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Operator Maintenance vs. Autonomous Maintenance

When Productivity Inc. came across the work of the Japan Institute of Plant Maintenance (JIPM), developers of total productive maintenance (TPM), as part of our research into Japanese manufacturing practices in the 1980’s, we encountered the same problem as with other systems: how do we teach this to people in the West?

When we first published the work of Shigeo Shingo on single minute exchange of die (SMED), we came across the same issue: manufacturers saying, “That’s fine in theory, but how do we do it in practice?” This led to our development of practical SMED workshops: a little theory and then extensive application on a pilot project. We then applied the same approach to lean flow – developing the Kaizen Blitz with Mr. Iwata and his group of ex-Toyota supplier development engineers.

TPM has two fundamental additions to our current approaches to maintenance management: OEE analysis and autonomous maintenance (AM). Our approach was therefore to take OEE and AM and develop a Kaizen event, which we rather grandiosely called “A Maintenance Miracle.” More than twenty years on, we are still running these events as a way of learning about TPM.

Over those twenty years we have seen autonomous maintenance anglicized as “operator maintenance,” but there is an important difference. Operator maintenance is largely the transfer of basic maintenance tasks to operators; autonomous maintenance is the improvement process we take people through on the “Maintenance Miracle,” a process of restoring, improving, and maintaining equipment. If all we do is the third step, maintaining, then we have lost a major part of the process.

The AM process is also important for learning. Once a team has inspected a piece of equipment in exhaustive detail, restored all its functions, and improved some further, they develop an understanding of the machine’s functions, which enables them to operate and maintain it at its optimum condition. Personally, I am a great admirer of Professor Fujimoto’s analysis of the Toyota Production System, which focuses on TPS as a “learning system.” TPM, and AM in particular, can also be seen as learning systems, and learning generates improvement.

So what is the AM process? In the original translation from the Japanese, the first three steps are given as:

  1. Initial cleaning and inspection
  2. Elimination of contamination and inaccessible areas
  3. Establishment of provisional maintenance standards

I prefer to call these restore, improve, and maintain. There are of course seven steps of AM in all the textbooks, but the first three are the fundamental processes, to which we might want to add visual management of maintenance standards, both on the equipment and on activity boards.


Operator maintenance is largely the transfer of basic maintenance tasks to operators; autonomous maintenance is the improvement process we take people through on the “Maintenance Miracle,” a process of restoring, improving, and maintaining equipment.


Step One

Restore. This step involves a team from production, maintenance, and engineering, most definitely including the equipment operators, in a comprehensive “deep clean,” inspection, and restoration of a piece of equipment. The key to this activity is the recording and correction of every single abnormality with the equipment: every loose fastener, bent guard, damaged piece of insulation, leaking connector, and instance of dirt or grease. Often this is done by “tagging” the machine, giving the well-known “Christmas Tree” effect of a machine covered in tags. Personally, I am not an ardent advocator of tags, except during training exercises, as they themselves deteriorate quickly and are only an outward sign of the process. The important point is that abnormalities enter the work list and are corrected in a timely manner. For minor defects this means during the exercise and for more major work, or work that requires new parts or special skills, I tend to use an eight-week plan as a goal for completion.

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