What is Autonomous Maintenance?

Put simply, Autonomous Maintenance allows machine operators, rather than dedicated maintenance teams, to carry out simple maintenance tasks to prevent breakdowns.

The types of works they might carry out includes cleaning, inspection, lubrication and bolt tightening. These tasks, when carried out with regularity, help prevent accelerated equipment deterioration. A significant proportion of equipment losses (some quote as much as 70%) is due to preventable deterioration. That’s where Autonomous Maintenance (AM) comes in.

AM is one of the key features of Total Productive Maintenance (TPM). TPM is a lean manufacturing philosophy developed by Japanese companies that centres on achieving near-perfect production – no breakdowns, no slow running or small stops, no defects, no accidents. It focuses on improving the productivity of each machine within a plant by emphasising proactive and preventative maintenance.

During the evolution of TPM, AM evolved through a desire of production teams to control and improve their equipment.

At that stage, it wasn’t about cost saving, although that is certainly one of the favourable side-effects. It wasn’t necessarily about staff engagement either, but that is another huge benefit of adopting this approach.

It takes some time to understand Autonomous Maintenance correctly. It’s not just about production teams taking on maintenance activities. It’s an improvement activity. As well as being about restoring equipment, it’s about developing people and small group activities.

How is Autonomous Maintenance implemented?

There is a step by step process defined by the Japan Institute of Plant Maintenance (JIPM). There are seven steps. I’ve simplified them for the purposes of this article:

Step 1: Initial cleaning and inspection. Looking for any signs of deterioration such as leak detection, lose bolts, lubrication, removal of dust accumulation. Any action required to restore the equipment should be completed within 8 weeks.

Step 2: Eliminate sources of contamination and inaccessible areas to ensure it doesn’t deteriorate again. If contamination isn’t controlled, it’s easy to become locked in an endless cycle of cleaning and restoration.

Step 3: Establish provisional cleaning, inspection and lubrication standards.

The outcome of these first three steps should be a restored and improved piece of equipment with a managed standard for cleaning, inspection and lubrication. The remaining steps improve production skills and knowledge. They help develop team autonomy so production teams develops ownership, learn to set their own goals and manage their own improvement activities.

Step 4: Train for general inspection and monitoring, such as checking lubrication levels, locating leaks, tightening loose bolts etc. The newly educated operators then check the equipment again to put their new-found knowledge to the test.

Step 5: Conduct autonomous inspections. The operators modify the standards and instructions that they put in place for the first three stages to streamline and improve their maintenance tasks.

Step 6: Implement visual maintenance management. Having a visual marking on the machines – such as on gauges to identify limits, or on levers to show open and closed states – can help operators identify the correct process just by looking at the equipment. This is particularly useful when you have different teams working on different time shifts.

Step 7: Continuous improvement. Essentially repeating and improving all that has been done in the previous steps.

Some people also identify a preceding step before step 1: understanding the equipment functions and safety risks. This step is about education.

How does Autonomous Maintenance improve staff engagement?

Improving staff engagement can seem like a rather ethereal concept. Something that’s highly desirable – we know that engaged staff are more productive. But how to do it can be hard to crack. Autonomous Maintenance is one technique that definitely moves teams in the right direction engagement-wise.

At its heart, AM empowers employees to be more proactive. It is heavily orientated around employee empowerment. It encourages employees to take ownership of their machinery, which in turn increases production reliability and uptime.

In many ways, it’s a very obvious step. The operators are the people that have day to day contact with the machines. They are the ones most familiar with the operation of the machine. The training that comes with AM enables them to understand the functioning of the equipment too. This enables them to feel greater ownership for their work. They are more in control of how things are done and what improvements are made.

This sense of ownership and empowerment does great things for staff engagement. Teams feel more involved in the day to day running of the plant. Thanks to the regular monitoring involved in the process, they will see the direct benefit of their hands-on involvement. More is accomplished in the time allocated. That makes staff feel good.

Operators’ skills levels increase. People thrive on personal development, whether they realise it or not! Morale is increased, productivity is increased, the sheer volume of product through the line is increased. There is also improved engagement between the engineering team and the operatives. The results can be rather inspiring to observe as the two teams learn to support each other.

The sense of ownership the operators have through this process can result in a real step change. It’s not unusual to find that other lines in the same factory become desperate to start with own AM projects based on the feedback from the first team. 

How to make AM work

The benefits of AM are significant: less down time, a safer working environment, increased quality output, improved morale, not to mention freeing up maintenance staff to perform more value-added tasks.

But successful implementation is key to success. Firstly, you need to understand that dedicated training is needed. Some modifications to machines to make cleaning and maintenance easier are needed. So there is an investment of time and resource.

Secondly, you have to commit to following the steps. The methodology is tried and tested. Jumping in part way through or missing off a few steps at the end won’t deliver the results. Yes, the specifics of the process will need to be adapted to your specific company and culture to work successfully, but the process itself works. There are no shortcuts.

The key is to start small. Run a pilot on a single piece of equipment. When you begin to see the benefits, roll it out to other areas. We can help manage this whole process, including delivering the necessary training to your teams.

It might seem odd for us, as a firm that gets paid for carrying out maintenance tasks, to sing the praises of a methodology that moves some of this responsibility back to operators in-house. But our overall objective is to help improve productivity and create safe working environments within production facilities, and we know this works.

In fact, having a strong AM process in place complements the work we do. The in-house team of operators takes care of the simpler, preventative maintenance tasks. But when failure does require our intervention (or that of a maintenance team) the operators may well be able to assist or identify what changed in the run up to a breakdown. That extra pair of hands and insight is much more helpful when they truly understand how the machinery works and have an active interest.

Contact us if you’re interested in rolling out a programme of autonomous maintenance to your operators, or want to understand more about its potential benefits.