Staff & Training

How Maintenance Will Revolutionize the World (Chapter 5)

Ryan Chan

*Over the last few weeks, UpKeep has been releasing chapters from our upcoming publication, How Maintenance Will Revolutionize the World. This is our final chapter. You can find Chapter 4.2 here. 

Chapter 5: Technology x Maintenance

This section is for those maintenance heroes who already have maintenance programs up and running, and a CMMS system in place to constantly track metrics. Interested in how future innovations offer a unique opportunity for you to better your business? Read on!

Industry 4.0

Technology is being introduced into our industries at an ever accelerating pace.  As technologies like AI, IoT and robotics grow increasingly common in industrial spaces, a new term has been coined for this wave of automation and digitization – “Industry 4.0,” as in the fourth industrial revolution.

It makes sense why companies are investing in advanced automation solutions. Technology has the potential to hasten production, pin-point issues never understood before and bring businesses to new financial heights. Just as certain jobs are outsourced to other global markets to take advantage of lower production costs, companies will naturally start to harness cheaper, more capable, and more adaptable technological solutions to make their output more economically lean and efficient. In 2017, there were just over two million industrial robots operating commercially. [1] It’s projected that 4.4 million units will be installed by 2023.[2]

In Japan, robotics manufacturer FANUC has operated a “lights-out” factory since 2001. Lights-out manufacturing refers to autonomous factories that require no human presence to operate. These robot-run factories are building other robots at a rate of about 50 per day, and can do so unsupervised for as long as 30 days at a time, all completely in the dark. “Not only is it lights-out,” said FANUC VP Gary Zywiol, “we turn off the air conditioning and heat too.” 

FANUC once required 650 workers to keep the factory running. This technology has cut its human workforce down to just 60 workers, less than a tenth of its original manpower.

The McKinsey Global Institute has found that, “robotics and AI technologies such as machine learning (which gives computers the ability to learn without explicit programming) have advanced to the point where it would be possible to automate at least 30 percent of activities in about 60 percent of occupations in both the United States and Germany.” [3] Automotive companies such as Tesla are already using AI technologies in their autonomous vehicles. By 2030, highly autonomous vehicles could account for 10 to 15 percent of new car sales. [4]

Governments, too, have taken note of Industry 4.0’s benefits. Take the value to public safety in construction. Through IoT technology, machines can seamlessly talk to each other and react to problems as they arise. Not only can agencies precisely monitor and check existing infrastructure for dangerous behaviors during seismic events, or how bridges bend under the weight of passing traffic, but also use this data to improve future construction practices. 

Even if these examples leave you feeling like we’re living in a future pulled directly from the pages of a sci-fi novel, the fourth industrial revolution’s capabilities has not yet been tapped to its full potential. “Despite employing 8.5% of Americans, manufacturing remains an area of relatively low digitization — meaning there’s plenty of headroom for automation and software-led improvements. [5] There are over 612,000 bridges in the United States alone; nearly 56,000 of these are in need of repair. [6]

Automation in our world today

We’ve already seen automation’s incredibly beneficial effects on the individuals in maintenance at two polar opposite ends of the spectrum: from the simple and routine, to the extremely high risk.


At offshore drilling sites, plants process and test gas and oil with flare stacks looming overhead. In this environment, any breakdown can cause catastrophic failure, and peoples’ jobs are to maintain the facilities are to a super high standard through routine inspections. These inspections INCLUDE climbing to the top of the flare stack. Instead of the flare stack inspectors being dangerously suspended 200 ft off the ground, we now have drones that complete this routine inspection.

The important point of this example is that these sites still need the flare stack inspector, but this individual is now on the other side of a screen  completing the inspection, not suspended in the air next to the highly dangerous flare stack. 




Let’s now look at how automation can help free up human capacity by taking on routine, time-consuming activities. In membrane manufacturing plants, people manually inspected membranes to perform quality control for up to 8/9 hours a day. In order to streamline processes, facilities can now use a laser camera that stands on top of the line and scans for defects. By making this switch, the facility is able to take that headcount somewhere else and human capacity is freed-up to create new products and new tasks.

It’s crucial here to realize who exactly supports the technology that now automatically scans the membranes. The individuals who used to perform this task manually are those with the exact skills to install, implement and maintain the scanning equipment. 

There are jobs that we cannot automate, and there are those that we simply shouldn’t.

Most tasks within the maintenance wheelhouse have yet to be automated. This most likely has to do with the fact that these roles are not easily programmable. Lubing bearings and replacing filters, for example, are all important routine functions that may at first appear easily programmed, but they both serve more complex purposes than the initial task at hand. When completing these routine tasks, maintenance workers are often taking the opportunity to inspect the rest of the assets. They’re using their 5 senses and running a sophisticated decision-tree in their minds to understand if further action is required – even if they don’t know exactly how they’re doing it. This process is an algorithm that is hard for a maintenance tech to articulate – and thus – hard to program into a computer.

Some job functions are nearly impossible to program. In maintenance, how often has a problem been investigated because your 5 senses told you something was ‘off?’ The machine made a ‘weird’ sound or the air felt ‘different?’ At the end of the day, all of Industry 4.0’s advancements are programmed for, and by, humans. Sophisticated decision trees that have developed in your mind after countless trial and errors are hard to code into a computer. There will always be a need for a humans to assess for edge cases – the things we haven’t yet programmed for, because we don’t yet know why the issue is occurring.

