June 7, 2021


The 4 Most Common Causes of Equipment Failure (and How to Avoid Them)

The 4 Most Common Causes of Equipment Failure (and How to Avoid Them)

Equipment sometimes fails unexpectedly—it’s inevitable. 

But that doesn’t make unplanned breakdowns any less frustrating.

Whether it’s a deep fryer in a commercial kitchen or a conveyor belt in a manufacturing facility, unexpected breakdowns create ripple effects across company lines. Productivity stalls, while technicans work hard to get everything up and running under pressure.

Beyond disappointing customers with late deliverables, the worst machine failures can even cause physical harm. For example, a deteriorating component on a high-voltage substation could result in severe electrical shock if not correctly handled.  

For these reasons, O&M managers must take proactive measures to keep machinery running in optimal condition.

In this article, we’ll review the four most common causes of equipment failure. Once you become aware of these causes, you probably won’t eliminate failure 100 percent But you will know how to begin reducing its occurrence and impact on operations. 

Equipment Failure Doesn’t “Just Happen”

Equipment failures can be gradual, intermittent, or sudden.

However, no matter how mysterious a breakdown may seem, one can trace the event back to a root cause most of the time. 

Depending on their training, maintenance managers use a variety of analysis methods to help pinpoint root causes. The 5 Whys, fishbone diagrams, and root cause analysis are just some of the deductive techniques commonly used within industrial maintenance departments. 

Regardless of the method employed, uncovering the original “falling domino” should be the ultimate goal of every manager wanting to increase operational reliability. Before we dive into the causes, let’s take a quick look at the types of equipment they include. 

What Are the Different Types of Equipment?

equipment failure

Equipment, of course, refers to a set of mechanical tools used for production. Different facilities need different types of equipment to achieve their production goals. 

Regardless of the industry—agricultural, manufacturing, warehousing, energy and gas, food service—equipment falls into three broad categories:

  • Powered Equipment: These are machines that rely on fuel or electric motors to operate. Also known as “heavy equipment,” they include bulldozers, cranes, and forklifts. 
  • Mechanical Equipment: Mechanical equipment usually includes moving components that work together to perform a specific task. Refrigeration units, condensers, extruders, conveyor belts, and air compressors are examples of mechanical equipment.
  • Non-Mechanical Equipment: Non-mechanical equipment is generally small and doesn’t have any moving parts. Most hand-held tools fall into this category, including plumbing, gas lines, electric panels, and HVAC system tools.

Now, let’s look at the most frequent causes of machine breakdowns. 

The 4 Causes of Equipment Failure

equipment failure

1. Aging Equipment

According to the 2019 Plant Engineering Maintenance Study, aging equipment is the leading cause of equipment failure, accounting for 40 percent of unplanned downtime in plants. 

Assets that consistently run year after year require more frequent repairs over time. Unfortunately, this natural deterioration translates to more money spent on parts, shipment fees, and production interruptions. It also requires technicians to shift from practicing preventive maintenance (PM) to reactive maintenance more frequently. 

Additionally, the more outdated a model becomes, the more difficult it becomes to procure replacement parts. Since manufacturers generally produce lower quantities of antiquated parts, managers of older equipment often have trouble securing what they need when they need it. 

For these reasons, plants should allow pieces of equipment that have passed their useful life to run to failure. Though purchasing new machinery is undoubtedly expensive, most organizations will save money in the long run in the form of less frequent repair expenses, increased production, and more efficient parts management. 

2. Operator Error

Another common cause of equipment failure is operator error. Both fortunately and unfortunately, human beings aren’t machines! Consequently, we sometimes make mistakes due to fatigue or forgetfulness. 

Most plants prepare machine operators to properly run complex pieces of equipment with educational training, accessible standard operating procedures (SOPs), and clear communication channels. However, it’s not unheard of for workers to occasionally work on unfamiliar machines when filling in for others. 

For example, maybe the machine operator who typically runs the machine had to take care of an emergency. As a result, someone asked an untrained worker to temporarily step in. 

