The Key to Machinery Reliability

Tod Baer | Production Specialist IV - Reliability, Minnkota Power Cooperative Inc.

The goal of Minnkota’s PPM (planned preventative maintenance) Team is to use their technologies and resources to provide the workers with safe, reliable operating equipment and make a positive impact on their maintenance.

Minnkota is a coal-powered power plant in the center of North Dakota. They have a two-unit facility running at 250 MW and 475 MW. The energy they generate is pushed out to Eastern North Dakota and Western Minnesota. They serve about 140 industrial, commercial, and residential customers. In terms of machine reliability, they have come a long way, as illustrated in their journey that started in the 1980s.

Discoveries and Lessons in Reliability

An important discovery in the Minnkota facility was failure patterns. Knowing the patterns, they almost completely eliminated random failures in the facility.

Their program includes vibration, ultrasonics, thermography, motor monitoring, and performance testing, among other methods. Being in the power industry, one thing they have to deal with regularly is vacuum leak detection with the condenser.

These are the benefits Minnkota has seen from their condition monitoring program:

  • Provides a condition assessment of the facility’s assets
  • Provides early indication of an approaching problem
  • Early detection of a failure allows for timely scheduling of production activities and maintenance
  • Reduces unscheduled production losses
  • They can perform maintenance activities only when required.
  • Insurance premium reduction
  • Aids in failure mode detection
  • Acceptance testing of new or rebuilt assets
  • Positive impact on overhead and maintenance costs

Use your condition monitoring program to focus on how to avoid failures and problems in your company. Don’t wait for problems to show up to start proper condition monitoring.

Minnkota’s “aha” moment came in 1985. A 720 rpm, six-stories-high, 30-ton gas fan, which was driven by a 4,000 HP motor, suddenly stopped working and took off. No one was hurt, but the incident gave their condition monitoring program a firm push.

Ask yourself the following questions about your company’s condition monitoring program: Where on the P-F Curve is your condition monitoring program? What measures are being taken to ensure the success and sustainability of your program?

Think about where your program is and how much emphasis is given to reliability.

  1. Status Quo: None, our program is working.
  2. Train and Certify: Training and certifying individuals in CM technologies so they are better diagnosticians
  3. Adding Tech: Adding additional CM technologies to the program to provide better and/or earlier detection of failures
  4. Beginning a PRI: Investigating or undertaking a precision and reliability initiative (PRI)
  5. Functioning Program: We have a functioning precision and reliability program in place, including processes for continuous improvement

The Many Paths to Reliability

Minnkota started their journey to reliability alone, initially in the ‘80s. The risks of taking on this program without guidance include high costs, as exploration errors will waste financial and labor resources. The program will take longer due to back-tracking and finding the right direction to move forward. Support may be strong in the beginning, but it could weaken if you face setbacks. Success is limited because your company may miss opportunities.

Why create and follow your own map when others have navigated the difficulties and discovered the most efficient path to reliability?

In contrast, here is what you can expect if you acquire a guide to lead you on the journey:

  • The scope will be driven by the service provider, either through their own assessment of the journey or through a standard package.
  • Your procedures will be deemed worthless. For a fee, the service provider will give you the tools and expertise to help you create the latest and greatest (confusion equates to dollars).
  • The schedule will be drawn out due to the development, training, rollout, and learning curve for new procedures (hours for dollars).
  • Support will be at the leadership level, created by the provider. Ignoring what’s in it for the individual worker will create a lack of legitimacy.
  • Success will be costly due to the extreme amount of financial and labor resources spent on finding reliability. Is the value of that success in line with the organization’s business plan?

Another option is to create a partnership to assist you on the journey. Here is what you can expect:

  • Select a reliability partner who knows your industry, understands the organization’s business plan and will help you find reliability.
  • The scope is developed only after reliability insight training and an assessment are completed by the partners. Together, the partners determine where you are, where you want to go, and how you are going to get there.
  • Value is created by the partnership through using, revising, and upgrading established procedures and only creating what is lacking.
  • The schedule can be clearly defined and expedited because of efficient use of existing programs, removing the learning curve. By simplifying the process and having everyone on board, the organization can move forward together.
  • Support is created from the top down with a 90% buy-in.
  • The benefits and rewards of reliability are achieved successfully at a value that is in line with the organization’s business plan. Reliability continues to provide value through continuous improvement.


Another option is to create an in-house grassroots team and select a program to educate and guide you on the journey.

  • The in-house teams are made up of individuals who want to learn about reliability and its benefits. These champions will help drive change that will empower a culture of reliability and continuous improvement.
  • Don’t get caught up in the opinion that only you, as an organization, know your business and your goals. Knowledge from the outside is also necessary and can give you insight into what you could be doing to continually improve.
  • The outside knowledge can come from a comprehensive reliability program that will provide training, support, and tools such as assessments.
  • Introductory and continuous training is critical.
  • Next, teams are organized with a cross-section of supporters and leadership sponsors. They should perform a SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunity, and threat) assessment of the organization, set goals, and develop steps to reach them.
  • Value is created by the teams taking ownership and working together to revise and establish programs that will drive the reliability process.
  • One major benefit of this approach is the organization’s cultural shift. Reliability is the new norm, continuous improvement is the expectation, and sustainability is the goal.

