Very early in my career in maintenance I worked as a Pipefitter in a chemical plant where part of my duties included cleaning plugged process piping and condensers. The process of cleaning this equipment known as liqua-blasting uses high pressure water fed through either a hose or wand equipped with cutting nozzles that would break up the material and push it back out the end of the pipe. The work was physically exhausting and was a regular part of our emergency/demand maintenance workload. Now imagine performing this task outside in the dead of an upstate New York winter with the water spraying, soaking your entirr body from head to feet and at the same time freezing on the surrounding equipment, grating and stairs.
Needless to say this was not a task anyone in our maintenance group looked forward to so we spent countless hours experimenting with several different types of liqua-blasting tips, wands and equipment that operated at higher flows and pressures. We all wished for a faster and more efficient way of cleaning our plugged pipes and condensers but in the end while we might have saved an hour here or there you still ended up wet, tired and miserable.
Fast forward a few years, our Maintenance Supervisor retires and we welcome a relatively young Chemical Engineer as our new boss. Andy was a high energy, hands on engineer who took pride in learning both the operating process and maintenance business and not long after he took the helm he also took his turn at operating the working end of the liqua-blaster. After an hour or two he commented on how exhausting and utterly ridiculous operating this equipment was. At the time I took some pleasure in letting him know that it used to be worse, the equipment we have now was quicker and more effective than what we had before.
Andy’s reply was short but needless to say caught me off guard; “It might be faster, but we’re still scraping toast.”
Scraping toast? What the heck does that have to do with liqua-blasting?
“Let me ask you a question, if you put two slices of bread in your toaster and they came out burnt, would you buy a machine to scrape the toast or figure out what was wrong with the toaster and fix it?”
I of course said I would fix the toaster. What kind of idiot would buy a toast scraper?
“Well, the way I see it the liqua-blaster is our toast scraper, sure it has other uses but cleaning plugged piping and condensers is scraping toast. We need to spend some time trying to figure out why these systems are plugging because we have been burning the toast for so long we are now spending time trying to make our toast scraper faster and more efficient.”
In the five years prior to this conversation as a maintenance group we spent well over three thousand man hours a year cleaning plugged pipes and condensers. In the six months following that same conversation we spent two hundred hours cleaning the same equipment and in the next five years as a business we set new production records on a regular basis and ran the liqua blaster less than twenty hours a year!
The problem of plugging pipes and condensers came down to some simple process control issues that were uncovered by a good Chemical Engineer and our instrument technicians and these issues were eliminated with a few PLC programing changes.
Turns out the knob on the toaster needed a simple adjustment!
From that day on we all looked for more “Toast Scrapers” and took pride in the discovery and elimination of each.
Fast forward twenty years I find myself working with customers around the world performing Reliability Centered Maintenance analyses and passing on the lesson I learned from a Chemical Engineer with eye for toast scrapers. Turns out the toast scraper is a popular item because I find a couple in nearly every RCM and offer the same advice; find out what’s wrong with the toaster and fix it!
The best part about a blog is the communication and learning that comes when people share, with this post I am hoping those read it, relate to it, and will share a story of finding and eliminating a toast scraper. I look forward to your examples and plan on adding a few best of my RCM teams have found through the years.
Last but not least I would like to thank my old boss Andy, his views on continuous improvement inspired our maintenance group and made a lasting impression on all of us!
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