Home Topics Reliability centered maintenance What is reliability centered maintenance (RCM)?
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What is RCM?

Reliability centered maintenance (RCM) is a process whereby organizations identify the physical assets, such as machines or tools, required to produce their products. And create a comprehensive strategy for keeping them online and operating at an optimal level.

RCM is a highly customized process with a unique approach for each asset that is tailored to its usage, key component parts, and unique threats to usability. The ultimate goal is to maximize equipment availability while reducing the need to replace assets, thereby reducing costs. It differs from other maintenance procedures in that it treats every asset differently depending on its specific needs, importance to the overall process, and how it needs to be monitored and maintained.

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Where does RCM come from?

Before specialization and the global supply chain separated the builders of equipment from their ultimate users. Those who previously built physical assets were often the ones who used them, thereby having an innate understanding of their inherent parts. As specialization increased and the builders of products were no longer the users. Customers of physical assets needed a more comprehensive and strategic methodology to understand and address the parts of their machinery.

This was especially true and critical for the aviation industry, which is commonly attributed as the birthplace of RCM. As the crash rate of airplanes accelerated in the 1960s, the industry had to change how it handled maintenance, which was not happening frequently enough to prevent those catastrophic crashes. The industry needed help with identifying possible failures and had to change its approach. Time-based maintenance, where interventions happened on a specific schedule, was no longer working. Some studies proved that spending less time and cost on maintenance but handling it so more strategically produced better results, suggesting that a more efficient approach was possible. 

In fact, the name reliability centered maintenance comes from a 1978 Nolan and Heap report for United Airlines. The report sought to codify the new process for ensuring better airplane safety through a new approach to equipment maintenance. The impact of this report is so lasting that virtually every RCM approach evokes the Society of Automotive Engineers JA1011 standard, which the Nolan and Heap report created.

Now, RCM has spread to nearly every industry as an intelligent and cost-effective way to run maintenance during the manufacturing process.

How does RCM analysis work?

Reliability centered maintenance analysis requires several components to work in coordination with each other. Above all, a well-functioning factory requires a system whereby all workers log in and identify which tools and equipment they are using. This is so that the organization understands the amount of wear and tear on their machines as important data points, which they can use to improve their reliability centered maintenance program.

  1. Asset Discovery: In this phase, companies define and identify the full spectrum of assets on hand, which can be everything onsite or just the tools that contribute to the actual products. 
  2. Evaluation Criteria: Once you’ve identified all assets, you need to build a list of criteria by which to assess the state of each asset. Some organizations follow industry guidelines or create their own or use a combination of both.
  3. Documentation on usage: Is the asset designed and used as intended, or has it been customized/altered to fit into the unique specifications of the plant? If so, how does that impact its reliability, and what would happen if it fails?
  4. Asset condition monitoring: It includes the habitual monitoring of individual assets or parts within equipment to identify whether maintenance or replacement is required. Using real-time monitoring means that, at any time, someone can query the status of a system, tool, or process. The result is a continuous stream of low-latency information that authorized parties can access at any given time. 
  5. Criticality analysis: Determines how important each asset is and what would happen to the overall process if it failed.
  6. Tracking: Next, assets are entered into and tracked in a management system, which accounts for every asset, codifies the maintenance process, and assigns the inherent criticality of the asset to the overall process. This is accomplished by using a CMMS, which tracks work orders, track maintenance histories, and spare parts inventory.
  7. Detection: Does the asset have automatic sensors to determine the health of its system functions? Or does there need to be a manual quality assessment process that identifies current standing? The company needs to analyze each asset's manual and automatic detection possibilities, making optimizing how companies approach maintenance possible. 
  8. Probability of Failure: Each asset must be assigned a rolling failure risk, which depends on its overall risk, the likely causes of failure, and any new pertinent information about its current standing. Many RCM processes use FMEA (Failure Mode and Effects Analysis) to determine the likelihood of failure of any particular physical asset. The Department of Defense (DOD) created FMEA in the 1940s as a process analysis tool to identify potential failures in product design. For instance, it is likely (though not guaranteed) that a product that has required several maintenance activities is at a higher risk of failure than a similar product that was introduced to the factory. This must consider all criteria universal to the RCM program (asset age, uses, and so on) and unique to the specific asset.
  9. Consequences of the failure: It is important to know what will happen if an asset fails or why (that is, failure mode) as this has implications on workplace safety, production delays, and other business impacts. Knowing the difference between critical assets and those less integral to the overall process will help businesses create an effective maintenance strategy to keep everything operational. 
  10. Root cause analysisIf an asset did fail, engineers should identify why it did and implement any new, proactive tasks that eliminate the likelihood of a future failure. This includes determining whether the specific asset had high-performance standards or was defective.
Types of maintenance management

There are four major types of maintenance programs that a company can do.

Reactive maintenance

Also known as corrective maintenance, this costly type of maintenance addresses asset failure after the fact. Reacting to assets after they've failed is costly, a burden on the manufacturing process, and, with RCM, entirely avoidable by focusing more on other types of maintenance.

