Autonomous maintenance

A role shift can blend operations and maintenance into a cohesive team

At the core of world-class maintenance performance is something called autonomous maintenance. In this context, the term autonomous doesn't mean performing maintenance in a vacuum or solely by the traditional maintenance department. Rather, it means that operators perform certain equipment maintenance activities and that maintenance crafts get closely involved in the daily operation of equipment. The focus of the operating team is on cleaning, inspecting, lubricating, monitoring and other such essential daily tasks traditionally within the domain of the maintenance department.

Unfortunately, most equipment operators lack a feeling of ownership. The conventional philosophy in many underperforming plants is "I run it, you fix it," or "I'm manufacturing, you're maintenance." The older the company, the more rooted this mind-set becomes and the more difficult it is to change. In world-class plants, the operator becomes the asset owner, the focus for routine maintenance and the central figure in overall equipment effectiveness.

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Real operator involvement

Operators can make or break maintenance effectiveness. Without interrupting their production work, operators can easily prevent breakdowns, predict failures and prolong equipment life if they become more intimately familiar with the machinery they run every day. But to do this, they must become highly equipment-conscious, and that can require some intense training. For example, operators must know what constitutes normal and abnormal operation. They need to know what they should listen for and be alert to. They must know what to do to keep machines in normal operating condition -- lubricating them regularly, monitoring vital signs and recording abnormalities. They must also know what to do to get the machine back online when something goes wrong -- fix minor problem, call maintenance for major problems and to schedule repairs. These actions are not intuitive for equipment operators; they must be learned.

Also, operators must be taught how, when and what to lubricate, as well as the best methods for checking lubrication. If operators aren't in the habit of cleaning their equipment, which, in world-class organizations, also means inspecting, operators will need to learn. Keeping debris from around machinery and other simple, good housekeeping is not necessarily part of the conventional operator's job description, but it's mandatory for achieving maintenance excellence.

Through formal classroom and on-the-job training, operators will learn what to look for during those inspections. They will begin to see equipment from a maintenance viewpoint as well as from an operator's perspective. They'll learn their machines' critical points, areas of greatest wear potential and the relationships between operational abnormalities and root causes.

In the course of becoming more equipment-savvy, a sense of ownership will begin to take hold. With ownership comes an understanding of the role the equipment plays in producing quality output and how this new operator/machine relationship fits with the goals of the company. A new confidence in being able to diagnose problems accurately and devise solutions confidently will emerge. Operators become more creative problem solvers as they become more comfortable in the new, empowered role.

Autonomous benefits

Every company has invested heavily in developing the maintenance skills required to troubleshoot, repair and rebuild critical assets that comprise the facility. In most cases, each maintenance technician has received tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars worth of formal and practical on-the-job training. Therefore, it seems illogical to waste this investment by having the best maintenance technicians in the house perform low-skill activities, such as inspections, lubrication, calibration and minor adjustments.

Involving operators in routine care and maintenance of critical plant assets offers three major benefits. The most obvious is reduced maintenance labor cost. In addition, the proximity of the operator to the asset greatly reduces or eliminates travel time, waiting for availability and other inefficiencies. Overall, autonomous maintenance represents a much better use of resources.

The second advantage is an increase in the availability of the highly skilled maintenance workforce for those maintenance activities that require greater specialized talents.

In most cases, serious maintenance activities, such as rebuilds and overhauls, can be performed much more effectively and efficiently under autonomous maintenance. This is especially important for offsetting the drastic population reduction in the skilled maintenance workforce during the past decade. An inadequately staffed workforce isn't a good excuse for avoiding or ignoring critical maintenance tasks.

The third benefit is the elimination of the "we-they" syndrome so prevalent in many plants. To be truly world-class, maintenance and production must function as an integrated team. Involving the operators in routine care and maintenance of the plant's assets will begin to crumble the traditional barriers between these two departments.

The ultimate reason for autonomous maintenance is simply that it saves money and improves bottom-line profitability. Operators are typically under used and have the time to perform these lower-skilled tasks. Transferring these tasks to operating teams improves the payback on the burdened, sunk cost of the production workforce and, at the same time, permits more effective use of the maintenance crafts.

Contributing Editor R. Keith Mobley is principal consultant at Life Cycle Engineering in Charleston, S.C. E-mail him at kmobley@LCE.com.

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