You work in a facility that doesn't computerize maintenance operations. Several people keep telling you a CMMS will allow you to retire your fire ax and do real maintenance work. The problem is you aren't even sure what a CMMS is. Here's what you need to know.

Is your maintenance department using tools on par with the tools of other departments? If not, most days you may wonder if you've joined the fire department instead of the maintenance department. It seems like all you do is put out fires. In many organizations, you can visit the maintenance department just to see how people did things two generations ago.

For accounting and payroll departments, the days of notepads and calculators are ancient history. Computers, the great technological advance of the century, completely changed the face of payroll, invoicing, and other accounting functions. Now, it's nearly impossible to find any accounting department still using paper-based procedures.

Unfortunately, some maintenance departments have not received the same technology because upper management subscribes to the theory, "Never invest money on maintenance because it increases expenditures." While other departments progress, maintenance operations are trying to keep up in modern industry with the same management tools they used in the 1950s.

Today, the pressure on maintenance is at an all-time high due to "just-in-time" production schedules and today's leaner organizations. When any piece of vital (or "bottleneck") equipment breaks down, everyone in the plant looks to the maintenance department to fix it immediately. If production suffers, revenue suffers. Because of "just-in-time" arrangements, customers also suffer. Through the chains of supply and distribution, suffering passes on in a domino effect. You wind up with a lot of unhappy people. With this constant pressure, maintenance management dissolves into a reactionary "fire-fighting" program.

For some industrial organizations, maintenance managers still use a traditional, paper-driven maintenance system that cannot effectively track the hundreds of work orders crossing desks each week. Still, each work order contains information that will affect labor hours, inventory, purchasing, and (ultimately) production.

A small inefficiency in a maintenance operation can lead to enormous problems for the entire facility. These problems include: * Improper or dangerous maintenance techniques; * Increased production downtime, due to equipment failure; * Shortages of spare parts; * Confusion on the location of equipment; * Insufficient data on the costs of failure; and * Incomplete information going to purchasing, payroll, or inventory.

These problems have given rise to the new standard in the maintenance arena: Computerized Maintenance Management Software (CMMS).

CMMS: one system, one solution The purpose of a CMMS is to help you increase maintenance efficiency. Today's CMMS packages do this remarkably well. A CMMS provides a central database for essential maintenance information, as well as information not essential but still very helpful. Most CMMS systems track work orders, labor information, purchasing, inventory, and other areas of maintenance. The software handles the deskwork, giving you more time to maintain the equipment.

Although a CMMS is not a cure for every maintenance ill, it can help you become more efficient, cost-effective, and productive. As one user states, "A CMMS is like a string around your finger. It reminds you to do things. It's not magic; it's a database."

A CMMS strengthens your maintenance operation by centralizing all of your maintenance information into one system. When a user creates a work order, the system does more than just generate a paper work order. Your CMMS also checks available labor, available spare parts, the status of the equipment, and a host of other data, depending on how you set up the system. The information that previously took minutes or even hours to pull together now takes a matter of seconds and a few keystrokes.

The result? Maintenance managers get greater control of the department. The software prevents the maintenance supervisor from inadvertently assigning a task with insufficient parts or labor. In essence, a CMMS prevents administrative or scheduling mistakes. By using a CMMS to eliminate these mistakes, maintenance managers increase the overall performance of the maintenance department.

A CMMS assists managers in planning. Most CMMS packages allow the user to plan and schedule preventive maintenance tasks by both date and meter readings. Then, when the assigned date/meter reading appears, the program automatically generates a work order: complete with all necessary equipment data, specifications, and instructions. This eliminates the error-prone drudgery of doing this kind of work by hand.

A common myth is that a CMMS handles only preventive maintenance, not predictive. This simply isn't true. Predictive maintenance is largely a matter of recording variables from equipment testing. When would you schedule those tests? The user can tie predictive maintenance testing in with preventive maintenance work orders. Then, when the predictive maintenance variables indicate you need to take action, the CMMS can schedule the labor and material you need. Therefore, CMMS users can coordinate labor efforts and material purchases in a way that makes sense. The CMMS is an essential part of a comprehensive predictive maintenance program.

