Increasing safety during manufacturing maintenance


By Eric Whitley*, Director of Smart Manufacturing, L2L
Thursday, 17 March, 2022

Increasing safety during manufacturing maintenance

Almost every mechanical system needs regular maintenance for optimal performance, and that is especially true in the automotive industry.

However, human errors committed during maintenance operations on equipment such as robotic welders and assemblers can pose serious safety risks, as well as reducing the output quality of a piece of equipment.

Although it might not be reasonable to expect the elimination of all mistakes, minimising them during maintenance can begin by identifying, understanding and mitigating the factors responsible for those human errors.

Looking at a sector like car manufacturing, where quality and safety are the hallmarks of the finished product, can illustrate the importance of employing best practices in maintaining equipment.

Here are six ideas worth focusing on:

Improve communication

Lack of communication is one of the human factors resulting in incorrect maintenance. It can occur for various reasons: misinterpreted instructions, a shift change, or an emergency. Because of scheduled events (shift changes), as well as those beyond your control, it’s essential to have a top-notch communication system that provides instant feedback.

With a system in place, anyone can see the maintenance task status and should be able to continue with it. For example, logbooks and worksheets — either on paper or a digital device — inform the next assembly line worker of what you have completed thus far. Better yet, conversations between maintenance personnel detailing what has been assembled and tightened, and what should be completed next, can prevent many errors.

One thing is certain: no one should ever assume that a step in the maintenance process has been completed — and with proper communication, that won’t happen.

Provide sufficient maintenance training

A lack of knowledge when performing maintenance in an automobile manufacturing environment can harm the equipment, compromising quality and safety. Because of the speed at which technology is moving, updated training is essential. Computerised equipment and automation ensure the need for continuous education so maintenance technicians can keep up with the evolution in today’s workplace.

Many Australian manufacturers have development programs for their workers to enhance skills over time. These training sessions could be conducted at vocational schools, community colleges, trade schools or onsite management courses.

How does a company know when training is needed? Training will typically be required any time the automotive industry implements a new piece of equipment, technology or software. In addition, car manufacturers can quantify the need for training by looking at the percentages of planned and reactive maintenance.

For instance, if an auto manufacturer has 100 hours of planned maintenance on their overhead conveyor within a fiscal year, and it incurs an additional 50 hours of reactive maintenance, that’s a total of 150 hours. That means planned maintenance is 67% of overall maintenance. With 85% or above considered an acceptable ratio, there’s obviously a training need here.

Allow enough time to perform the maintenance correctly

When something like a CNC machine tool used for engine machining is down for maintenance, some auto companies focus on the lost revenue of an idle machine rather than on the longer life that maintenance provides for it. As a result, workers are under pressure and feel rushed, increasing the chances of a costly mistake. Along with automated equipment come shorter lead times, and when maintenance tasks must be completed (especially the reactive type!), maintenance workers are often performing under pressure.

Rushing often results in accidents and mistakes, causing the maintenance work to take even more time. Workers might bypass a preventative safety measure to get the job done on a tight schedule, and Australia’s work accident rate of 8.8 per 1000 employees attests to the dangers of rushing.

Doing the work safely and correctly is the least expensive and time-consuming method.

Get organised before you get started

Ensure the ideal conditions before performing maintenance. These preparations could include reading any work instructions, cleaning the work area, and gathering the parts, tools, and equipment you’ll use to complete the job. Placing the parts and tools you’ll use for the task in a parts cart or trolley is one way to stay organised.

Remember: not all maintenance tasks can be completed at the location where the piece of equipment is — some must be brought into the maintenance shop. In those cases, a well-organised shop will help to prevent costly and dangerous mistakes.

Minimise distractions among maintenance technicians

Distractions can be mental or physical, personal or professional, but one thing they have in common is that they disrupt the maintenance worker’s concentration and make them less effective. Some distractions are minor and inconsequential, but others could result in mistakes that affect quality and safety.

No matter what type of distractions occur, they can disrupt the technician’s thought process, causing them to miss an essential step. Technicians should be trained to recognise disturbed attention, and take specific actions to ensure they haven’t forgotten anything while performing maintenance on a large and fast-moving welding robot. A detailed, step-by-step, written procedure, with each step signed off by a worker, is invaluable.

Make your maintenance systems mistake-proof

Mistake-proofing systems gained popularity when LEAN Manufacturing came into being, and are made up of easy-to-read instructions for each maintenance task. Modern systems like Enterprise Asset Management help to digitise lean manufacturing, but they also allow standard procedures to be applied to maintenance operations.

Digital standard work enables workers across the car manufacturing floor to access the best processes or practices. These could come in the form of videos showing how to perform a particular fix or access to various forms of documentation via a mobile device.

It might be impossible to completely eliminate human error, but it is possible to minimise it through proper maintenance management. Also, a complete understanding of the issues that cause mistakes will move auto manufacturers closer to the goal of controlling the likelihood of error. Doing so will reduce maintenance costs and hours of downtime. It will also extend the life of expensive equipment and machinery — and most importantly, keep workers safe.

*Eric Whitley has 30 years of experience in manufacturing, holding positions such as Total Productive Maintenance Champion for Autoliv ASP, an automotive safety system supplier that specialises in airbags and restraint systems. He is also an expert in lean and smart manufacturing practices and technologies. Eric has worked across industry sectors including food, timber, construction, chemical and automotive.

Image credit: ©

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