Photo courtesy of Isis França

J.P. Pascoli–P.E. and Director, Physical Asset Management & Reliability at the world’s second-largest uranium producer–discusses how we can tune the settings of engineering education to fit to actual engineering careers.


Gridium: Hello everyone, and welcome to this conversation with J.P. Pascoli–Professional Engineer and Director of Physical Asset Management & Reliability at Cameco Corporation, the world’s second-largest uranium producer. J.P. has spent over 25 years in engineering, after earning a degree in mechanical engineering from the faculty of applied science at Queen’s University. J.P.’s early education has been complimented with further physical asset management studies at the University of Toronto and professional organisations such as the Society for Maintenance & Reliability Professionals and the Plant Engineering & Maintenance Association of Canada.

My name is Millen, and I’m with Gridium. Buildings use our software to fine-tune operations.

J.P. and I will be discussing how we can calibrate the settings of engineering education to fit to actual engineering careers. This should be fascinating, what with his career spanning wrenching and managing roles at Falconbridge, Tembec, Georgia-Pacific, and Cameco Corp.

J.P., we connected through The Maintainers.org, it’s clear you care deeply about your craft, and it’s such an honor to have another practitioner join us on the podcast.

J.P.: Hi. Great to be here.

Gridium: Let’s start off with a quick story–tell us about the most interesting maintenance project you and your team have handled so far this year?

J.P.: Well Millen, our team is tackling a lot this year, but one of the most interesting projects has to be the introduction of mobile devices for our maintenance workforce.

While you and I have enjoyed the benefits of digital mobility for both our personal and professional lives (and frankly our workers have for personal reasons as well), introducing mobile devices to an industrial workforce to replace printed work orders is no easy feat. We’ve selected hardware and an application. That’s the easy bit.

It’s the implementation and change management piece that is daunting and our next focus.

Gridium: Ok, you’ve been a leader in the industry for two decades. What has changed the most over that span?

J.P.: This might seem like an obvious answer, but it’s clearly been technology. Between increased computing capability, and lower costs for digital tools and field sensors to name a few, we can do things today we never thought possible two decades earlier.

If only people could evolve as rapidly!

Gridium: Over twenty years ago, you decided to study mechanical engineering. Why?

J.P.: Well… I actually wanted to be a Formula 1 driver to be honest!

But when I realised that was never going to happen, engineering seemed to be my calling based on a few simple reasons.

First, I really liked to build things. I was actually a Lego maniac when I was young. Secondly, my father was an engineer – albeit a civil engineer. And because I was fortunate enough to do well in (and frankly enjoy) both math and science in high school, I was led to believe that this was a sign that engineering was my destiny. So I’m somewhat a product of my environment I suppose. I was not 100% sure of course, but my father told me I’d would never go wrong with an engineering degree. He’s not been wrong yet.  

And why ‘mechanical’ ? – well I thought if I can’t drive a race car, maybe I can design one!

Gridium: Can I guess that your favorite driver was Jacques Villeneuve?

J.P.: How did you guess? Yep!

Gridium: The idea for our conversation here came from some feedback you shared with Lee Vinsel at The Maintainers around the gap between engineering degrees and engineering careers.

I understand you’ve seen three sides to the engineering careers story–design, project management, and finally, operations and maintenance. Let’s start at the beginning…how did your formal academic studies map to your initial design work?

J.P.: Engineering education is largely about understanding how things work – but the underlying intent is very much about knowing in order to “build a better mousetrap” so to speak, in other words solve problems through design and continuously improve those designs to meet new design criteria such as lower manufacturing cost, higher output, etc..

Classroom problems were always structured around how to build, create, design, or improve one thing or another. It’s no wonder many engineers graduate with dreams of joining a company to invent the next revolutionary thing or solve some problem through design, in whatever field they specialise. I was no different.

Armed with high credentials in machine design and robotics, and having won a 4th year design course contest, I wanted to design machines for a living – and that’s exactly what I started doing.

Gridium: Can you tell us a little about that design contest?

J.P.: Well, it was a project where you had to pick a piece of equipment and improve upon it, so redesign it. I had spent summers working at a mining company, and dewatering pumps and drilling pumps were a common piece of equipment. So I took something that I had worked on there, redesigned it to be lighter, more ergonomic, and it won.

Gridium: What about design work motivates academics to design their coursework for it, or motivates students to pursue it?

J.P.: Well I can only surmise of course, but if you think of the great accomplishments of mankind, they generally involve solving a problem through design.

Think of each of the industrial revolutions dating back to the late 18th century. Much of the progress was attributed to inventions (ie. designs) from engineers and the like, so understanding how to design is somewhat what we’ve come to expect from them and therefore academics have a standard to uphold.

The other likely reality is that few academics have worked in industry and don’t appreciate that properly operating and maintaining the product of the designs is just as important.