Reliability Map

Whichever option you choose, here are the steps you need to take to design your reliability program.

Step 1: Where are you now?

  • Identify and involve all process owners and stakeholders
  • Compile all available information including procedures, processes, and programs
  • Chart all current processes, tasks, and procedures
  • Identify current tools and technologies in use
  • Understand existing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats

Step 2: Where do you want to end up?

  • You want engaged employees and stakeholders that are trained and understand reliability
  • Have a vision with objectives and standards developed for reliability
  • Have redesigned and/or new and functional reliability-focused programs in place
  • Metrics, KPIs, and reporting that will provide value in business decisions
  • “Best in Class” with an ongoing plan for continuous improvement, creating sustainability

Step 3: How are you going to get there?

  • Identify your needs and objectives
  • Develop strategic goals and a transition plan for reliability
  • Establish teams, leadership roles, and governance to execute the plan
  • Perform root cause analysis to eliminate problems
  • Design metrics, KPIs, reports, and other measurement tools
  • Initiate training programs
  • Implement the transition plan: begin as a pilot project, correct as necessary, then execute a full rollout

Congratulations! You have found reliability.

To sustain, improve, and grow, make sure you continue to implement new procedures as necessary and redesign old ones. Maintain ongoing metrics, KPIs, and reporting. Make full use of the available technology. Review targets and performance and adjust as necessary. Audit regularly and adjust for continuity, sustainability, and growth.

What Does Precision and Reliability Look Like?

Minnkota has seen tremendous benefits from their reliability program:

  • MTBF (mean time between failures) of redundant process equipment changed from 1–3 years to 8–10 years.
  • MTBF of critical and essential equipment changed from 2–4 years to 10–14 years.
  • Emergency call-outs and overtime have been reduced. A major cause of this is root cause analysis.
  • Chronic and random failures are being eliminated.
  • Green maintenance is occurring through recycling, extended-use lubricants, non-hazardous products, and energy conservation.
  • Precision standards, procedures, and PMs have been developed and are in use.

The Future With Precision and Reliability

However, Minnkota is not finished. Their reliability program will continue to improve year after year, and they still have goals to meet.

  • Best-practice safety and environmental programs
  • Standard operating procedures (SOPs) are in place and followed
  • Well-trained and engaged employees at all levels
  • Knowledge is transferred from senior employees
  • Available technology is utilized
  • Ability to meet strategic business initiatives and objectives
  • Storeroom best practices
  • Continuous improvement through root cause and a chronic failure elimination focus
  • All work is planned, kitted, and scheduled
  • Maintain a precision philosophy of repair and install it correctly. Specify and procure quality and pay attention to detail.
  • System and asset utilization is maximized
  • Documented and improved business processes

Reliability Journey Lessons Learned

The team at Minnkota has learned a number of valuable lessons that can help others who are starting or improving a machine reliability program.

  • From the top down, leadership and management support is necessary.
  • Setting expectations and holding individuals accountable is crucial.
  • The right provider and SME mentors can help guide an organization in building a program. The real work is performed by teams and individual workers.
  • Perform an honest evaluation to determine the organization’s level of reliability.
  • Use the evaluation as a guide to set goals. Remember to set realistic goals and have a plan to obtain them.
  • Communicate progress through the program’s KPIs. Most of all, be realistic and honest in your communications.
  • Create an environment that is accepting of change.
  • Reliability and precision need champions. These individuals provide motivation and will champion the program to help gain support.

Continuous reliability and precision training are essential to success.

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About the Author

Tod Baer Production Specialist IV - Reliability, Minnkota Power Cooperative Inc.

Tod currently holds the position of Production Specialist IV – Reliability at Minnkota Power’s coal-fired generating facilities located at Center ND.  Minnkota Power Cooperative Inc, is a generation and transmission utility which serves 11 member-owner cooperatives located in eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota.  Tod has been working in the reliability centered maintenance field since 1983 at the facility.  His current responsibilities are managing and overseeing the facility’s Reliability Program which includes the PD/PM Program, Loss Elimination, RCA, Asset Control and Care Process.  He is very passionate about Pd, PM and RCM, as a practitioner, instructor and mentor in the fields of vibration, lubrication, ultrasonics, thermography, RCFA and precision maintenance.

In the mid 1980’s he was the driving force in the development and implementation of Minnkota Power’s Pd/PM program, and supervised Minnkota’s Pd/PM team.  In the 1990’s, using information obtained from the Pd/PM, CMMS and RCA programs Tod justified the need to adapt precision maintenance philosophies into the facility’s maintenance program.

Today, Minnkota Power’s, Asset Reliability Maintenance Program, incorporates most maintenance philosophies and technologies.  The evolving 40 year old maintenance program has been very successful and has played an important role in the power plants’ success as a cost effective, reliable energy producer.  The program and the individuals championing the program have served as a guidepost to others seeking similar results.