Current Insights

Demystifying Reliability Engineering and the Reliability Engineer

April 8, 2024

“Our senior leadership do not see reliability programmes or reliability engineers as full-time projects or full-time roles. Their view is that their focus is too narrow. In fact, a lot of our reliability programmes get stopped before they even have the chance to add value.”

Whether it’s misunderstanding, not understanding, or underappreciating the reliability engineers’ and/or the reliability function, there is a collective concern that reliability engineers are often overlooked.

This can be due to a lack of understanding of the value they bring or a failure to recognise their contributions. It is essential for organisations to understand the critical role of reliability engineers and to utilise them effectively. How do organisations educate or articulate their leaders and decision-makers about the value of reliability engineering? And find the correct level of investment in reliability and reliability engineers.

The University Education Gap

The issue with the undervaluing of reliability engineers begins at the university level. Reliability engineering is hardly taught, and in the few cases where it is, there is more emphasis on statistics than on design. Young and talented reliability engineers with backgrounds in mechanical or electrical engineering are expensive to hire.

The problem is leaders want to see a decent return on their investment. This can result in misalignment between engineers and the business, leading to disengagement, poor performance and high turnover rates. Strengths of Reliability engineers are often process-driven and analytical, adept at identifying potential problems, analysing data, and implementing solutions to prevent equipment failure and downtime.

Professionals must develop some of the soft or communication skills which often inhibits their progression within the organisation. Without these skills, we heard of professionals being overlooked. An under utilisation of their skills means missed opportunities to improve reliability and reduce downtime.

The Leadership Blind Spot  

Reliability engineers are specialists, not generalists, and require the freedom to spend time on design and strategic thinking. Leaders often overlook this strength and do not appreciate the true value that reliability engineers deliver. Because their focus is so short-term and quarterly based, when it comes to things like asset utilisation, the whole notion of understanding what a reliability engineer does is quite intangible. As a result, reliability engineers are often deployed to do other things across maintenance and operational functions.

Seemingly everything but reliability engineering! But when reliability engineers are forced to perform tasks outside of their area of expertise, they can become disconnected and disengaged. And a wasted asset. Conversely, there are instances where engineers with maintenance experience are given the role of reliability engineer, despite the work requiring an analytical approach rather than a focus on fixing and maintaining equipment. And you end up with the same outcome: A misunderstood, unhappy engineer in the wrong role.

Understanding Reliability Engineering 

According to the highly regarded Elements DICTIONARY for Reliability Leaders & Asset Managers, and Maintenance Reliability Best Practices Workbook:

Reliability is ‘The Probability that an asset, item or system will perform its required functions satisfactorily under specific conditions within a certain time period.

Reliability Engineering is ‘An engineering discipline that emphasises reliability /dependability in the lifecycle management of an asset. Reliability is the ability of an or component to perform its required functions under stated conditions for a specified period of time. The goal of RE is to identify risks (failures) of assets and /or components and develop effective corrective actions to mitigate of minimise those failures.

As a starting point to demystify and begin to build respect for the role and the function, these key principles and practices are worth considering as a foundation:

1. Failure Analysis: Reliability engineers should analyse past failures to identify patterns, root causes, and potential areas of improvement. This proactive approach enables them to anticipate and prevent future failures. 

2. Risk Assessment: By conducting risk assessments, reliability engineers can identify potential failure modes, assess their impact, and prioritize mitigation efforts. This involves quantifying risks, considering factors such as probability, severity, and detectability. 

3. Design for Reliability: Incorporating their reliability considerations into the design phase is essential for building resilience. This includes selecting robust components, implementing redundancy where necessary, and designing for ease of maintenance and repair. 

4. Testing and Validation: Rigorous testing and validation are essential to ensure that systems meet reliability requirements. This involves conducting various tests, such as stress testing, performance testing, and fault injection, to assess system behaviour under different conditions. 

5. Monitoring and Maintenance: Continuous monitoring of system performance and health is crucial for early detection of anomalies or degradation. Reliability engineers implement monitoring systems and establish maintenance protocols to address issues proactively and minimize downtime. 

In conclusion, reliability engineering is a vital discipline that underpins the stability, performance, safety, and trustworthiness of ageing and modern plant and equipment. By adopting a systematic approach to identifying, assessing, and mitigating potential failures, reliability engineers help asset-intensive companies mitigate risks, and drive business success in an increasingly competitive landscape.

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