As for students, I think they get drawn into the hero-syndrome that comes from solving a problem through design. Sadly this transcends into industry where we fail to recognise the efforts of the unsung heroes of industry – the maintainers.

Gridium: You’ve worked in engineering across 4 industries and have found that most engineers are staffed on Maintenance & Operations rather than design–is the realization a harsh one, does it occur naturally for folks, did your peers resist the pull of O&M?

J.P.: My belief is that it should never be harsh as it shouldn’t happen overnight, or without consent. It also takes a certain skill set to work ‘on the floor’ so employers generally won’t transition an engineer if they don’t think they’ll fit.

That said, I must say it was actually harsh for me!

I had just finished a 3-year work term at a remote mine site as a project engineer and was ready to come back to the cushy design and project management job I had when I had left, only to be told that ‘for growth and development’ my employer wanted me to be posted at another operation as a ‘maintenance engineer’ – a role I knew nothing about…believe it or not.

Gridium: Apparently not all hope is lost, in fact far from it…where academics may be missing some alignment to careers, other professional organizations are stepping into the breach, such as PEMAC, the Plant Engineering & Maintenance Association of Canada. Can you tell us about that?

J.P.: PEMAC is a Canadian national not for profit association providing networking, education and certification in maintenance, reliability and asset management practices.

It was founded about 30 years ago and its mission is to improve its members’ professionalism, and to increase recognition for the profession and its members. It does so through education and networking events like it’s annual maintenance conference. Today it has over 1600 individual members as well as many corporate and allied members. In many ways it’s very similar to SMRP in the U.S. and in fact they work together on many projects.

Gridium: And PEMAC has as a Maintenance Management Professional course–what is that?

J.P.: Yes PEMAC is very unique among similar associations in that it offers two pretty intense educational programs.

The Maintenance Management Professional certificate program focuses on the tools, techniques, strategies and skills necessary for effective management of a business’s existing physical assets. There are 8 courses with a total of 225 hours of course instruction, covering not only technical aspects of maintenance, but also operations management, financial management, and human resources management, all in the context of maintenance.The program was first piloted in 1999 and since then almost 1400 individuals have become certified, mostly from Canada but also as far as the Middle East.

Gridium: What would you say are the three main lessons someone can learn, either from academic or professional O&M studies, and we’ll ask the same thing from OJT next…And I should also reference two really interesting conversations we’ve had with Steven Lubar at Brown University on Sewing & Welding & Teaching Skill, and also with Linda Hodkiewicz on maintenance procedures that actually work.  

J.P.: Academia is good for teaching how things work (which is important for troubleshooting), including the science behind it, and critical thinking.

Professional O&M studies like PEMAC’s Maintenance Management Program simply cover ground not possible with the already loaded curricula of undergraduate courses.

Gridium: And how do those lessons compare to the three main, let’s call them first principles gathered from on the job experience? If there’s overlap, that would be interesting, and otherwise I am curious how to two learning environments might complement one another.

J.P.: On-the-job-training or experience on the other hand, teaches us that even the best designs can fail when realities of the operating environment are not well understood and considered.

A perfect machine cannot act perfectly when placed in an imperfect operating environment.

For example, many people design machines assuming sufficient clearance to access the machines for proper maintenance. Often that is not the case! The other thing we learn from being in the field is that things wear and it’s very hard to keep things in the same shape they were when first built and installed.

Finally, the people around machines matter, and they generally will dictate how successful a design will be. You don’t see that from a classroom nor an engineering design office.

However, in my opinion these are completely complementary, which is why any engineer that returns to a design or project management environment from an operations and maintenance environment will likely see greater success going forward.

Gridium: What’s more rewarding, design or operations?

J.P.: Ha-ha. Depends who you ask but I guess your asking me. The sad truth is that design, providing it’s a successful design, is always more rewarding because you are rewarded by others because it’s easy for them to see and appreciate the accomplishment.

When working in operations however, the little reward you get is not commensurate with the effort put in simply because most people do not understand the complex challenges of running operations. You often have to pat yourself on the back, so it takes some maturity in order to self-recognise.

Gridium: What was most surprising to you as you transitioned into operations & maintenance?

J.P.: I was absolutely astonished at all the engineering-worthy challenges that existed. In terms of maintenance, I, like most, believed that it was all about tradespeople fixing things that were broken.

I had no idea that there was a place for technology, strategy, statistical analysis, design, and so on and so forth in managing plant equipment.

Gridium: Let me ask you about Preventive Maintenance–for buildings occupied by humans, there is a lot of focus on the balance between preventive and corrective maintenance tasks and we ran a study on 208 thousand work orders and found that only 2% were actually PMs…Drifting off of spec is a nearly gravitational force in mechanical systems.

How do you manage PMs in an industrial plant?

