by Jeff Smith, Standard Alloys
January 25, 2012

Power Plant Pump Case

Address this problem to avoid the possibility of future crises.

The crumbling infrastructure of our roads and bridges is the hot topic in today’s political discourse. However, an even bigger problem may be the pump infrastructure in our nation’s industrial base.

Pumps are the heartbeat that enables most industries to run the processes that create products. Untold thousands of pumps are now in the 25-to-75-year-old age group and must continue running even though the original life was probably predicted to be 20 years. This is because of the extremely high cost of replacing the pumps with newer model pumps.

The manufacturers of many of these pumps are either out of business or have moved on to selling new models and no longer support the older models with replacement parts. The question becomes “what are the strategies for continuing to maintain sources for these old pump parts in the coming years?”

In 1973, I was involved in an expansion project at a large refinery in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. Thirty-nine years later, that plant is still there, and many of those pumps are probably still in service. I can remember that we manually set up spare parts inventory, minimums and maximums, based on the list sent to us by the vendors.

Millions of dollars of spare parts inventory were kept in the warehouse to support the pumps and other equipment—unlike today when inventories are kept at a minimum at both the plants and by the original equipment manufacturers ( OEM). In those days, we would set up the parts in our system and purchase inventory for the warehouse except for the cases, which were a “non-wear” item. Now, almost 40 years later, I can say with certainty that pump cases are wear items…they just wear very slowly.

Pump Cases

Older pumps still in operation are creating major problems for their owners. One example is a large pump case that was worked on for a major customer. The case had come into the shop for a minor repair. It looked great, but during the repair process, the mechanic checked the wall thickness and found that the wall had worn to only 1/8 inch thick. When informed, the customer immediately ordered a replacement case and paid a premium to get an expedited delivery.

Another example regarding cases happened recently. We received an email from a salesman that read, “The customer called and said that the case currently being manufactured on overtime is now an emergency. The sister pump is failing.” Again, this was an older pump still being used in a key operation.

One last example is truly amazing. A replacement case for a reciprocating pump still in operation was requested. A case had last been made for it 37 years ago….and the pump was not new then. The old pattern was located and a replacement case was produced. Hopefully, it will last another 37 years.

The Current Problem

Pump Replacement Part Availability Jeff Smith, Standard Alloys Address this problem to avoid the possibility of future crises. Many stories like this exist in the business, which leads to the conclusion that the current problem with replacement parts may become a crisis in the future. In most industries, pumps move products. The industry cannot exist without its pumps. The pumps are old, and they are starting to need more spares, including pump cases. Sources for spare parts are becoming difficult to find, and few companies have a strategy to keep their old pumps running long-term. This problem is only going to increase at an accelerated rate.

Proactive Analysis

People at the appropriate management level must determine if this is a problem in their plant. There are many plants in which the pumps in service are relatively new and are still supported with available spare parts. A recent informal survey indicated this to be true for 36 percent of those surveyed.

However, a majority (64 percent) of the plants have older pump populations. This group needs to study their pumps:

  • Their age 
  • How critical they are to the process 
  • The availability of spares 

They should also determine whether a problem exists today or, if not, when it may exist. At some point a problem with parts availability will exist with older pumps. The survey indicated that 90 percent of plants with older pumps have either a minor problem or a growing problem with their pump spare parts sources today.

Awareness is always the first step of the problem-solving process. Once the problem is acknowledged, it should be further defined. Each pump should be identified, and a determination made as to whether spares are readily available. Some parts that may be considered obsolete may still be available from aftermarket sources.

Other parts that may not technically be obsolete may not be available because no one is making them and putting them in inventory. When needed, the lead time may be many months even if a delay of many months is not acceptable.

Alternative Strategies

Numerous reasons exist as to why a pump part may not be readily available. For example, the pump cannot be repaired due to the unavailability of critical spares because they are no longer manufactured. In this case, a couple options are available. First is that some pre-engineering of currently available models should be conducted so that when the pump does end its useful life, a known replacement model can be ordered with minimal delay.

Another option is to determine if the pump part can be reverse engineered. Reverse engineering during downtime for normal maintenance might be a good strategy.