As discussed previously, a lot of jobs and processes will be automated, but we don’t want to go so far as to say that a robot can do everything a human can do. Technology doesn’t substitute for jobs, instead, it takes on tasks, and by doing so, allows humans to evolve their roles.

In the future

For maintenance’s Industry 4.0 revolution to be most successful, it will rely on two knowledge centers – data scientists who understand how to harness the power of digitized information, and those who know how to operate the machines themselves. 

We argue that you, the operator, are the best person to combine both. Today’s mechanic might become tomorrow’s ‘reliability engineer.’

A common fear is that a small number of data scientists and machines will replace the bulk of the maintenance workforce. However, data scientists won’t necessarily understand the infinite nuances that go into a mechanic’s work without accumulating their own firsthand experience on the facility floor. Therefore, while there will be a learning curve for mechanics who need to interpret data, there will also be a learning curve for data scientists who need to understand the practical applications of that data. How often have the instructions in an asset’s manual been inaccurate? An extensive anthology of firsthand experiences exists in your brain alone, and data scientists who have never stepped foot in a manufacturing facility will rely on technicians like you to utilize industry-specific technology. Instead of looking at these two fields as separate factions, it’s more realistic to view them as having a more organic and symbiotic relationship.

The idea that the machines themselves are going to take over the world is perpetuated by pop culture and science fiction, but it’s not a very accurate reflection of how software is being developed. Machine learning and predictive analytics enable you to do your job better, smarter, faster, and safer. Industrial AI is being designed to work for, and alongside, technicians with experiential knowledge of how equipment works on-site. It’s best to think of this technology as a handy sidekick – one that provides insights you can interpret and apply to your individual workflow.

One of the most exciting things about this process will be the shift from jobs that are reactive to those that are proactive. Mechanical breakdowns happen because of breakdowns in information. The more data that is generated and the quicker this data can be interpreted, the better individuals will get at predicting and preventing breakdowns from happening in the first place.

New technologies are going to allow a completely new type of facility technician to thrive, one who is more focused on utilizing technology and data to drive important decisions. Instead of repairing equipment on-site, mechanics will become experts at analyzing data and trends to improve the output, efficiency, and durability of their equipment. 

If 80% of asset failures are currently categorized as ‘random,’ and only 20% are due to age-related issues, imagine the potential for our industry if large data sets are made available to someone with your expertise? Imagine the patterns – the cause and effects – only you will be able to unlock? 

The maintenance worker’s role
We are starting to see maintenance turn from fire fighting and maintaining status quo — to now a focus on overall equipment efficiency (OEE)

Currently, there are three types of maintenance workers:

  • The Fire Fighter – something breaks and you fix it. This role is purely reactive.
  • The Maintainer – you keep a piece of equipment or process running smoothly in order to preserve the status quo. However, the key to being at the forefront of the automation revolution is becoming the third type of maintenance worker:  The Process Improver.
  • The Process Improver – you don’t just fix or maintain, you proactively improve entire systems and operations. How can we be improving processes always?
    With automation taking on tasks normally covered by the Maintainer and Fire Fighters, you have an opportunity to harness the power of technology to become the Process Improver for your business.


The far-reaching benefits of technology-

Technology in the maintenance industry doesn’t just benefit the businesses’ bottom lines, nor your day-to-day role at said business. We’ve always looked at maintenance workers as the unsung heroes of society. Let’s take a moment to think through how outfitting the globe with Industry 4.0 capabilities will allow us to live in a world where:

  • Fewer planes will crash, because every part on every aircraft will be electronically monitored so they can be quickly replaced at the slightest sign of failure. [7]
  • Cost of goods from food, to housing, to products will go down bringing an overall higher standard of living. Additionally, General Electric concluded the Internet of Things over the next 20 years could add as much as $15 trillion to global GDP, which it noted is roughly “the size of today’s U.S. economy.” [8]
  • Plus, these goods will be higher quality with fewer defects. If you think about minor blemishes, that’s a small thing. But when you think about food quality, for example, and major outbreaks that have happened as of late- E. coli and Listeria- to name just a few. A lot of it is due to aging processes, equipment and poor quality control. 
  • The planet benefits from less waste. With reduced malfunctions, improved demand forecasts and optimized energy usage the entire planet can breathe easier knowing that less pollution and waste are being created.
  • More funds for education. Nationwide, schools spend $8 billion per year on energy. Energy-efficient maintenance programs can save school districts up to 20% on energy bills – funds which then could be allocated towards enhancing students’ educational experiences with state of the art facilities.

See? In the coming decades, maintenance teams will be the heroes that make our world safer and more sustainable! Plus you’ll get paid more for it too. 

The question becomes— are you prepared to become the hero the world needs?


  1. Executive summary, world robotics, International Robotics Foundation, October 2018,
  2.  McKinsey, 2019
  4.  Paul Gao, Hans-Wenner Kaas, Detlev Mohr, and Dominik Wee, “Disruptive trends that will transform the auto industry,”, January 2016.
  6.  American Road and Transportation Builders Association


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