Not only could the worker’s lack of specialized knowledge result in an equipment breakdown, but it could also cause an accident. Further, it could breach OSHA’s operator training requirements,

3. Lack of Preventive Maintenance

There’s a reason why world-class maintenance programs predominantly practice preventive maintenance: it works to decrease downtime! Studies suggest PM programs can reduce equipment failure by as much as 45 percent

However, many managers still operate under the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” While run-to-failure maintenance is often the ideal strategy for non-critical equipment, a lack of planned inspections can lead to missing subtle signs of impending failure and depreciating performance. 

Run-to-Failure Maintenance vs. Preventive Maintenance

Run-to-failure maintenance is a maintenance strategy in which maintenance activities are performed after a failure occurs. It’s a reactive strategy that allows an asset to break down before deciding whether to repair or replace it.

Also referred to as “breakdown maintenance,” this strategy is best suited for non-critical assets, inexpensive assets, and those with shorter lifespans.  It’s also sometimes used for equipment such as satellites that are difficult to perform regular maintenance on. However, run-to-failure maintenance should never be used for critical assets that impact production and safety.

Alternatively, preventive maintenance (PM) involves scheduling and performing recommended upkeep according to time or usage-based intervals. It’s a proactive strategy best suited for expensive assets, critical assets, and components that are essential to employee safety. 

Ultimately, organizations that solely practice run-to-failure miss out on solving minor issues before they become big problems. Additionally, frequently missed or delayed tasks, like periodically lubricating equipment parts, can reduce useful life spans over time. The result? Needing to frequently purchase new pieces of equipment earlier than necessary.

4. Over-Maintenance

On the other hand, performing too much maintenance can also be detrimental. Though less common, over-maintenance can speed up an asset’s depreciation. 

Constantly taking apart and reconfiguring equipment components can disrupt even the most stable systems, causing them to become less effective. 

Additionally, maintenance technicians may be more likely to “go through the motions,” viewing frequent tasks as yet another item to be checked off. Lastly, over-maintenance steals time away from busy technicians that could be put to better use elsewhere! 

What Is the Solution to Equipment Failure? 


As previously mentioned, equipment failure can be extremely costly depending on the industry. Here are a few tips to prevent or minimize equipment failure:

  • Provide Adequate Operator Training: Ensuring equipment operators receive adequate training can help minimize failures that stem from human error. Managers should go above and beyond to train workers how to use machines they don’t normally operate. This way, someone will always be available who has been properly trained according to OSHA standards. Likewise, management must strictly enforce policies that prevent untrained employees from operating machinery. 
  • Develop an Effective PM Strategy: Regular PM activities help prevent failures and extend asset lifespans. The secret to running an effective PM program lies in inventory control, data management, and effective scheduling. A mobile-friendly computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) like MaintainX is the easiest way to begin. 
  • Perform Regular Inspections: Performing regular asset inspections remains one of the most effective ways to identify problems early on. Inspections should be thorough and not done just for the sake of checking off your checklists.
  • Embrace Condition-Based Maintenance (CBM): CBM is the key to dealing with over-maintenance. Maintenance is performed only when it’s needed, just before failure occurs. Since this maintenance strategy requires organizations to monitor asset activity such as vibrations with real-time sensor technology, it’s best suited for maintenance departments with large budgets. 
  • Invest in Maintenance Management Software: Again, a user-friendly CMMS is a game-changer. MaintainX allows app users to automate, simplify, and track all organizational maintenance activities and data points from the convenience of their smartphones. 

Stay Cool, Calm, and Collected with MaintainX 

You can’t always outrun equipment failure, but you can usually minimize its impact. Assets can be somewhat unpredictable, but MaintainX’s CMMS can help keep your team one step ahead of inconvenient breakdowns.

Ready to regain control and increase your bottom line? 

Click here to download MaintainX for free today.

Caroline Eisner
Caroline Eisner
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