Old-school engineers may cling to their slide rules, but new-age maintenance professionals embrace modern information and ordering technology.

The iPod generation is filtering into the workforce, accelerating changes in the way people gather information and place orders, including the procurement of spare parts and components, Food Engineering’s 2008 Replacement Parts and Components Trends Survey suggests.

As with media in general, information sources for spare parts are more fragmented than ever before, though the growing importance of the World Wide Web is clear. If it’s good enough for finding a life partner, after all, isn’t it good enough for specifying a replacement valve? Contemporary maintenance managers and engineers apparently think so, based on responses to this year’s survey. In the prior six months, 42% purchased products on-line from manufacturers’ sites, and 23% placed orders at distributors’ sites. Five years ago, only 27% bought through a manufacturer’s site and 14% used a distributor’s URL.

In contrast, only 30% indicated they had not placed orders through the Internet, nor did they intend to in the next six months. Five years ago, 49% were steadfast in their refusal to use the medium for purchasing.

Similarly, food and beverage professionals are turning to suppliers’ Web sites for general information on parts. Surfing also is up incrementally from previous surveys, though search engines ranked sixth among 14 information-source options in the study. Distributors’ Web sites were seventh and actually exhibited slippage in use compared to previous surveys.

Whether it’s an Internet chat room or a business site, the virtual space provides a degree of anonymity and a mask for the unscrupulous. The risk is reflected in a question asking Food Engineering readers if they had experienced problems with knock-off or substandard parts. One in 14 (7%) indicated they might have received counterfeit parts, though the sourcing of those parts was not specified. Nonetheless, the response underscores the uncertainty of supply sources in contemporary business.

Almost a fifth (18%) of respondents indicated inexpensive replacement parts work just as well as higher-priced components, but 29% say they have resisted using knock-offs and cheap replacements altogether. Two-fifths report negative experiences, with 42% saying they had encountered premature machine failures and 41% saying cheaper parts do not work as well as higher-priced parts. Others take a more tempered view, with comments such as “Sometimes okay, sometimes not” typical. Local machine shops add a degree of assurance at a lower cost than OEM parts, a few readers said.

I'd rather do it myself

After flirting with the idea of outsourcing spare-parts procurement, food and beverage manufacturers apparently have decided it is a core competency. For the second year in a row (and third time in the last four surveys), no readers indicated outside contractors are involved in most of the maintenance decisions involving parts and components. By comparison, 13% of respondents to the first replacement-parts study in 2003 said outside contractors were involved in most decisions, with the proportion slipping to 8% the following year.

A common criticism of outsourcing is the lamentable loss of in-house mentors. The days when junior engineers and other professionals could seek advice and counsel from the battle-tested veteran down the hall are passing. What is most astonishing is the speed at which it is occurring, as reflected in answers to the survey question, “When you need information on replacement parts and components, where do you usually turn for information?” Peers within the company remains the second most-popular source, but the proportion has slipped every year and currently stands at 48%. Three years ago, company peers were the most frequently cited source, with 76% of readers turning to them. At many companies, the grizzled veteran down the hall no longer works there.

Different Food Engineering readers receive each year’s survey, and the profile of respondents is prone to change. This year’s sample is skewed toward smaller and midsized operations. Total parts and components spending in 2007 averaged a little over $1 million, less than half the mean amount in the 2005-2007 polls. It most closely matches the respondent base in 2004, with median purchases per plant $400,000 in both years. Comparing results this year and in 2004, engineering and maintenance personnel are playing a diminished role in determining needs, developing specifications and recommending suppliers. Instead, plant operations managers are asserting more influence, as are general administration and executive management, albeit to a lesser degree.

Replacement strategies look a lot more like triage today than they did four years ago. One in four of this year’s respondents say run-to-failure is standard operating procedure at their plants. In 2004, only 13% employed the same approach. Regularly scheduled visual inspections declined as a tactic for assessing machine wear, with 54% now taking that tack, down from 70% four years ago.

Readers were asked to rate a baker’s dozen of factors in assessing spare-parts suppliers, using a five-point scale from extremely important to not at all important. Product quality consistently ranked No. 1 in all six surveys since 2001, with 97% this year judging quality to be extremely or very important. On-time delivery and product availability also are very important, though more manufacturers view these as givens today. In 2004, one in eight respondents indicated there was wiggle room with these factors; with a higher premium on machine availability today, only one in twenty say they can live with delivery delays or parts substitutions.

Price consistently ranks at or near the bottom of supplier-selection considerations, but that may be a case of respondents giving the answer they think the questioner wants to hear. When asked if extending the mean time to failure is used to justify purchasing more expensive, premium parts, two in five readers (38%) say most parts are commodities, and price determines which part to specify. On the other hand, a similar proportion chose the option, “We have quantified maintenance costs of most machine parts and are able to calculate ROI” on premium items. One in five say manpower shortages force them to opt for the highest quality available. A more nuanced approach was suggested in the written comment that paying a premium “depends on how vital the machine is to production.”

Three questions not asked until 2005 deal with inventory management and automated ordering. Reducing the amount of capital tied up in spare parts remains the focus at more than three-fifths of the plants surveyed. Turns also remain a popular management tool, with slightly more than half using the metric. Outsourcing has taken another beating, with only 15% using a local supply house as their default parts room. Twice as many respondents used this inventory option two years ago.

A big drop in automatically generated purchase orders occurred this year, though this is probably a reflection of the smaller-plant skew in responses. Only 28% generate automatic P/Os, down from 46% in 2005, when the sample was dominated by large facilities. Two in five indicated no automation was in place for parts ordering, compared to one in four three years ago.

Parts kits for routine maintenance and vendor-managed inventory remain the most popular MRO practices, followed by on-site fabrication to reduce cost or improve performance. Central warehousing of common parts for multiple locations was used by 37%, consistent with previous years, while only one in five rely on consignment, down slightly from previous years.

Who provided the feedback?

This year’s glimpse of the spare-parts landscape was provided by 234 Food Engineering readers involved in plant operations, engineering, general administration and purchasing. Their plants purchased more than $242 million worth of replacement parts and components last year.

Half the respondents are primarily involved in engineering (25%) or maintenance (23%). Administrators and executive managers provided one-fifth of the feedback, as did plant-operations professionals. Purchasing personnel constitute 8% of the sample, with quality assurance, R&D and other professional services rounding out the base.

Three-fifths of respondents work at plants with 100-499 full- and part-time workers, consistent with prior years, but fewer mega-plants are represented (1,000-plus employees), a fact reflected in the lower cumulative parts-buying activity. Likewise, more respondents work at smaller facilities (fewer than 100 workers) than in previous surveys.

Almost two-fifths of the sample is involved in meat, poultry and seafood processing (21%) or baking and snack foods (17%). Dairy/frozen novelty production accounts for 11% of the base, followed by beverage operations (9%). Seven other general categories also are represented.