Everything You Need To Know About Autonomous Maintenance

what is autonomous maintenance

Even though some top managers would be very excited to see this, autonomous maintenance is not a new maintenance strategy where robots drive around and instantly diagnose and perform needed maintenance work.

Quite the contrary, autonomous maintenance expands equipment maintenance responsibilities to machine operators and often requires a significant change in the organization’s mindset for successful implementation.

In this article, we are going to cover:

  1. What exactly is autonomous maintenance
  2. What are the main benefits of autonomous maintenance
  3. What does autonomous maintenance training encompass
  4. 7 steps for implementing autonomous maintenance

Let’s get started.

What is autonomous maintenance?

Autonomous maintenance is the first step in the process of implementing Total Productive Maintenance. It represents an approach to maintenance where machine operators take the responsibility for basic maintenance tasks away from maintenance personnel.

Autonomous maintenance in TPM
In practice, this means that actions like safety checks, cleaning, and lubrication are performed by machine operators, which gives maintenance techs the freedom to concentrate on more complex maintenance tasks.

When implemented correctly, autonomous maintenance can bring many additional benefits. We will discuss the biggest ones next.

The main benefits of autonomous maintenance

  1. Ensuring equipment is properly cleaned and lubricated. When there are a lot of big repairs going around and maintenance techs are in a hurry, simple tasks like cleaning and lubrication often don’t get the attention they deserve. With autonomous maintenance, machine operators can take over and ensure those tasks are carried out in a proper and timely manner.
  2. Noticing issues before they lead to critical failures. When machine operators have an in-depth knowledge of the equipment they work with, they can recognize the early signs of equipment deterioration and malfunction and initiate corrective actions.
  3. Freeing maintenance personnel for higher-level tasks. AM does not render the maintenance staff redundant. Instead, it frees them up to focus, plan better, and prioritize their specialist skills for more critical equipment-related issues.
  4. Improving employee participation and sense of relevance in the bigger picture. Shared responsibility for equipment upkeep, combined with a company culture that encourages feedback from staff, further motivates employees to take ownership of their machinery and is known to have a positive effect on overall productivity. 
  5. Improving overall safety. Due to the continuous upkeep of machinery, as well as cleaner and better-organized surroundings, there are fewer risks of injuries due to littered tools, clutter, and other forms of disorderliness.

Overall, all these improvements help you maximize equipment effectiveness and safety, eliminate waste, and boost workforce productivity.

If you’re looking to implement autonomous maintenance or any of the practices it preaches, we can show you how a CMMS can help with the transition process. Contact us for more info.

What does autonomous maintenance training encompass?

The additional responsibilities that operators will take on under autonomous maintenance demand that they undergo dedicated training. This training will ensure that operators’ skills increase, it will teach them what they need to know, and possibly even empower them to improve the equipment with time.

What does the AM training cover?

Operators are taught basic maintenance tasks with a focus on being proactive and responsive to machine problems. Those facilitating these training sessions will mainly be maintenance technicians and engineers.

Typically, they’ll learn equipment cleaning, inspection, lubrication, adjustments, quick repairs, identifying signs of deterioration, safety, and when they need to involve maintenance staff.

Mediums for autonomous maintenance training

There are several mediums for knowledge transfer during autonomous maintenance training, most commonly used are formal classroom training and on-the-job training.

Formal classroom training

At the very beginning, training can start with some formal classroom lessons especially where trainees need to view the information through audio-visual devices, or where they need access to computers. For instance, operators that will be handling very complex or sensitive equipment can be trained at first using technologies like virtual simulations.

The classroom setting is also a good venue for dissecting documents like OEM manuals, equipment history, and relevant data coming from sources like a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) if they have one.

Once the trainers confirm that the information has been well received and that the operators can perform these maintenance tasks, the lessons can move to the plant floor. That takes us to the next training medium.

On-the-job training (OJT)

This is where the operators get practical guidance on the plant floor about what they need to do. Technicians will demonstrate to them everything they were taught in the classroom setting. This process should never be rushed. The maintenance personnel should be patient and check that the operator understands what to do under different scenarios before handing over the asset.

Implementation: 7 steps of autonomous maintenance

Autonomous maintenance, when planned and implemented correctly, delivers a win-win situation for all the parties involved: operators get enriched with technical skills, maintenance technicians are freed up to focus on more critical issues, and the organization as a whole gets a more efficient maintenance structure.

Implementing autonomous maintenance is typically broken into 7 steps.

7 steps autonomous maintenance

1) Increasing operator knowledge

Using equipment and understanding how it works are two very different things. The effectiveness of autonomous maintenance rests first and foremost on operators getting familiar with the interior workings of their machines.

As mentioned before, the operators must be adequately trained and tested to ensure that they understand the following details:

  • the machine’s components, their purpose, and how they function (just the basics are often enough)
  • signs of deviation from optimum performance
  • which maintenance actions they’ll need to perform
  • how to report issues to the maintenance team 
2) Initial cleaning and inspection

This step involves thorough overhauling and cleaning the equipment (and surrounding areas) to get it to an almost brand-new condition. By identifying and rectifying all signs of wear and tear, the machine return to ideal working conditions that serve as a great starting point for involving machine operators in equipment maintenance.

