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Smart works

Glen Cardinal, managing director of Platinum Facilities and Maintenance Services, explains why today’s maintenance engineer is more likely to need a laptop than a spanner, and what this means for facilities management

Mechanical and electrical (M&E) maintenance used to be a very physical discipline. Engineers in boiler suits with a large bag of tools and a greasy cloth grappled with huge pieces of mechanically-driven plant. But over the past two decades, that’s all changed. Today’s plant is much smaller, electronically-driven with fewer consumables and controlled by screw compressors, which has led to major changes in the way that equipment is maintained.

At the same time, building management systems (BMS) have been developed to control equipment from heating, ventilation and airconditioning (HVAC) to lighting, CCTV and lifts. These systems allow the FM to understand exactly how the building is operating, optimise performance to create the best working environment, and enable cost and energy use benchmarks to be set for different buildings. Where pieces of kit would often sit in isolation, they are now increasingly linked through the BMS and other tools.

Clients’ needs are also changing. There is now a greater understanding of the impact of plant downtime and rising energy costs, and also the role a good workplace can play in staff morale, engagement and productivity. Organisations have become far more data driven, requiring real-time statistics and analysis to improve the business case for operating expenses and capital spend – and to demonstrate that the facilities are working at their best.

In response, the equipment that engineers need to carry has dramatically changed. Gone are the heavy tool bags. Today’s engineer will plug a laptop into the control panel to bring up the necessary data about the equipment and perform the relevant diagnostics. This is far less intrusive than the previous labour-intensive method of stripping down the piece of equipment, cleaning it, or even physically changing it.

With maintenance costs on the rise (BICS, the Building Cost Information Service of RICS, has forecast a three per cent increase in 2017), efficiency has never been more important. This has led to plant being maintained on a predictive basis based on real-time monitoring of its condition, using sensors rather than the traditional preplanned schedule of maintenance approach. Many pieces of plant and equipment are continuously monitored for vibration, temperature and acoustics, identifying failures before they occur. For specialist environments, such as swimming pools, there are also sensors that can automatically read conductivity, pH, redox and chlorine levels, for example. In this way, maintenance analysis is becoming increasingly automatic.

Pushing the boundaries of the standard SFG20 approach (the principal standard for building maintenance) through a more flexible and data-driven model (maintenance by exception) reduces maintenance cycles and therefore spend on less critical assets. It also extends their life, while also ensuring that critical assets are maintained in tiptop condition. Plus it removes the risk of unscheduled downtime when plant fails, ensuring that downtime can be planned around business needs – for example in the evening, at the weekend or in quieter periods such as the Christmas break, without interrupting the core business.

The engineer can use a performance trend over time to predict when the plant or equipment might fail and when it needs maintenance. In addition to the money saved from less downtime, it is a more cost-effective approach to maintenance as the plant and equipment is only maintained when necessary. This creates a meaningful maintenance programme which takes account of specific use and environmental conditions.

Years ago, engineers would walk into a plant room and they’d listen, they’d smell, they’d stick their ear against the kit – that was their sensor probe. Now, the machinery will be telling the engineer on a real-time basis how it’s performing and what needs doing.

This approach also places more control in the client’s hands. With the increased insight real-time monitoring offers, they can decide how and when to repair assets and spend their budget more wisely. This level of transparency between the client and their maintenance partner also builds trust.

In the past, some disreputable maintenance companies would recommend maintenance or replacement of plant and equipment based on a desire to increase revenue rather than actual need based on real-time information. That kind of behaviour has been largely eradicated by condition-based maintenance. Clients no longer have to accept what their maintenance partner is saying; they can analyse the data themselves and make decisions based on their appetite for risk.

Of course, this has created a requirement for the FM to acquire different skills. Although management of the maintenance contractor is still important, it has taken on a more collaborative approach where the engineer and FM work together to analyse the data and agree actions. The FM who has embraced condition-based maintenance needs to have a deeper understanding of plant performance and how this impacts on the core business – what plant is critical and what could be allowed to fail. An appreciation of data analytics is also essential as the FM needs to be able to both sell the concept to senior management and also present maintenance data on an ongoing basis.

All this change has led to an adjustment in career paths and job roles for both FM and engineer. Back in the 1970s a typical building services role would be a drawing office manager, a draughtsman or a borough engineer. Now job specs such as digital engineer, energy manager or IES modeller are common, reflecting the increasing digitisation of building services. Engineers need more electronic and controls-based experience, not just the training to know what to do with a spanner.

They also need to have a broader set of skills than in the past, so they can look at a building holistically and create the most efficient and effective place to work. It’s not just about tinkering with the equipment. This has increased the need for engineers to be multiskilled and qualified. Where once engineers would typically be trained in a key specialism such as electricity or gas, that has changed.

Softer skills are also becoming an important part of the mix. No longer does the engineer disappear into the plant room for hours on end. Instead, they are required to discuss plant and equipment performance with the FM and possibly explain performance or usage issues to end users. Communication skills and the ability to present data in an easily-understandable way is essential, and most engineering training programmes now focus on people skills.

The use of technology to improve the delivery of facilities services will be a key game changer over the next five years. Phrases such as the internet of things and building information management are being bandied around with increasing frequency – but not always with the greatest level of knowledge.

There are already examples of facilities where different assets constantly talk to one another and adjust their performance and operation based on set parameters as well as human intervention. The concept of personal comfort, where different teams and departments control environmental factors such as ambient temperature, lighting and oxygen levels, is spreading. However, while these are still the exception rather than the rule, they are an indication of where M&E maintenance is going.

Big data and analytics are here, but the key is how organisations interpret and act on that data. Only then will the organisation benefit from the work of today’s increasingly technology-savvy engineers.

About Sarah OBeirne

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