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Building Rapport with the Maintenance Engineers and Technicians

The following discussion is part of an occasional series showcasing the ISA Mentor Program, authored by Greg McMillan, industry consultant, author of numerous process control books, 2010 ISA Life Achievement Award recipient, and retired Senior Fellow from Solutia, Inc. (now Eastman Chemical). Greg will be posting questions and responses from the ISA Mentor Program, with contributions from program participants.


The following question is posed by Nathaniel Stoll, an associate engineer at a refinery who provides technical support of instrumentation, control valves, asset management software (AMS), low voltage electrical and other supporting equipment to area instrument and AMS specialists, instrumentation and electrical technicians, and operations.

Nathaniel Stoll’s Question

I recently attended ISA’s Automation Engineering Survival Training (AEST), and one of the lines that caught my attention during the training was the following: “You cannot be truly successful in your role as an Instrumentation Engineer unless you have a good relationship with maintenance.”

With that being said, I am wondering, in your career, what things have you found to be most effective in building rapport with the maintenance technicians whom you’ve worked with? Are there things you added into your projects to make routine maintenance and/or troubleshooting easier (ie, quick connects, lights in cabinets, displays, indicating fuses, etc.)? Things you did with documentation/training to aid maintenance in their jobs (ie, job aids, cheat sheets, lessons learned, etc.)? What other things did you do that you found beneficial (ie, showing face in the shop/field, inviting maintenance to meetings/asking for input, etc.)? 

Also, do you have any advice on what not to do? That is, what are some things engineers tend to do that frustrate maintenance? 

Greg McMillan’s Answer 

Become friends with the maintenance engineers and technicians. Spend some coffee break and lunch time in the instrument shop. Bring doughnuts in the morning and shrimp po boys or Philly cheesesteaks in the afternoon. 

Find out what works and doesn’t work in terms of instrumentation types, installation, and communication. Review instrumentation specifications, installation details and locations, and signal types and diagrams with reliability and maintainability. Keep an open mind and be a good listener. Share knowledge on the impact of choices in instrumentation and valves and develop a common understanding of installation requirements. 

Explain the value of Coriolis flow meters, resistance temperature detectors, and non-contacting radar level in terms of exceptional accuracy, repeatability, and lack of drift and the minimization of the effects of installation and process operation conditions. Help maintenance understand the consequences of increased deadtime from transportation delays and noise from phase changes that may occur when sensors are located in more accessible locations. 

Work with them to make sure there are no problems with impulse lines, as discussed in the Control Talk column with Daniel Warren entitled, “Prevent pressure transmitter problems” and alternatives as discussed in the column with Hunter Vegas, “Your DP problems could be the result of improper use of purges, fills, capillaries, and seals.” 

Explain the need for true throttling valves with low friction packing and diaphragm actuators with aggressively tuned smart positioners, rather than on-off valves with piston operators and helpless positioners being lied to from packing and seal friction and lost motion in linkages and connections from backlash and shaft windup, even if an on-off valve in series is needed to meet tight shutoff requirements (as detailed in the Control article, “How to specify valves and positioners that do not compromise control”). 

Help develop a valve response testing program per ISA standard ISA-75.25.01 and technical report ISA-TR75.25.02. Share the value of adding a third electrode and using middle signal selection (MSS) for pH measurement to inherently deal with a single failure of any type, and to provide much more intelligent diagnostics. MSS reduces maintenance by creating more intelligent diagnostics and eliminating unnecessary and disruptive calibration checks, besides increasing accuracy and reliability and reducing the effect of noise and a slow responding sensor. 

Share knowledge gained in publications capturing the practical knowledge of key industry practitioners, such as the McGraw-Hill, Process/Industrial Instruments and Controls Handbooks Sixth Edition by Hunter Vegas and I that compiles knowledge of 50 experts with a list of best practices at the end of each section. Also, use our ISA book, 101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career, which succinctly summarizes what we have learned to help you make the most out of your career. These books are easy to read (except for some parts on control strategies). The knowledge in these books can help get design and maintenance on the same page. 

Something that really frustrates maintenance and endangers plant performance and safety is the use of skids, particularly when instrumentation devices, communication, and installation is done by the skid supplier without plant input. Preferably avoid using skids, but when there is no choice, make sure the automation on the skids is as good as the rest of the plant, as discussed in the Control Talk column, “8 rules to avoid skidding accidents” by Hunter Vargas and I. 

