High demand, long lead times

In the US, these problems have been exacerbated by the demands of a sold-out market. Not only does high demand have an impact on the wear and tear of machinery; it also makes it difficult to contemplate extended downtime waiting for replacement parts. Plants need to be productive to remain competitive and, when you’re running at 90% capacity, downtime can cost millions of dollars a day in lost revenue.

 

The impact of this new dynamic has been a shift in the way we all think about the supply chain. As suppliers, we have always been conscious of the challenges that can beset shipments – and the ripple effect this has on our customers. But we’ve never seen it quite like this before. In some cases, it feels like we’ve had to throw convention out of the window for the sake of faster deliveries that enable a swift return to productivity. In response, we’ve grown more agile, finding new ways of delivering, new sources and new suppliers. Here, we give just a few examples of the creative ways we’ve helped customers complete their maintenance projects in the face of supply chain challenges. 



Ash Grove's air freight

Ash Grove’s Foreman plant was running a 30-year-old Symetro gearbox on a ball mill. When a gear tooth broke in early 2021, they ordered a new gearbox from FLSmidth MAAG in Poland – and then spent a year patching the broken part to try to keep the mill running while they waited for the new Symetro to be built.  

red gears
As anyone who has ever patched a broken gear tooth can attest, there is only so much that can be done to keep that gear operational. After 11 months, the old gearbox was about ready to give in and the mill could no longer run at full capacity. In a sold-out market, the plant was in danger of losing millions of dollars in lost production. Though the new gearbox was now ready, shipment was likely to take a minimum of two months. With the winter shutdown booked and everything planned, they needed a logistical miracle. 
maag-gear-crated

"It was coming up to Christmas when we realised the new gearbox just wasn’t going to make our winter shutdown. Or at least, not on a ship,” explains Stuart Tomlinson, VP Manufacturing Midwest, Ash Grove. “We started wondering if there was a quicker way to get it done. Would it be possible to put a 104 000 lb gearbox on a plane?”

 

The logistics team at FLSmidth started talking to our forwarder, Aprile Logistics. We got the costs of chartering one of the world’s largest cargo planes, the Antonov An-124, and put them to Ash Grove. 

 

“It doesn’t usually make sense to air freight these kinds of parts, in this case it was more cost-effective than waiting on a shipment, which would not only have meant reduced capacity for much longer, but also untenable delays to our winter shutdown. It was worth the money,” says Stuart Tomlinson. “We really appreciate FLSmidth’s support in making this happen. It’s a highly unusual task and involved a lot of people working together to make sure we got our gearbox on site in time.”

 

The Symetro was collected from MAAG on 5th January 2022 and delivered to St Louis airport on 9th January. The shipment arrived safely at the plant on 11th January and was installed with the support of FLSmidth MAAG service technicians as well as local contractors.
 

Resourceful sourcing

A plant in North America was experiencing an issue with a critical component, which they were patching as best they could while waiting on a new part. The OEM for the component had quoted a long lead time to source the new part from China, but the plant couldn’t afford to wait. They knew the patch wouldn’t hold for long, and they couldn’t risk extensive downtime given the strength of the market. 


As a longstanding partner, the plant came to FLSmidth for a solution. We suggested that they send the parts to our specialist laboratory in Illinois, where we have built the capability to scan parts that need adjusting or upgrading. With this technology, we’re able to reproduce parts to create the best possible fit for each individual application, and in such a way that it is relatively simple to improve the parts to deliver longer life and better performance. 

The scans were completed within days of arriving at the laboratory, thanks to the dedication of our team who worked over the weekend to get the job done. The scans were sent to one of our suppliers in Mexico, in order to minimise the potential freight issues. The quote was received and accepted by the customer within a week, and we proceeded with the job in good time.

 

This flexibility of sourcing is something we have deliberately cultivated in order to meet the needs of all our customers, regardless of where they are and who the OEM might be. Using the laboratory in combination with a range of suppliers ensures we are not restricted by supply chain disruptions and can exceed customer expectations – not only in terms of quality and performance, but also delivery time.


Borrowed grates

In Canada, the Lehigh Picton plant was waiting on a shipment of grate plates for a cooler maintenance outage. The grates had shipped from our facility in India, but ended up stuck in a Sri Lankan port for months, with no way of speeding up delivery. Knowing that the customer needed the plates for a scheduled shutdown, we started thinking of alternative solutions.

 

This is where the power of a global network of customers and suppliers really comes into its own. We knew we had a stock of grates that were the right size for the Picton plant in another customer’s spare parts stock in Mexico. These grate plates were not quite the same – in fact, they were an upgrade – but they would fit in the Picton cooler.

 

We got in touch with the customer in Mexico, who graciously gave permission to redirect these grate plates to the Picton plant, where they were gratefully accepted in good time for the plant’s shutdown. The plant has been so pleased with them that they plan to replace all the grates with this upgraded design.

“People always say the cement industry is a small world. Perhaps that’s why it’s such a collaborative environment. This was a great workaround for us, and we’re very grateful to FLSmidth for arranging it and to our fellow cement producer for being so accommodating.”

Darcy-Lynn JefferyLehigh Picton

A new normal for maintenance planning

The last two years have tested everyone’s resilience and flexibility. It’s been great to see so much collaboration and creative problem-solving, internally and among our customers and suppliers. You get to see the engineer in everyone when we’re working through these obstacles.

 

In response to this challenging supply chain network, we have seen a dramatic increase in orders for spare parts. Many customers have moved from placing orders ‘just in time’ – or more often, not quite in time – to ordering early in an attempt to anticipate and accommodate supply chain disruption. This is a step in the right direction – not just to reduce the tension between high cement demand and difficult supply chain dynamics, but also as a move towards a more proactive maintenance approach, greater efficiency and a more sustainable cement industry. With COVID still a factor, and rising geopolitical uncertainty, it’s a behavioural change we expect will take root. 

Stories from FLSmidth