Toward a paperless system If a piece of equipment breaks in your facility, could you easily find the warranty information, name of the vendor who sold that equipment, number of spare parts available in the stockroom, or employees available to repair it? And do you even know if this breakdown is a new or recurring problem? There are many different ways you can use a CMMS to answer these questions.

Chances are, without a CMMS, you could answer these questions only after you've searched dozens of files; that is if you can find them. Nobody has the time for such searches today. CMMS systems record this equipment information (spare parts, warranty information, labor schedules, safety techniques, and other user-defined variables) and put it into an electronic database. When you need parts information or details on a warranty, you have the answer at your fingertips, not in the bottom of someone's desk drawer or filing cabinet.

Let's look closer at a common example. Suppose your facility has a truck entered into a CMMS. When you bought the truck, you entered in all relevant maintenance data, including warranty information. If the engine breaks down at 10,000 miles, a CMMS could tell you the engine is under warranty. "So what?" you say. "I don't know where we bought that truck." Your CMMS tells you where you purchased it, as well as any other pertinent information about the truck. You print out your maintenance history showing you changed oil and filter per the owner manual's instructions and, in fact, did all the maintenance the manual called for. The dealer has no choice but to honor your warranty. Without having to check countless files, you saved your company thousands of dollars. You can do the same with motors, production equipment, or any asset in your facility. Does your facility track warranties on outside services? You can also maintain these in your CMMS.

After your CMMS is up and running, you can analyze your maintenance operation through reports and data analysis. A CMMS not only stores data you enter at start-up, but also tracks data as time progresses. Within a few months, you can print reports showing the amount and type of maintenance you need for any asset during a set time-as well as the conditions that precipitated the maintenance. You can also compare previous labor data to future schedules, ensuring your team can meet its future requirements.

In one respect, a CMMS is like any computer product. That is, finding the proper CMMS package for your organization requires a thorough search. Luckily, there are many resource tools out there to guide you. If you have Internet access, the web is a great place to start. Any web browser can locate CMMS software companies by using key words like "maintenance software" and "CMMS." Another good source of information is the Thomas Register. Editor's note: You can also find out more about CMMSs by going to www.ecmweb.com and using the article search feature.

Choosing a CMMS package is an important step for a maintenance operation. Whether you're upgrading a previous system or buying your first, the decision is crucial. A good CMMS package will fit your maintenance organization with ease. A bad choice will leave you looking for more answers (or another job) down the road. Some issues you need to consider include:

Evaluate the computers available at your facility to support the CMMS. Many industrial computers run on Microsoft or Novell networks. If that's the case with your site, find a compatible system meeting the abilities of your existing computer system. A Microsoft Windows-compatible program will also give you more ease-of-use. Beware of DOS-based systems: Although they cost less, you might find the program is less compatible, or even incompatible, with currentsoftware titles.

Consider modules The features of many CMMS packages read like restaurant menus: You can pick and choose from several options or "modules." Some modules, such as work order generation and equipment data, are essential for most organizations. Other modules, such as purchasing, might be redundant to other departments' system modules in your facility. Make sure you like what you are ordering from the menu. A good CMMS satisfies your appetite for maintenance excellence.

Consider setup time and programming resources You probably don't have the time to write batch files, macros, scripts, and other patch programs. Find a package that has all of the functions you need "out of the box." If, for example, you need a CMMS to track both in-house and vendor labor hours, don't settle on anything less. Make sure any CMMS you choose has those functions "out of the box."

Will you have network compatibility? The power of a CMMS should not be confined to the manager's desk. Choose a CMMS package that's compatible with LANs (local area networks) and WANs (wide area networks). A LAN/WAN set-up lets you link PCs around the plant to the system, allowing more employees to use the information in the system.