Autonomous maintenance: The peril of eliminating a department

Rick Wheeler, a Principal Consultant with Life Cycle Engineering, explains how autonomous maintenance has a valid role in modern maintenance strategy.
By Rick Wheeler December 23, 2013

Companies are still pursuing the dream of autonomous maintenance as taught by Tokutaro Suzuki in his book “TPM for Process Industry.” The theory is that basic tasks such as cleaning, inspecting, tightening, and PE312126_MClubricating can and should be done by equipment operators because they are the equipment owners and are closest to the equipment on a daily basis.

The Reliability Excellence model reveals many aspects of this concept, and our clients have implemented and benefited from this “operator care” concept. This has also helped clients deal with the shortage of maintenance trades through shifting tasks that don’t require years of training and special tools to the appropriate persons and allowing the maintenance professionals to focus on the work that best utilizes their skills.

But can the concept be taken too far? If operators can do basic maintenance tasks why can’t they do more? Here’s a cautionary tale of what happened to one manufacturing organization when they built a new facility. They hired a mix of people with mechanical, electrical, instrumentation, and operations backgrounds and trained them all on maintenance practices.

In the beginning they also had a central maintenance group that was responsible for rebuilds and specialized maintenance. This worked relatively well for a period of time. People tended to specialize in their original trade but there was good collaboration, and people were able to work in other trades.

But the product demand decreased. The company asked: “How can we trim our workforce to accommodate the new business environment?” The answer was to let them go. The company limped along for the next two years. Maintenance wasn’t being done quite as well or as fast, but they had lots of time and capacity to meet the demand. And things started to get better.

Over time the market demand for the product increased. At the same time, the market price decreased. Now the plant was getting busier making more products, but making less money on each product. Of course, management’s directive was to meet the demand and cut the manufacturing cost. And for a while they did. They still had a little extra time to make the volume, and they deferred and canceled some maintenance tasks. It was all fine—until one day when it wasn’t.

Now the plant needed to run at capacity to meet the demand. The years of neglect and poor maintenance were taking their toll on the equipment’s ability to operate as it had when new. The maintenance skills that were taught, but seldom used, were now forgotten. There was an increasing

pressure to perform, driving employees to stay in their comfort zones. Those with operations backgrounds just wanted to operate. Instrument techs no longer wanted to help replace mechanical seals or gearboxes. But since there was no core maintenance function they had to look for external contract support.

So how did they unwind this situation? The first step was to perform a skills analysis to determine what capabilities still existed. Those people were then reassembled into mechanical and instrumentation teams. The planning process was restarted to make sure the most important maintenance work was being addressed. This was supported by the reliability engineering function as the engineers began to perform root-cause analysis on critical failures and design out chronic failures.

The elimination of some of the reactive work, and an increase in wrench time gained from proper planning and scheduling, allowed more PM and PdM work to be done.

A decision was made to continue to contract some types of maintenance  such as welding, facilities electrical work, buildings, and grounds maintenance, but the focus was returned to the care and maintenance of the critical process equipment. Great care, however, was taken to maintain the original intended operator care practices.

Autonomous maintenance does have a valid role in the modern maintenance strategy. Its goal is to have clean equipment that is maintained in like-new condition by the operators of equipment. This improves housekeeping, improves the safety and environmental performance, and allows early detection of failure. It also frees up valuable maintenance craft time to focus on precision maintenance and failure elimination.  

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