Hand out handhelds for power over everyday maintenance

Mobile computing gives you power over your every day tasks and your maintenance department – all in your hands.

By Paul Studebaker, CMRP, Editor in Chief

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Mobile computing is a technology that most plant managers, maintenance supervisors and technicians see as nice – maybe too nice – and unnecessary for their work. You’ve done alright for many years without it, so you must not really need it, and besides, it looks fragile, complicated and expensive.

Don’t try talking that way at San Francisco Water’s West Bay Facilities, where Wonderware tablet PCs have been saving time on PMs for three years now (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1. Tablet PCs have been saving time on PMs for three years at San Francisco Water’s West Bay Facilities. Along with transmitting maintenance and calibration information, the mobiles are operator interfaces for the control system.

Along with transmitting maintenance and calibration information, the mobiles function as operator interfaces for the control system.

“With two operators on a shift, we used to always have to keep one in the control room,” says Dee Cutino, superintendent. The primary operator is responsible for instrument calibration, while the secondary operator is devoted to routine maintenance. The secondary operator would have to stop working and take over monitoring the control room when the primary operator needed to leave, for example, to calibrate turbidity meters. “Now the primary operator can take a tablet with him so he can start and stop equipment, acknowledge alarms, etc.,” says Cutineo, and the secondary operator can stay on his rounds.

The operators perform 300 to 400 PMs per month, plus plant rounds, quality sampling, and more. “In the past, we had trouble getting all the PMs done,” Cutino says. “The mobile system saves us two hours to three hours per day, which has allowed us to be more efficient and get more work done -- more preventive maintenance gets done without interruption.” The tablets also let them write CMMS work orders in the field, “which is helping us capture better records,” he adds, “and our CMMS is tied into Purchasing, which helps expedite repair parts.”

Much like the car phones of the 1980s that let salespeople make a call without stopping at a pay phone, mobiles have excelled for years at streamlining existing tasks, such as making rounds, entering data into a CMMS and tracking work orders.

Now, with novel features like full PC capabilities, Web access and multimedia communication, mobiles are beginning to offer new ways to get a job done.

When you see what the systems are doing, understand how they work and start to imagine the possibilities, you may decide your operations are worthy. After all, if Cutino, the UPS deliveryman and the cable guy get to play, why not you and your maintenance team?

Power in your palms

West Bay Facilities’ application runs on a Microsoft tablet PC with Windows Mobile and Wonderware InTouch. The tablet has WiFi, Bluetooth and PCMCIA slots for other devices, such as cellular communications or proprietary capabilities, and specialized covers to provide protected access to antenna signals.

“It uses Ethernet to connect to a main network, then to a PC and the control system,” says David Gardner, product manager, Wonderware (www.wonderware.com). Access through a VPN provides secrity.

The company’s InTouch software leverages tablet PC features such as inking (users can write values into data links in their own handwriting) and annotation (users can mark up a graphical display with pens and highlighters). Operators can mark up displays and e-mail, print or save the screen capture to facilitate troubleshooting and explanations (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2. Features such as inking and annotation let technicians mark up displays and e-mail, print or save the screen capture to facilitate communications.

 “Three years ago, the devices were seen as expensive,” Gardner says. “That was partly due to their ruggedized construction – they’re IP67, rated to three feet underwater and a four-foot drop onto concrete.” As prices come down and paybacks become clear, the cost of the tablets is less of an issue.

“Then there was also the fear of wireless -- that it wouldn’t work in industrial environments, that it lacked security,” Gardner adds. “Better understanding has led to acceptance. The wireless infrastructure wasn’t there, but now it is, at least in the process industries. In some cases it needs to be extended, but it’s there.”

When peripherals converge

Capabilities emerging in commercial applications for wireless phones and laptops are quickly and cost-effectively being adapted for industrial mobiles. Part of the challenge is making the best use of limited display space on an industrial handheld (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Figure 3. Part of the challenge for sophisticated applications is making the best use of the limited display space on an industrial handheld.

“The small screens are like looking at your application through a keyhole,” says Marty Osborn, senior director of industry product management, Infor EAM. “They’re becoming more configurable so you’re able to display what you need.”

Those compact displays are being used to communicate using images and schematics rather than just text. “A visual representation is worth 1,000 words,” says Bill Padula, vice president, solutions architecture at Syclo (www.syclo.com). Visual representation leads to positive identification and common terminology, “a widget versus a thingamajig,” Padula says, “or where you need a visual reference to be consistent, such as degree of pipe buildup or corrosion, or an unambiguous representation of a switch position or a needle on a dial.”

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