New thinking is breaking the gearbox repair cycle

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Failing industrial gearboxes can be a real problem in any industry, but particularly so wherever there is ageing plant, older equipment, arduous applications or harsh environments. One plant manager, at a company producing construction materials, described the job of keeping production going as ‘a real scramble’ every time a gearbox failure occurred.

The site operated numerous large conveyors, some steeply inclined, moving heavy aggregate around the plant. Gearbox failures had the potential to bring production to a complete halt because if any of the huge conveyors stopped working then a bottleneck could be created that could potentially halt other parts of the manufacturing process.

Although many of the critical gearboxes on the conveyors were the same, and the site had a spare, it was still a mad scramble to get the old gearbox repaired, while the spare was in use. The repair had to be conducted as quickly as possible so the spare was available again in case another gearbox failed on another conveyor.

As the gear units were getting older the pressure was simply mounting. The maintenance team were working with a good gearbox repairer and had managed to avoid a complete shutdown, but it was looking like it was only a matter of time before they lost the battle, and this wasn’t an option. A shutdown of even part of the plant and the cost involved was unthinkable.

It’s a story that’s unfolding every day, in factories all round the world, and the reason is simple. An emergency gearbox repair requires the repairer to finish the job as quickly as possible. Speed is of the essence because downtime has to be kept to an absolute minimum. So the gearbox repairer will do the minimum that’s necessary to get the gearbox working again and reinstall it on the application so that production can resume.

This will typically involve changing the bearings and seals, cleaning the internal components and changing the oil. Although this will get the gearbox working again it’s little more than a sticking plaster over the real problem. It fails to address the cause of the failure in the first place – wear to the internal gears and shafts.

A costly and repetitive cycle

The repaired gearbox will still be suffering from the same problems that the repair has only temporarily masked, and another failure is a virtual certainty further down the line. The only question is how long the repair will last before the gearbox fails again. It’s a repetitive and hugely costly cycle that will repeat itself over and over again until the root cause is addressed.

Only a new gear unit, or a refurbishment, rather than a quick repair, would solve the problem, but when a repair has been completed, and the gearbox is working again, plant managers are likely to turn their attention elsewhere. Just recently a water company had four gearboxes repaired at a cost of around £50,000, which is about 10 per cent more than the cost of completely new units, and around 30 per cent more than it would have cost to have them refurbished.

The real problem when a gearbox fails is the time it would take to manufacture a new one or refurbish the old one, and so plant managers generally opt for the quick repair. In the case of the water company, new gearboxes were eventually ordered to replace the ageing ones bringing the total cost close to £100,000 – more than double what it would have cost if action had been taken before the units failed in the first place.

Although the problem is far from new, the momentum for change is coming from the philosophies of modern manufacturing and new thinking on the part of plant operators. The push to increase profits, cut costs and eliminate waste is almost becoming an engineering discipline in its own right. In the most forward-thinking organisations the pressure for a new strategy on gearbox failure is now coming right from the top.

And it’s easy to see why. Just take the water company as an example. If we’re looking to cut operating costs then there’s potentially a lot of money to be saved on gearbox repairs and the lost production that goes with it. The example we looked at above involved just four gearboxes; imagine the potential savings in operations that have hundreds, without even thinking about the cost of the downtime itself.

To address the issue some plant operators are implementing philosophies such as Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) where maintenance and production people work together to cut downtime. It’s based on teamwork and making gearbox maintenance an issue that’s actively managed rather than simply reacted to when a gearbox fails. It includes a variety of systems like predictive maintenance, implementing maintenance management systems, training and management planning groups that might include a combination of management, production and maintenance people.

Innovative thinking in maintenance

For its part the gear industry has developed a range of options that meet the needs of maintenance teams with gear units on a wide range of different industrial applications and environments. They include gearbox monitoring, smart gearboxes that signal alerts when problems arise, oil analysis and regular inspections undertaken by gear specialists. Taking it further, some plant operators have put gearbox maintenance on the table as an issue for suppliers to address, working in partnership, and it’s spawned some innovative thinking.

For instance, in addition to a range of technical approaches and a dedicated team of engineers whose focus is solely on gearbox servicing, Renold Gears has introduced what it calls its Service Exchange program. Working closely with plant operators, critical gearboxes are identified on key plant and then new replacement units are manufactured, initially free of charge. These new units are then held in stock until required.

In the event of a failure the replacement unit is dispatched immediately and can often arrive on site within a matter of hours. The old unit is then replaced with the new one and the failed unit is returned to Renold’s factory where it is properly refurbished to an as-good-as-new condition. It is then kept in stock until it too is required and the service cycle repeats. With the Service Exchange program there’s no need to scramble for an emergency repair.

It works particularly well for operations with numerous sites and with the same gearboxes deployed on multiple applications, such as in the water industry. The spare units can be held in stock and dispatched to whichever plant they are required. It has the potential to make considerable savings in a relatively short period of time as well as slashing downtime and bringing gearbox maintenance in line with other advanced manufacturing philosophies.

For more information about the Service Exchange program visit

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