J.P.: Preventive and predictive maintenance programs in industrial plants is a huge part of maintenance. Everywhere I’ve worked I’ve seen about 25% to 40% of maintenance time being devoted to this.

The reason this is so high compared with maintenance of commercial or institutional buildings is likely because the consequence of failure is so different. Very few things can fail and make a building inoperable and when it does there is little financial consequence.

In an industrial environment however, you can bring an entire plant down with a number of failure modes and hourly revenue losses from downtime can be several thousands of dollars to 10s or 100s of thousands of dollars per hour of downtime. This is why PMs and compliance metrics exist and must be front and center in an industrial plant…

….and how to manage? Well industrial plants should look to measure compliance to their program weekly, and I would suggest they look at SMRP’s Best Practices guide specifically for the PM Compliance metric.

It may sound complicated or like a lot of work but once you read the standard and put in a system to measure it (and by the way most CMMSs do the calculation for you), you’ll find it easy. The hard stuff is being disciplined enough to prioritise PMs on a weekly maintenance schedule, and at the end of the week after the compliance is calculated, review what prevented the team from achieving its goal, which by the way should be north of 90% compliance. Figure out your top 3 or 5 themes and put an action plan in place.

Gridium: What does your executive team think about preventive maintenance, are there any specific goals for that?

J.P.: (laughs) That’s a good question – I’ve never asked! But because everyone understands the basic need for preventive maintenance from a vehicle ownership perspective (checking and changing the oil, replacing tires, and the like), I think generally most people, including our executives, think it is a good thing in principle.

But when it comes to spending money on it, people, and executives are not different, have trouble with the financial justification. But around the world I think we’ve turned that corner after 4 decades of maintenance managers and consultants beating that drum.

In our company we’ve now set some lofty goals to ensure about 80% of our work is proactive, with PMs and PdMs comprising about ½ of that. And we expect to achieve 90% PM compliance every week.

Gridium: Professor John Sterman at MIT writes about capability traps, the worse-before-better or better-before-worse trade-offs faced by operations…take a system offline to improve its overall capacity, or band-aid with duct tape and chicken wire and keep the equipment moving and to hit short term goals. How do you think through that?

J.P.: What you’ve described is very real and the number one challenge of the maintenance manager.

When times are good, nobody wants to stop the machines that are making money to do PMs. When times are bad, there is no money to spend. It takes mature and well-educated senior leaders to understand that managing assets requires a long-term view to maximise life-cycle costs, often at the expense of short term ones. A big part of my job is to educate senior leaders on the principles of proactive maintenance and how our actions (such as equipment shutdowns) and funding requests actually provide a return on their investment by actually providing greater productive capacity over time.

Gridium: Reading the trade papers and the often-cited McKinsey study (titled Manufacturing’s next act) leaves us thinking Industry 4.0 is a major trend for your team; the four elements being big data, advanced analytics, human-to-machine interfaces, and automation. What do you think, real, or so much hype?

J.P.: Definitely real but definitely over-hyped. We’re still sitting on the sidelines with some of this. Our initial observations are that technology is easy to buy and install, but much harder to implement and derive a net benefit from.

The returns are not as quick and lofty as depicted in many cases because, while this tech definitely provides a financial benefit, it also brings about new costs that often get forgotten. These things don’t get installed by themselves and contrary to dreamy belief – they don’t maintain themselves. And much of this tech also makes workers uneasy, between job security and the ‘big brother’ aspect. So this has to be managed as well and that takes resources.

Gridium: Is there anything your SCADA system doesn’t do that you wish it did, and why?

J.P.: Not really. While there may be minor things, but I would say, whether it’s our SCADA system or anything other piece of technology we have…it’s not what’s preventing us from getting closer to excellence. It is all about people, discipline, and culture.

Gridium: What are some of the biggest challenges you face as someone tasked with maintenance and reliability?

J.P.: It is, again, about building a reliability culture – from top to bottom. For the Maintenance teams, that means a culture of precision maintenance and discipline of process execution.

For production teams, that means understanding that physical asset management, which includes equipment maintenance, is a team sport that requires constant communication and cooperation. Everyone has a role to play. It’s a joint effort.

Gridium: If there is one message you’d like to have stick after our conversation here today, what would that message be?

J.P.: Working in O&M I’ve really learned to appreciate the words of the late Peter Drucker when he said  “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Gridium: Hah.

J.P.: Whether it’s a design strategy, technology strategy, maintenance strategy, or other – people, their leaders, and the culture that their coexistence creates will always have the final word on whether that strategy is successful.

Gridium: Ok, this has been great and really quite interesting, thank you J.P. for taking the time.

J.P.: Thanks Millen. It’s been fun.

About Millen Paschich

Millen has been thinking about the built environment since he was four, when he started with site walks on residential construction projects. He began his career at Cambridge Associates and has an MBA from UCLA. Talk to him about bicycling, buildings, businesses, and green chile burritos!

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