Autonomous maintenance is one of the 8 Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) pillars, it aims to give both competence and responsibility for routine maintenance, such as cleaning, lubricating, and inspection to operators.
The aims and targeted benefits of autonomous maintenance
The ultimate goal of Total Productive Maintenance is to enhance machines’ effectiveness. TPM is a participative approach, involving all stakeholders and taking into account all aspects of maintenance. In order to achieve this goal, TPM is split in 8 pillars or topics. Autonomous maintenance is one of the 8 and is about simple mundane tasks, but having their importance nevertheless. The expected outcomes are:
- Operators’ greater “ownership” of their equipment
- Increased operators’ knowledge of their equipment
- Ensuring equipment is well-cleaned and lubricated
- Identification of emergent issues before they become serious failures
- Freeing maintenance personnel for higher-level tasks
Operator’s ownership of their equipment is meant to close the divide between Production and Maintenance in cases where the first claim “my job is to produce” and the second “my job is to repair”. This is mainly the case when production staff is incentivized on production output and maintenance is jealous about keeping its technical skills and prerogatives.
What happens then is that production operators do not usually care much about the equipment and machines they use and are prone to trespass speed limits, for example.
As they are not supposed to do anything about the machine breaking down, they soon find out that breakdowns are opportunities for an extra break, hence an extra smoke, one more coffee and so on.
As a result, machines stops last longer as they should: waiting for maintenance staff to come, discover the cause of the trouble, fix it, waiting for the operators to come back and resume production.
It can go the other way when production is strongly incentivized on units produced: any stoppage or breakdown jeopardizes the bonus and is immediately resented when maintenance doesn’t fix the problem fast enough.
What TPM is trying to do: give operators a sense of ownership of their equipment in order for them to take care, use it well, help maintenance technicians to find the causes of breakdowns by summarizing what happened before, and so on.
In order to achieve this, training must be delivered to both production and maintenance staff, focusing on the required cooperation for the sake of overall performance improvement. It will be a win-win cooperation: operators enriching their jobs with technical aspects and maintenance technicians being freed of low-qualification tasks for a better use of their real technical expertise. However, this must be done step by step.
Increasing operators’ knowledge of their equipment
Operator will use their equipment and machines correctly if they are trained not only for the use, but also a bit further into technical details. When operators have a basic understanding of how a machine works, they may be able to discover some causes of malfunction by themselves and give precious indication to maintenance team. With this focus, downtime can be reduced as maintenance does not have to go through a full investigation. If operators show interest and abilities, they may be trained further, to a point they can help maintenance with repairs, preventive maintenance tasks, adjustments, etc.
In my years as production manager with Yamaha, we brought teams of ladies to take care of the maintenance of automatic electronic components insertion machines. These ladies started as operators without any technical background, only feeding the machines. Step by step we trained them to take care of simple cleaning tasks, then adjustments, later exchanging more and more complicated mechanisms and finally be involved in major repairs.
Ensuring equipment is well-cleaned and lubricated
Before dreaming of repairing complex equipment, the journey starts with more mundane but important tasks: cleaning and lubrication.
But it’s more than that. Autonomous maintenance is about passing over to operators the basic cleaning of the machines, lubricating and oiling, tightening of nuts and bolts, etc.
With these new tasks, operators will soon be able to take over daily inspection, diagnosis of potential problems and other actions that increase the productive life of machines or equipment. With appropriate prior training, of course.
Identification of emergent issues before they become serious failures
Cleaning and lubrication by operators is not a trick to reduce manpower costs by pushing tasks to lesser qualified people. On the contrary: TPM considers daily cleaning as an inspection and operators as subject matter experts. Indeed, operators using the machines and equipment daily are the best qualified detectors of early signs of problems. While cleaning they can detect: wear, unusual noises, vibrations, heat, smell, leakage, change of color, etc.
Using the machines frequently, they know best what is “as usual” and what is unusual. Someone hired only to clean and lubricate machines without using them would not be able to notice the forerunning signs of potential big trouble.
This daily inspection is key to reduce breakdowns by keeping the machine in good condition and by warning early – before breakdown – in order to remedy swiftly to unusual forerunning signs.
Freeing maintenance personnel for higher-level tasks
Putting skilled professionals in charge of challenges matching their expertise is certainly more attractive than asking them “to clean up other’s mess”, as maintenance staff frequently complain. Therefore the reluctance to train production operators for simple tasks and hand those over should not be a big deal for maintenance techs.
Production management should also see the opportunity to have better technical support for improvement and repairs, as skilled technicians are made more available. Of course, this comes at the expense of some daily minutes devoted to take care about machines instead of producing parts. In the long run, this should be a good deal, because less breakdowns, less scrap, fewer minor stops and faster changeovers thanks to technical improvements will pay back in productive capacity.
Finally, for production operators, the deal is to enrich their job with more technical content. For those immediately claiming acquisition of new skills deserve a pay raise, they should first consider that taking care of machines and equipment they are in charge is a basic expectation, not an extra requirement. Time will be given to do the daily maintenance routine. For operators it’s a shift of occupation content a few minutes a day.
Now this said, the question of a raise is to be considered in the context.