Among the earliest modern lowcost manufacturing machines were compact air compressors and pneumatic tools. An example of an early packaged air compressor is shown in the illustration. These units provided a level of productivity that hand tools couldn’t match, and the use of compressed air exploded, creating the utility industry relies on today.

In most plants, compressed air is a fundamental utility, second only to electricity. If the compressed air system goes down, the plant goes down. In these situations there’s usually a mad dash, with a spare-no-expense attitude, to get rental compressors on site and/or get the primary units up and running. This makes a lot of sense considering that the owners of a plant, which may produce $250,000 of product an hour, don’t want to hear, “We’ll be shut down for two days waiting on a part for the compressor.”

In fact, the compressed air utility is so important that most plants have a completely redundant compressed air system on standby just for these eventualities. In the event of an unscheduled shut down, the backup compressors can be immediately brought on line and carry the plant until the primary units are repaired. In addition to emergency situations, a redundant system is also capable of providing uninterrupted air during routine maintenance periods. In these cases the backup compressors are brought on line and the primary units are shut down so that scheduled maintenance can be properly conducted.

No respect
Unfortunately, many managers and engineering personnel take a rather caviler attitude towards compressed air. It is perceived as a utility, therefor most managers don’t give it a second thought. They regard reliable compressed air in the same way they perceive water, sewer, or electricity — it’s just there. It’s not at all uncommon for those in authority to treat the compressed air system as the ugly stepchild of the capital equipment.

However, this attitude rarely exists on a maintenance level. The maintenance group is keenly aware that this all-important utility is generated on site and they are charged with the responsibility of providing clean, reliable, and uninterrupted compressed air at all times.

The relationship between an uncaring management team and the maintenance group can be frustrating for the mechanics assigned to the compressed air system. They cry out for updated equipment, energy saving systems, and the time to carry out proper maintenance procedures. Yet, in many instances, their pleas fall on deaf ears. Even the most dedicated maintenance personnel eventually give up, and the air system starts a slow decline into decay with disastrous results at the end of the road.

It is essential that management clearly understands the importance of their plant’s compressed air system. Many companies have weekly meetings to discuss various items pertaining to their operations. A brief description on the state of the compressed air system should be included in these meetings and taken seriously. Minor problems in the compressed air system have a way of becoming major — and expensive — problems in a hurry. A healthy relationship between management and the maintenance group can mean the difference between a minor problem and a major production loss.

A plant’s compressed air system can usually be broken up into three basic categories: the compressed air source, the distribution system, and the applications. In order to properly operate and maintain the plant’s compressed air system, management and maintenance personnel should be aware of the various nuances that make up each of these subdivisions.