Catch the Elusive Breakdown Bandit

By Jeff Dearduff

Let me set the scene: Mac the Mechanic walks into Maintenance Manager Mike’s office and says, “Hey, boss, I stood by that oven loader for the last 20 minutes, and it never did what Oscar the Operator said it was doing. It never skipped a shelf.”
Seconds later, over the public address: “Maintenance to the oven loader. It just skipped a shelf … again!”
Manager Mike sends Mac back to the oven to deal with a now frustrated Oscar to watch it some more.
Has this ever happened on your watch? Sure it has. So what have you come up with to combat the “Elusive Breakdown Bandit?” Do you post a mechanic on the machine until you catch it in action? Do you wait until something finally crashes or fails completely? In my opinion, neither option is the ultimate answer. Both lead to an unproductive use of time and a substantial cost for labor, repairs or product loss … or all three.
I would like to share with you today a very simplistic method that might give you an edge in finding the culprit of a nuisance problem on the line. I call it Video Troubleshooting.
Certainly, many maintenance professionals around various industries have given this some thought, but I wonder how the baking and snack food sector view this alternative. Since September 11, surveillance systems have become a bigger part of our everyday lives out on the streets of America, as well as in and around the workplace. Typically, in our bakeries, these systems are used to record activity around a facility for use after an incident has occurred where some level of investigation needs to be conducted. Sometimes cameras are located inside the production environment, but they usually are used for viewing access points with a security focus in mind.
It wouldn’t make sense to install surveillance systems that watch all the process equipment, but the same principle can be applied in another form. At a very low cost, readily available technology can be used in the form of a digital video camera (DVC) on a tripod, coupled with a bit of organized methodology.
Unlike a camera, a maintenance person only needs to blink for a split second or become distracted to miss the action that is causing the intermittent hiccup.
When you’re having an issue such as this, the operator usually can point you in the best direction, so that’s where to start. Set up your DVC and let it become the eyes that stay focused on the possible culprit. Obviously, the more organized you are when deploying this process, the quicker you can identify the root problem.
The organization within this process is also rather elementary, so consider the following steps:
1. Pick your focal point for the camera and set up to it.
2. Make sure the time stamp on the camera is synchronized with the actual time of day.
3. Start recording the operation and go about your business.
4. When a fault occurs, stop recording and rewind to the time on the film that matches the time of the fault. If your machine is controlled by a PLC with a time-stamped fault screen, you’re in luck. Match the fault time to the time on the film, then look and listen.
5. If you come up empty, re-aim the camera to the next likely culprit and try again.
You might get some strange looks from other departments when you deploy this troubleshooting method the first time, but after you have that first successful event where an intermittent problem is found and fixed, people will get used to it.
This troubleshooting system can be used for just about any kind of intermittent problem in the bakery, as long as the environment is agreeable with the recording equipment. Problematic pan jams, high-speed packaging machine issues and, in today’s world, the monitoring of a robot are a good fit for this process.
Don’t only think of this in the visual sense, either. Every DVC usually has very good audio recording, so don’t forget to listen while you look. Actions such as shuttling solenoid valves and alarms easily can be heard on the audio track and could lead to a clue.
One of the first things I hear when this troubleshooting method is suggested is “I don’t have a digital video camera.” My response: Make a visit to your local electronics superstore and buy one! When these cameras first came out, you might have needed $900 or $1,000 to get one, but not today. Like everything else, after the initial rush, the prices became very affordable. Get it in your head that this is just another tool to keep in your 6-ft. tall, vendor wagon-sized tool box.
You don’t have an issue going out and buying that new high-tech volt ohm meter, that new welder or the latest laptop for your tech guy, so why take issue with having this tool in your arsenal? SF&WB
Editor’s Note: In his monthly column, Jeff Dearduff, director of engineering at East Balt, Inc. in Chicago, addresses the responsibilities of the bakery engineer. You can contact him at j.dearduff@comcast.not. To read Jeff’s previous columns, visit