Autonomous maintenance: getting off to a flying start

Autonomous maintenance: getting off to a flying start

In our previous article we explained what autonomous maintenance (AM) is, and how it helps you to increase safety, quality, and productivity. This time we’ll show you how to get started with AM – and how important the initial steps are.

Three phases

The best reason for adopting autonomous maintenance is the realisation that something can be done better: a lag in performance, a critical machine that’s malfunctioning, processes that could be more efficient. Fortunately, there’s a proven recipe for designing and implementing AM. Roughly speaking, it can be divided into three phases:

  1. Restore the basic conditions in terms of people, machines, and the production environment
  2. Standardizing and securing standard work
  3. Optimizing processes

In the upcoming articles, we’ll go through the phases and show you how to make them successful. In this one, we deal with phase 1.

Start where the biggest problem is

Always begin with a practical problem. For example, you might have a machine that’s particularly prone to faults. Because everyone agrees that something needs to be done about it, they’ll be motivated to ensure that AM is a success.

In this particular example, the machine is a filling unit, and the operator in charge of it is called John. He works shifts, so he’s not always there, and the unit has been regularly malfunctioning for months. Each time, he has to wait for a technician to arrive, which he finds irritating. It’s always the same problem, but it’s been going on for so long that it feels like a part of the job.

In addition, several parts of the machine get dirty quickly, and it often fills containers with incorrect quantities, so batches get rejected and John gets the blame. It’s often operated by temporary workers, whose small mistakes sometimes have major consequences. One temp almost got his fingers trapped when he tried to pick a fallen package off the line – fortunately he wasn’t injured. There’s now a warning on a piece of A4 paper at the spot where the incident occurred.

Manage expectations

The production manager, Robin, appoints John as autonomous maintenance project manager. John is happy with this; he wants to get things right. Together they form a team consisting of all the operators, production workers, mechanics, and managers involved.

First, Robin asks John to make a list of everything that’s not working as well as it could: the machine itself, the way it’s used, and the working environment. The two also discuss their expectations: the goal of the project, the available capacity, the budget, and how much time is available. This is important, because John would ideally like a completely new machine, but that’s not on the cards.

Because he has a defined framework to work with, John can be realistic. He sets to work enthusiastically, and makes a list of fifty points to be addressed. Within two days he sends this list to Robin, and they determine their plans and priorities together.

Phase 1: Cleaning and inspection

Now the project can really get started. The first task on the list is a “total clean out.” This means thoroughly cleaning and inspecting the machine, and tidying the surrounding area.  They look for things like loose nuts, leaks, scratches, and rust. Everyone helps with this, including managers, because it gives them a picture of what the operators have to deal with every day and shows that they’re not afraid to get their hands dirty.

Solving and sharing

Together with his team, John works through the list of issues and makes sure they’re solved – partly by doing it himself, partly by calling in others. He reports on this at the daily production meeting, and everyone sees that the situation is improving. After two weeks, the machine and its surroundings are completely clean and working well, which makes life a lot more pleasant for everyone involved.

Of course John wants to keep it that way. Nothing is more frustrating than a clean machine that quickly gets dirty again. So he also makes sure that sources of contamination are eliminated, and areas that are difficult to clean and inspect are made more visible and accessible.

Finally, he tackles an issue that particularly bothers him: the piece of paper with the safety warning is replaced by a screen that prevents people from putting their hands near the production line. Everyone is satisfied, and the results of the filling unit have already improved.

Enforcing cleaning, inspection and lubrication standards

The last step of this phase is to make sure things stay that way, which means carrying out a number of routine tasks. Management and operators carry out quick, simple audits to check that everything meets expectations. John draws up a list of instructions in Excel, adds photos, and writes more instructions on whiteboards attached to the machine.

He discusses with Robin the purchase of a T-card panel, to make the tasks even clearer. But he is still not satisfied: how do the operators on duty quickly find out from this long list what to do during their shift, and how and when to do it? How do you explain this to temporary staff? Where do you record any anomalies or remarks? And carrying out audits is not as easy as it sounds. People don’t keep to the schedule and find it a pain to tick boxes on a piece of paper, take pictures with their own phones, draw up reports in Excel, and send emails telling other people what they’ve done.

The team realizes that they need a digital system. It will allow them to filter daily tasks and work instructions for different parts of the machine and different times of day. And they will be able to add up-to-date photos and instruction videos, quickly complete digital audit checklists, and record problems and comments online.

A new system will improve the machine’s productivity, give John a better overview of the situation, and make it easier to train new colleagues and change procedures.

Building on a good foundation

When this first phase is completed, the machine and the workstation are operating efficiently, and John and his colleagues know exactly what they must do to keep it that way. This is the first very important step of AM.

The next phase involves ensuring that John and his team can do simple first-line maintenance themselves rather than calling in the maintenance department. That’s phase two, which is the topic of our next post.

In the meantime, if you’d like to know more, we’d be happy to talk to you.

Randy Appiah

Robert Bouwman

Founders, EZ Factory


If you want more information on how to implement Autonomous Maintenance within your factory, or take it to the next level: our partner Pontifexx can help you. Visit their website for more information:

Pontifexx Autonomous Maintenance Continuous Improvement