Mike Laspisa’s Answer 

Respect and attitude are important in having a good relationship with maintenance technicians. The ivory tower engineer who comes off as superior to the maintenance technician will get very limited assistance. 

Solicit input on problematic devices and poor installations on past projects. Try to use plant standard approved devices whenever possible. However, if you are choosing to go with newer technology for a particular application, get maintenance some exposure to the potential benefits of using the new device(s). Take maintenance into consideration when working with the piping department to ensure primary element/control valve accessibility, as well as the need for remote transmitters. If you’re installing a new control system, make sure to provide training so that the technicians know how to access diagnostics, trends, and input device block formats and modes. 

I have had good relationships with many technicians throughout my career and found that we all share the same goal: Good measurement and control device installations and performance. 

David De Sousa’s Answer 

First, get to know the instrumentation/automation maintenance team at your location, plant, and facility. Find out what their experience is and their academic and/or professional background. It is always important to understand your audience, and to be able to talk the language that are of interest to them, and that affect and have an impact on their day-to-day activities. 

Start with the team that is currently maintaining a system or a process train that you may have delivered already. Find out what they believe could be improved, what works and what doesn´t, investigate the reasons, and discuss the root causes with them. There may be legit reasons for what they perceive, but there could just be a lack of good understanding. Part of the job is to educate our customers (internal and external), and to help them improve those areas that may be underperforming for different reasons. The more you can support your maintenance team in solving issues and in strengthening their competence level, the more trust they will have in you, and the closer you will be able to get to them. It will pay out as you find future collaboration and support for upcoming projects. 

If you are part of a new project team, approach the maintenance team that will receive the new systems, and get their early input in terms of maintainability, reliability, and availability. Are you considering critical spares as part of the scope of delivery for your project? Are you performing a RAM analysis as part of your project scope (assessing failure modes, frequencies and consequences, and the effect on production)? Understand how all their concerns fit into the business targets, and how it will impact the CAPEX, OPEX, and the Total Costs of Ownership of the final Plant. 

One good way to get to know your maintenance team is to incorporate them as much as possible into the pre-startup reviews, commissioning activities, factory and site acceptance tests, etc. Consider having training sessions (formal or informal) with them on the new systems or skids as an integral part of your job. 

It is equally important to get close to the operations team and to the asset owner´s team. Early trust and transparent communication will go a long way into a successful delivery of your automation or instrumentation project. 

Hunter Vegas’s Answer 

When I first started working in a large chemical plant, my boss and mentor had the wisdom to pair me with the best plant technician for two weeks. My “babysitter” (as the other techs liked to call him) was a fiery Cajun with a deep voice. I shadowed him the whole time, pulling permits, troubleshooting instruments, meeting the other techs during breaks in the shop, and generally living the life of a technician. Of course, I was recently graduated from college and my plant experience was limited to a couple of internships and summer jobs working in a plastics plant, so I wasn’t very useful at first. However, as I learned the job, I ultimately graduated from “gofer” to junior tech by the time I was done. 

The experience was unforgettable and beneficial. I quickly came to appreciate what the technicians did and the things that made their job more difficult. It certainly made me a much better engineer. I also developed a very good rapport with the guys, because I never stopped asking them questions, always listened to what they had to say, and never hesitated to grab a tool bag, jump in to help wrestle a valve out of a line, or climb up a 200’ distillation column to check out an instrument. 

I worked in that plant for a dozen years, but never lost touch with my mentor. He has long since retired, but whenever I am in town, I call him up, we do dinner, and I return to his house to sip his favorite French wine, and talk about our days in the plant. 

Now, you asked about things you should and should not do to develop a relationship with the technicians. I have many suggestions: 

Don’t

  • Act like you know more than they do—you don’t. Technicians and operators know the plant in ways you never will.
  • Fail to ask their opinion and listen to what they have to say. As I said, they know their stuff.
  • Fail to give them credit for their ideas. If a tech or operator mentions a good idea, run it up the chain of command and give the tech/operator full credit. You’ll likely get a lot more ideas that way!
  • Don’t leave them hanging. If they ask for help, find time to give them a hand. If something breaks at 5pm on a Friday, don’t leave them to fix it.

