My maintenance career #5: the automotive industry

Mobility Work is putting maintenance career into the spotlights. In this fifth episode, Didier who works as a maintenance mechanic, reflects on the recent evolutions of maintenance applied to the automotive industry.

Mobility Work: Can you tell us about your professional background?

I started working more than thirty years ago in the automotive sector as an industrial maintenance mechanic. I have spent nearly my entire career in the same company I work for today.

What was your career path in this company?

In thirty years of experience, I have explored different aspects of maintenance in the automotive industry.

I started my career as a dispatcher. Among others, I was responsible for the management of supply flows: receiving and processing orders, but also ordering spare parts according to clients’ needs and production targets. At this time, our team was specialized in the manufacturing of extraction hoods and fuel pumps. I stayed three months in this position before joining another function of the company.

In the following years, I seized the opportunity to discover several field of activities. I first was assigned to sewing machines, which are used to make car seats covers. This is a meticulous work that we do in face to face with our equipment. I stayed four years there.

Then, I worked for two years for the maintenance team in charge of cardboard mills. The manufacturing of cardboard is applied in particular to the doors panels, for example. The pieces must be solid and meet a number a quality criteria.

From maintenance applied to cardboard mills, I moved on to cable manufacturing. We were responsible for the production of all automotive cables, from the dashboard to the trunk. For 8 years, I took part to the process of cables, wires and wire bundles length cutting.

Finally, I joined the team on the assembly line. Our role there is to assemble the different parts of the car that are manufactured by external companies.

Have you noticed any specificities particular to these functions?

Of course, they are not the same applications. For each of them, we need to know the equipment, the techniques used. But it is highly interesting because we get to learn and specialize continuously.

We don’t always operate on the same equipment: when a failure or a default occurs, our technicians immediately report it and the information is sent to a dispatcher. He then has the responsibility to redirect tasks and assign the intervention to the most-qualified maintenance technician.

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According to you, what kind of changes did maintenance professions overcome in the past 30 years?

New technologies have completely transformed the landscape of industrial maintenance. These past few years, production and maintenance staff have decreased significantly as the number of automated machines rose.

About twenty years ago, most of the organizations in the automotive industry wanted to invest in robotic solutions. Nowadays, it seems to me that they are coming back on their decisions and are willing to put the individual first, to move further away from mechanical and electronic infrastructures. I think business leaders see there a major economic advantage, because it turned out that spare parts and repairs are more expensive than the cost of an operator. This tendency is rather recent, but I feel that organizations are seeking to rationalize their equipment fleet as the cost of industrial maintenance has progressively become higher than production costs.

Another point to mention would be the externalisation of human resources. More than ever, organizations are ought to turn to third parties and externalize their interventions of industrial maintenance, which they did not use to do. It is probably a way for them to tackle the decline in staff number.

On a contractual level, this means that providers are now liable for any unplanned production downtime. For example, if maintenance interventions are carried out in-house, each equipment downtime would translate into a dead loss for the company. But, when third parties take charge of maintenance operations they bear the responsibility of any subsequent losses.

Has the shift in paradigm you mentioned earlier impacted your daily activities?

What struck me the most was undoubtedly the arrangement of the workshops.

At the beginning of my career, we were used to work on our own equipment. Each technician, each mechanic was responsible for the maintenance and operating of his piece of equipment. All the operations were carried out by technicians on a small number of stations; the production line was divided into groups of autonomous islands. The individual machines were gradually replaced by production lines. Tasks are divided, operations are executed in a chain.

Our industrial maintenance routines have had to adapt accordingly: we have shifted from small maintenance to larger manufacturing and assembly machines. It is no longer the same parts that we have to manage, both in terms of size and functionality, which requires other skills on our part.

This also has an impact on the manufacturing process itself. When production is organized in islands, we have the possibility to prepare the parts, repair the equipment in the workshop if necessary, and only the machine concerned is affected by the maintenance operation. Today, we have to work directly on the production line. The entire chain is immobilized during the maintenance operation and the manufacturing process can suffer from this downtime.

As maintenance technician, what is your relation to digital devices?

We use tools to manage our inventories, in particular. This is very useful when you have to remove or find parts thanks to the references.

We also use sensors integrated into the equipment, which allow us to stop production lines if necessary and thus organize our maintenance interventions accordingly.

These last few years, we have read a lot in the press about the major crisis that hit the automotive industry. Has it impacted on your profession?

Industrial maintenance programs are aligned with production rate and methods. Some production sites were overhauled, the number of production lines was reduced, probably in order to cut down expenses. Logically the needs in maintenance are no longer the same.

The workforce slowly decreases, the employees who are leaving the company are rarely replaced. The average age of the workforce is increasing while turnover is lower. Organizations are mostly recruiting internally, in particular thanks to rotation policies.

What future do you see for the maintenance professions?

In my opinion, the profession of maintenance technician as we know it today will undergo profound transformations. Each manufacturer now seeks to manage the maintenance of its products and equipment, to limit the use of service providers.

At the same time, a new facet of the profession is emerging. More and more technicians are now operating on an "itinerant" basis. These technicians are seconded for specific corrective or preventive maintenance tasks, for example for computer operations such as PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) programs.

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Thank you to Didier for his testimony. To be alerted about our next article dedicated to maintenance jobs and training, follow us on social networks! LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter