How to Empower Operators to Do Autonomous Maintenance

Total Productive Maintenance July 15, 2019
Learn how manufacturers are empowering operators to prevent downtime on a factory floor by proving the tools they need to conduct autonomous maintenance.
Autonomous maintenance in factory

Downtime is an expense no manufacturer can afford in today’s highly competitive global economy. It can cost auto manufacturers up to $22,000 per minute, according to research, and even higher in other industries. And that’s just the beginning! Overhead costs don’t go away just because machines stop. As operators stand idly by being paid to wait for their machines to be fixed, customers can cancel their orders, but even if they don’t, catch-up costs like overtime and expedited deliveries eat into profit margins.

Most manufacturers agree that preventive maintenance is needed to ensure that breakdowns don’t happen in the first place. Regular inspections, small adjustments and replacement of consumables, for example, aren’t complicated to do, and they go a long way to delay breakdowns until bigger repairs or overhauls can be done with minimal disruption.

Unfortunately for many manufacturers a lack of engineering resources is getting in the way of performing preventive maintenance. These highly skilled technicians are in short supply and often focused on other strategic priorities, including putting out production “fires”. So, routine checks and adjustments are often postponed.

There is, however, an overlooked resource: the people who run and oversee production machinery day in and day out. While not qualified to carry out complicated repairs, these operators can be leveraged to perform routine inspections and basic preventive maintenance tasks. But to introduce autonomous maintenance to your operations, workers need to know what to do, when to do it, and how.

This article explores the tools manufacturers are using to empower their operators to perform autonomous maintenance, and how this is enabling them to reduce unplanned stoppages by 45%.

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The Problem with Preventive Maintenance Today

Most preventive maintenance consists of inspections followed by simple adjustments. Typically, there’s a schedule that has technicians making periodic visits to a line, production area or individual machine. While there, they check for things like, fluid levels, the condition and tension of drives and conveyor belts, and the position and condition of guide rails, grippers and bumpers. Anything out of the ordinary – an unusual noise, elevated temperatures, signs of abrasion – is noted and flagged for attention at the next scheduled shutdown.

There are several problems with technicians returning to preventive maintenance this way. Stopping a machine for inspection and adjustment often shuts down an entire line while the technician works his way through. That’s lost production hours, and Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) takes a hit. And while the line sits idle, so does the worker who operates it.

And what happens if the technician is suddenly needed to fix a breakdown elsewhere or do more complex work during their scheduled visit? (It’s called firefighting for a reason!) Is the machine left down? If restarted, is preventive maintenance postponed until the next visit?

Further, scheduled spot checks by technicians can miss subtle early indicators of potentially major problems. Gearbox wear is one example, where a factory worker who stands by the machine all day might spot a shift in sound that the technician wouldn’t notice. Operators often experience other quality issues, micro-stoppages and problems that are not part of the routine preventive maintenance, so they never get addressed.

Ideally, the frequency of preventive maintenance should be tailored to the needs of each machine. One machine might need a filter cleaning daily, while another needs a monthly belt tension check. Plus, as machines age, maintenance needs change. But this is difficult to achieve when the technician follows a set schedule and route through the factory.

Tasking Operators with Autonomous Maintenance

Faced with these challenges and an ever-increasing pressure to maximize machine and line uptime, some manufacturers are using a different approach. Rather than pushing the overloaded (and expensive) maintenance team to do even more, they’re empowering operators to do autonomous maintenance tasks of their equipment and machines.

While many Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) practitioners have embraced this approach, many other maintenance departments are leery. Before dismissing the idea, consider these arguments:

  • Most autonomous maintenance tasks don’t need high levels of skill or complex tools, and they can be taught and performed relatively quickly
  • Many operators are hungry for new responsibilities, where they can be recognized and considered for future promotion
  • The people who work on a line often know the equipment better than anyone else
  • Offloading maintenance technicians would free them up to focus on more strategic and pressing issues

Of course, moving to autonomous maintenance requires operators to learn the necessary skills to perform the new tasks safely and effectively. For this reason, a key pillar of TPM is training and education. Supervisors need to keep track of the skills coverage on the line. And the work needs to be planned and scheduled for each machine. In short, you need the right tools and processes.

To achieve these goals, some manufacturers today are using a worker performance support app developed by Poka. Each workstation is equipped with an iPad containing the Poka app to enable supervisors and operators to do the following tasks.

SUPERVISORS: Supervisors use the app to assign autonomous maintenance skills to operators as part of their required job responsibilities. A skills matrix enables an at-a-glance view of which operators have completed the training and have been endorsed vs. who have not. Supervisors can also send operators notifications and reminders to perform autonomous maintenance using the app’s live news feed.


Poka manufacturing frontline worker skills management matrix on iPad.


OPERATORS: Operators use the app to see a list of all the work skills that have been assigned to them, including autonomous maintenance. A skill in Poka consists of a completely customizable multi-step training program made of work instructions, one-point lessons, and procedures in the form of a how-to video or digital document. Before a skill is endorsed, an online exam can be required as part of the skill. This enables operators to both learn and be reminded of how to properly do autonomous maintenance on their equipment directly at their workstations as part of their daily flow of work.

Manufacturing work instructions with photos and videos on iPad.

Companies that use this approach to autonomous maintenance have reported some significant gains. For instance, one food manufacturer saw a 20% drop in downtime. Another reduced unplanned stoppages by 50%. Commenting on the benefits, Jean-Yves Fayt, operations director at molded plastics manufacturer RMC, said, “We significantly reduced our downtime... better communication of problems leads to better solutions.”

What’s more, the Poka app is making it easier for manufacturers to create autonomous maintenance procedures. A Plant Manager at an electrical installation company explains how Poka helps them to create video-based instruction and why that’s more effective than their old-style, paper instructions:

“Before when we needed to create a preventive maintenance procedure on a machine, we had to take 50 pictures, put arrows on your pictures, point out paragraphs. Today, we just walk to the line and take a video of the procedures with our iPads and instantly post it to Poka. It’s clear for everybody.”

Everybody Benefits

Manufacturers recognize that an effective preventive maintenance program that empowers operators to contribute to the up-keep of their equipment is essential to a smooth-running factory. Until recently, however, there hasn’t been an easy way for them to involve their operators.  But with Poka, it’s possible to harness the minds and hands of a talent pool already knowledgeable about their equipment. And by fully leveraging the abilities and skills latent within every employee, manufacturers can expect improved overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), less downtime, and enhanced profitability!

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