The usual tasks at this stage cover:

  • deep cleaning the machines including removal of dust and dirt
  • lubricating and oiling (for equipment that requires lubrication)
  • identifying and eliminating signs of deterioration (such as leaks and cracks)
  • tightening of any loose nuts and bolts, etc.

It’s good practice to document any observations and the restoration protocols that were used during this process. That information can serve as a valuable reference for operators later on.

3) Eliminating contamination and improving access

Once the initial cleaning is finished and equipment is in peak condition again, it is important to adopt practices that will keep it this way.

This is achievable in a number of ways:

  • Controlling contamination. This starts by promoting clean habits among the operators. However, it might be necessary to complement their efforts by using solutions like high-quality sealing and machine covers. Industries that are prone to dust contamination (e.g. sawmills) may need to look for specific solutions such as dust extractors.
  • Promoting orderliness. The area surrounding the asset requires attention as well. It should be clean, neat, and free of dirt and spills. Tools should be stored properly so that operators can reach them quickly when needed.
  • Promoting safe access. Safe access to maintain and clean a machine is paramount. In addition, cleaning a machine while it is running can be dangerous. So lock out/tag out (LOTO) would be a prerequisite for continuing the task if operators cannot reach the areas of contamination without risking injury. Of course, operators should have clear visibility all around the machinery they are attempting to clean.
4) Setting standards for cleaning, lubrication, and inspections

The success of autonomous maintenance depends heavily on a culture of discipline and orderliness. To sustain the benefits of what the operators have learned so far, there must be some standards to guide cleaning, lubrication, and inspections.

We mentioned earlier that it’s a good practice to document the cleaning and restoration protocols used. This documentation can serve as a baseline for establishing the required standards. These standards should cover:

  • what to clean/lubricate
  • how to perform those tasks
  • how often should you perform those tasks
  • other maintenance-related information operators might find useful

Once all these details are finalized and documented, the operators will have something they can refer to whenever needed.

If you are using Limble CMMS and give operators access to the software, you can create task templates that outline the processes they need to follow (as seen on the screenshot below).

PM task builder

5) Carrying out inspection and monitoring

The operators now have the required training and tools to handle the equipment. They are officially in charge of the daily upkeep of their machines, and they may adjust their assigned maintenance routines if it improves productivity.
At this stage, the maintenance lead can use a scheduling tool – usually a CMMS – to check that workflow is streamlined between both units. This is done by tracking the operators’ maintenance-related tasks and comparing them with the maintenance unit’s schedules to avoid overlapping or duplicated duties.

6) Implementing visual maintenance management

Visual maintenance management means making it as obvious as possible to see whatever is going on with every piece of equipment. This helps to maintain the integrity of each asset because it allows the operators to handle the machinery more confidently.

For example, you can use color-coded tags to indicate the sequence of checks on a machine and inspection frequency, change opaque machine coverings to transparent covers, use posters and wall signs as reminders for all operators, and so on.

7) Ensuring continuous improvement

Since autonomous maintenance is a part of TPM, the implementation is not done until the organization establishes a process for continuous improvement.

This means you’ll need to periodically evaluate the standards and procedures that were previously established. This enables you to spot any shortcomings and find new places for improvement.

Start the process by asking the following questions:

  • When last did we review our processes?
  • Are our process documents up to date?
  • Are operators still complying with established standards and procedures?
  • In which areas are we struggling the most?
  • Are there new technologies that can make maintenance tasks easier or faster?
  • Are we encouraging feedback? When last did we get feedback from an operator?
  • Is there any structure for recognizing/encouraging staff that contributes the most to positive change?
  • Where have we succeeded the most?
  • Where have we failed the most?

…and so on.

By doing this, they are positioned to get vital information to guide their improvement efforts in a focused and precise manner.

Key takeaway

Looking at everything stated above, it is easy to get an impression how implementing autonomous maintenance is a lot of work.

I am not here to convince you otherwise. As a part of TPM, push for autonomous maintenance is a big organizational effort. But that doesn’t mean you can’t steal certain practices and use them to improve your maintenance department.

Teaching machine operators to look for specific wear and tear signs that lead to critical failures is just one simple thing that could reduce the number of unexpected breakdowns later down the line. Do not underestimate the power of incremental improvements.

If you have any further questions about the role of a CMMS in implementing autonomous maintenance and TPM, get in touch via our contact form.

For everything else, feel free to start a discussion in the comments below!

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1 Comments

  • Willie February 17, 2020, 12:05 pm

    Has anyone had success with with implementing autonomous maintenance in a greenfield location? While our sister plants have CI processes in place they have not had nor looking at AM. We would like to change that in our new plant in a different state with like equipment and new operators. We have a very solid training system in place and was curious to see if others had taken on AM when the facility was just starting up.

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