Do

  • Design for maintainability. Never forget simple things like:
    • Individual indicating fuses in panels. (I have seen panels with 200 IO and one 20A breaker feeding it! Crazy!)
    • Think about operator and technician access. Are the valves spaced so they can put a wrench on them and turn them? Can the tech get to the instrument? If you are unsure, ask them! But do note that if you can’t do what they suggest, discuss it with them and make sure they understand why. Otherwise, they may think you just blew them off.
    • Make sure the lines can be isolated and have high/low point drains for maintenance. I have seen way too many processes not designed this way.
    • Have accurate and complete drawings that are easily accessible. I have a loop sheet book in each shop that they could use.
  • Get their input while considering designs or instrument selection. Normally they have certain instruments they like because they work and spare parts are available. Obviously, use that if you can. If you must use something new, discuss it with them so they understand why.
  • Get their feedback. After doing this for 36 years, I still ask my techs and contractors how they thought the project went and what I should have done differently. Often, they have some very good suggestions that I can incorporate into the next job.
  • Include them on the commissioning team so they learn the new equipment. If they can fix it themselves, it will likely save you a 3am phone call.
  • Treat them as equals and professionals. If you treat them with respect, they’ll return the favor. 

Good luck in your new career. After 36 years I still find it fun! 

Daniel Warren’s Answer 

As has already been pointed out, the best thing you can do to build good rapport with your team is to be available and approachable. In the instrument and automation world, the last thing you want to come across as is the “all being, all-knowing” guru. There is always something new to learn. Plus, things (materials & methods) change with time. Things that were done 10, 20, or 30 years ago may not be relevant today. There are way too many changes and advancements that are continually ongoing. However, you must keep in mind that these changes may not fit your current application. 

I have worked at numerous Oil & Gas, Petrochemical, and Pulp & Paper facilities as both a contractor as well as staff. The first thing I do after meeting with the PM is to meet with the Maintenance Manager, Supervisors, and the techs that are doing all the grunt work. Please keep in mind that what they do is fill in the gaps you may have missed (like certain required installation standards or the use of certain materials). They do this to make sure the application works as intended, not to make you look bad. 

Some of the best ways to build rapport with the field techs is to simply just make yourself available and approachable. I just about lived in the instrument shop at times. I joined in at coffee breaks and safety meetings. I provided information and documents if requested. I became part of their routines so that they felt comfortable with my presence. I made myself a resource to certain services. 

Keep in mind the type of environment you are working in. The shop may be unionized, and they sometimes frown on having management types traipsing around. That aside, once the techs feel comfortable around you and ask for your assistance, try to avail if you can. You are not there to do their work for them or direct them in any form. But there is no shame in lending a hand. 

When there were scopes and packages for the crew to install or work on, I would personally deliver them to the shop. Once the supervisor reviewed the package and I was able to answer his questions, I would then stay available to answer any questions the appointed techs may have had. This also made it easier if we had to redline any drawings or documents. If the techs came across something questionable, especially something in the field, I would go on a visual inspection with them. 

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, visualization of a condition can almost lead to a book. When required (usually during shutdowns or turnarounds) I would make myself available to help direct tasks or go retrieve materials, tools, or supplies. I was also there as a go-between for the techs, management, and operations. 

Another thing that worked well was bringing in vendors or manufacturers for a “show and tell” or educational and possibly hands-on session. This worked especially well if we had to introduce either new hardware or software. Plus, if it was found that off-site training/education was required, it made it easier to both justify and sell it to management. I found that over time once the techs got used to my presence, it made life and communication a heck of a lot simpler. By the way, the occasional box of donuts, fresh coffee, or pizza doesn’t hurt either.

Greg McMillan
Greg McMillan
Gregory K. McMillan, CAP, is a retired Senior Fellow from Solutia/Monsanto where he worked in engineering technology on process control improvement. Greg was also an affiliate professor for Washington University in Saint Louis. Greg is an ISA Fellow and received the ISA Kermit Fischer Environmental Award for pH control in 1991, the Control magazine Engineer of the Year award for the process industry in 1994, was inducted into the Control magazine Process Automation Hall of Fame in 2001, was honored by InTech magazine in 2003 as one of the most influential innovators in automation, and received the ISA Life Achievement Award in 2010. Greg is the author of numerous books on process control, including Advances in Reactor Measurement and Control and Essentials of Modern Measurements and Final Elements in the Process Industry. Greg has been the monthly "Control Talk" columnist for Control magazine since 2002. Presently, Greg is a part time modeling and control consultant in Technology for Process Simulation for Emerson Automation Solutions specializing in the use of the digital twin for exploring new opportunities.

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