Preventive maintenance

Preventive maintenance involves conducting regularly scheduled maintenance activities to help prevent failures in the future. This involves addressing specific actions before potential asset failure, such as cleaning, tightening, or oiling components, or replacing parts. Preventive or scheduled maintenance uses machine learning, operational data analytics, and predictive asset health monitoring to optimize maintenance and reduce reliability risks. This is thanks to maintenance workers addressing a potential problem via a preventive task.

Learn more about preventive maintenance
Predictive maintenance

This proactive maintenance approach uses sensors, data, the Internet of Things, and other automated monitoring to help engineers make more informed decisions on when to perform maintenance. A hallmark of RCM is only to intervene and provide maintenance when necessary, which is why predictive maintenance, also known as condition-based maintenance, is highly favored.

Learn more about predictive maintenance

A maintenance strategy where a company tolerates equipment failures to avoid maintenance costs. By allowing a functional failure, this maintenance process usually only makes sense if the cost of replacing products is cheaper than the cost of preventive maintenance or predictive maintenance.

Benefits of an RCM process

Any interruption to factory operations has severe consequences, including reputational damage, hard costs, and slowed growth. Successful implementation of a reliability centered maintenance program prevents costly interruptions to overall production, producing several important benefits, including:

Lower maintenance costs

Asset RCM is cheaper than replacing products because it prioritizes and optimizes the most important assets, uses automation and technology to replace costly maintenance tasks, and intervenes only when necessary. This is true when preventive maintenance is at the forefront of the RCM strategy to avoid unnecessary actions.

Environmental impact

As companies launch sustainability initiatives, maintaining product functionality and avoiding the need for premature asset replacements is a net positive for both businesses and the environment. RCM enables companies to reach their Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) goals.

High equipment reliability and uptime

Addressing potential failures before they become unsolvable ensures that those assets remain in service but it also extends the overall lifetime of the asset.

Higher customer satisfaction

Due to equipment reliability, a fully functioning factory operating as intended keeps a company's supply chain running as intended, ensuring customers receive timely deliveries.

Challenges of an RCM process

Implementing RCM is not without some tradeoffs, however. Companies that had a more manual process may struggle at the onset of creating an RCM process, so it’s good to know what they need to address.

Upfront costs

For companies starting from zero, RCM can require significant investments in time, money, and resources. In some scenarios, the company may need to alter existing equipment or replace it with newer versions incorporating sensors or other automated technology. This might mean an upfront CapEx cost, but the company should expect to recoup those costs in time thanks to increased efficiency and fewer costly breakdowns.


Moving from a reactive or preventive maintenance model to RCM is a jump of several degrees in complexity. It requires replacing technology, building a comprehensive process, and training your workforce to use the new system. 

Pains of transformation

Codifying RCM into the organization requires an operational strategy and culture transformation, which some executives and employees may need help adapting. It may take extensive training and C-suite calls to action to get everyone on board with the new approach.

Potential errors remain

While RCM involves significant automation and technologies, many components still require human decision-making, such as risk assessment and when to intervene. As with other human decisions, errors and mistakes can happen.

How to build a lasting RCM process

RCM requires several specific steps, all working in ordination with each other.

Assess your current process

It behooves organizations to document (or review) their existing processes, no matter how simple to understand how they were previously approaching maintenance. This demonstrates to leadership how much work will be required to achieve RCM.

Equipment inventory and analysis

Each piece of equipment must be analyzed to understand its parts and how the individual equipment fits into the larger factory. As part of this, identify which assets are critical. Fortunately, smart software, like a CMMS, has long replaced the days of spreadsheets and manual documentation.

Create a dynamic RCM team

Understanding how to keep equipment running requires a cross-disciplinary team, including engineers, mechanics, coders, maintenance workers, and personnel from other departments. All of which help create and document the RCM process and remain involved in its implementation.

Build your RCM approach

Following the guidance of SAE JA1011, create a process that incorporates best practices but is customized to your unique needs. How your process works will depend on your assets, which need immediate upgrades, your production schedule, and hundreds of other steps that dictate wear and tear. And how you can best keep the manufacturing process running.

Reliability centered maintenance products
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Reliability centered maintenance resources What is preventive maintenance?

Preventive maintenance is the act of performing regularly scheduled maintenance activities to help prevent unexpected failures in the future. Put simply, it’s about fixing things before they break.

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What is a CMMS?

Short for computerized maintenance management system, CMMS is software that helps manage assets, schedule maintenance and track work orders.

What is root cause analysis?

Learn about different tools and methodologies to conduct root cause analyses and address issues quickly.

How can you optimize your APM strategy right now?

Asset performance management (APM), allows companies to enhance their maintenance strategy with IoT to make more informed decisions and expedite their transformation from preventive maintenance to more predictive and even prescriptive actions.

Take the next step

Unlock the full potential of your enterprise assets with IBM Maximo Application Suite by unifying maintenance, inspection and reliability systems into one platform. It’s an integrated cloud-based solution that harnesses the power of AI, IoT and advanced analytics to maximize asset performance, extend asset lifecycles, minimize operational costs and reduce downtime.

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