, an implementation methodology is essential.

Solution implementation

The solutions resulting from an RCFA must be implemented in order to reduce the reoccurrence of the failures. Prior to taking the appropriate actions, the reliability team reviews and approves the solution, which may include maintenance procedure updates, operating instruction changes, failed parts reporting or design changes, among others. A work order (or in some cases multiple work orders) begins the process of implementation to provide a means of documenting the actions required and also a means for tracking progress. This step is crucial to the process as “word of mouth” often fails to yield action or results. Once the program is in place, it should be maintained with quarterly updates and a continual failure analysis program based on plant priorities.

Support a reliability culture

The ability to squeeze generating output from existing plants and run closer to nameplate capacity during periods of high system demand is a critical challenge for utilities looking for ways to improve performance against unit commitment schedules without investing in new equipment. These programs are particularly important as an operating hedge for competitive wholesale market operators of peak units whose profitability and contribution margins require performance on demand during key peak load periods. The key to more efficient and cost-effective power plants may very well be found in programs that can do more with less by using predictive and preventative maintenance that maximizes established maintenance and reliability technologies with improved processes and methodologies.

The Bad Actors Programs and the failure analysis process are examples of how utilities can develop and implement more effective processes that support a reliability culture with a disciplined approach. As the reliability team systematically confronts and diminishes the bad actors, maintenance costs will drop as generation uptime rises, providing significant results in short order.


Dave Abecunas is director, asset reliability services, at Signum Group LLC, a leading enterprise asset management systems integration and asset reliability services company located in Atlanta, Ga. He is a certified maintenance and reliability professional (CMRP) with more than 35 years of maintenance and reliability experience. He has been a speaker at numerous maintenance and reliability forums and has published in several technical publications.

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