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Autonomous Maintenance: Can you go too far?

By Rick Wheeler, Life Cycle Engineering

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 lubricating can and should be done by the equipment operators because they are the equipment owners and closest to the equipment on a daily basis.

In the Reliability Excellence® model we teach 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 by shifting those 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? The logic goes that 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. The operations shifts were purposely staffed with a mix of people with various backgrounds. People tended to specialize in their original trade but there was good collaboration and people were able to work in other trades.

But then the product demand decreased. As companies are prone to do, they asked “How can we trim our work force to accommodate the new business environment?” So what was their answer? They said, “Hey, we have multi-craft trained operators that can do all maintenance, why do we need that central maintenance group?” The conclusion was that they didn’t, and they let them go. Problem solved, and they celebrated solving the problem. And so they 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.

Can you guess what happened next? That’s right – 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 that they were making less money on. 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. And the increasing pressure to perform was driving everyone to their comfort zone. 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. However, great care was taken to maintain the original intended operator care practices.

Autonomous maintenance (operator Care or TPM) 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 the 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.

So look at your maintenance practices. Do you have the right people doing the right tasks? Are you building the operators’ knowledge and ownership of the equipment? Are you reviewing operations logs and feedback from periodic TPM reviews to detect degradation? Do you ensure performance management goals for operators are well balanced between operations and maintenance objectives and correlate that with asset availability for each area of the facility? And are you leveraging the skills and experience of your maintenance trades?


Rick Wheeler is a Principal Consultant with Life Cycle Engineering (LCE). He has a broad range of experience in the pharmaceutical, chemical and nuclear industries. Rick trains clients on best practices and coaches corporate and site leadership teams on organizational change management. He has led many process improvement initiatives resulting in substantial cost savings. You can reach Rick at rwheeler@LCE.com

© Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.

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