Maintenance of electrical equipment, and the maintenance function in general, are key subjects today for managers of plants and facilities. One important reason for this interest is there are profound changes taking place in the area of maintenance and reliability management.

Basically, sweeping changes in management and organizational structure are redefining how work gets done. Largely prodded by rising global competition, these overhauls are known loosely as "reengineering," a process that questions traditional assumptions and procedures - and then starts over.

Historically, the maintenance function was seen as a non-core service organization that did not contribute to competitiveness. Benchmarks for maintenance were isolated measurements of tasks - that is, task orientation rather than business goal orientation. New performance criteria for measuring maintenance will be focused on optimizing asset utilization, not maximizing asset utilization.

Here are some new concepts being discussed and put into practice that upset the usual way of thinking about maintenance:

* In the past, routine maintenance was concerned with preventing failure; the new concept is routine maintenance is about avoiding, reducing, or eliminating the consequences of failure.

* In the past, maintenance was done to optimize the facility's use at minimum cost. The new concept is maintenance affects all aspects of business effectiveness and risk - safety, environmental integrity, energy efficiency, and customer service - not just optimization of the facility's use and cost.

* In the past, maintenance was done to preserve physical assets. The new concept defines the purpose of maintenance as preserving the functions of assets.

These new concepts, which focus on the economics of maintenance assets, will be refined over time and slowly become established in every day processes. At the same time, these new concepts require knowledge workers. Management Consultant Peter Druker defined the knowledge worker as a person who has formal education but may require manual dexterity skills to perform a job. This description fits the electrical maintenance worker of the future, who will see the knowledge content of the work continue to increase and who will thrive only if he or she uses their wits and keeps adding to their skill base.

To reconfigure maintenance so it contributes fully calls for reorganization based on information. The focus on activity that has occupied maintenance in the past will become less important. The new focus will be on how the organization acquires information, processes it, disseminates it, and makes decisions based on it.

As an example, some companies are using self-directed work teams that decide the ratio of preventive maintenance to corrective work, when to contract out, and when to hire a new team member. Decisions of the team are based on knowledge of production quota, significance of existing failures to actual achievable quotas, performance to budget, preventive maintenance schedules, projected work load, availability of resources, backlog, etc.

Ideally, with a self-directed work team, less time is spent trying to maximize the amount of "wrench time" and more time is spent using information to find ways to optimize the effectiveness of wrenches - when they are used! In this way, maintenance is integrated with all the other operations of the facility.

Qualification and certification of electrical maintenance personnel are other factors that will become increasingly important. For example, a number of electrical industry organizations got together recently and created a certification program for people involved in the installation and maintenance of instrumentation and control systems.

Basically, a control system technician has to know pneumatic, mechanical, and electronic instrumentation and understand process control loops and process control systems, both analog and digital (electronics based). The control technician also has to know how to use and maintain particular lines of field instruments used for calibration and troubleshooting. However, there never was a program that would attest that someone had these skills, until the Certified Control Systems Technician (CCST) program came on the scene.

Developed by ISA, the International Society for Measurement and Control, Research Triangle Park, N.C., the CCST program, which is seen as an important contribution by both industry management and labor, allows a worker to show evidence of skill and competence.

CCST certifications are available at three levels (I, II, and III), and each level requires the applicant pass an exam.

Five organizations cooperated in developing the certification exam: ISA, the Instrument Technicians Labor-Management Cooperation Fund, the Instrument Contracting and Engineering Association (ICEA), the United Association (UA), which is the pipefitters union, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).

These days, in an economy where even factory work is defined by blips on a computer screen, more schooling is the only road ahead.