Distributed assets need close, personal attention

Software and technology bring distant maintenance needs into focus.

By Sheila Kennedy, contributing editor

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In brief:

  • Recent technology advancements are furthering the possibilities for distributed asset management.
  • Asset management software assists in the oversight of work performance, as well as facilitating spending decisions.
  • The greatest opportunity in distributed asset management is to increase mobility adoption and use it to its fullest potential.

The logistics of managing far-and-away assets is more complicated than those within sight of the maintenance office. Sprawling industrial complexes, behemoth-sized process plants, and remote repair shops are all impeded by time and distance when an asset fails or requires service. With integrated software, sensors, control systems and mobility solutions, the assets can be monitored more efficiently and managed more effectively. Recent technology advancements are furthering the possibilities for distributed asset management.

Recognizing the challenges

Figure 1. The main Grassland Dairy Products plant has undergone four major and a few minor expansions over the past 30 years, and it will continue to grow in the future. Plans are already in the works to add a Lactose dryer. (Source: Grassland Dairy Products)
Figure 1. The main Grassland Dairy Products plant has undergone four major and a few minor expansions over the past 30 years, and it will continue to grow in the future. Plans are already in the works to add a Lactose dryer. (Source: Grassland Dairy Products)

Grassland Dairy Products (www.grassland.com) is the largest privately-owned dairy producer in the United States. It produces about 150 million packages of quarter-pound butter sticks, 100 million packages of one-pound butter sticks, and 150 million packages of one-pound Elgin-style butter annually (Figure 1). Jim Hills, the dairy’s assistant corporate maintenance manager, oversees maintenance for the main 100-acre manufacturing plant in Greenwood, Wisconsin, as well as two West Point Dairy Products plants in Nebraska and Utah and the Graf Creamery in nearby Zachow, Wisconsin.

“We have approximately 75 refrigerator trucks, tanker trucks, and other vehicles on the road, in addition to butter-processing equipment, anhydrous milk fat (AMF) blending equipment, three dryers that make dried and powdered products, and other key pieces of equipment dispersed across the sites that need to remain operational. And the plant facilities themselves need to be maintained,” says Hills.

“We also do occasional field service for the three other plants, as needed,” he continues. “We can be called upon to install or repair new equipment, and we build and rebuild machinery that is rotated between the sites. Scheduling is our biggest challenge — getting the right mechanics at the right time to the right place. We use our equipment 110% of the time, so trying to get downtime is hard. And we have a diversified team here with specialties in specific areas.”

Inside battery limits (ISBL) oil refinery units face unique challenges, says Dr. Shri Goyal, owner of Coking Solutions (www.cokingsolutions.com), a Houston-based company that provides safety and profitability assistance for facilities using coking technologies. These units typically have a physical boundary separating them from the supporting equipment outside. Because they are classified as hazardous locations, the communications options within the plant are limited.

“A typical ISBL refinery can span 50 to more than 2,000 or 3,000 acres. Currently, handheld data loggers are generally used to capture information at the equipment’s location, which do not automatically update the historian and asset management system. Additionally, no information can be retrieved from a data logger,” explains Goyal.

The role of asset management software

Proper maintenance of distributed assets comes down to having the right tools. “Essentially, companies should work to not fixing an asset when it’s broken, but being able to be predictive in fixing the asset before it’s broken, An asset management solution provides manufacturers with visibility into the gaps within the operations before unplanned downtime or an injury occurs,” says Nuris Ismail, manufacturing research analyst for Aberdeen Group (www.aberdeen.com).

Two years ago we considered the mobility solution but chose not to implement it. Now, in this day and age, using smartphones and Web-based software to email work orders and exchange documents from remote is pretty common.

“In the manufacturing environment in particular, in certain processes, decision makers need to get access to data that is as real-time as possible. However, many manufacturers still rely on spreadsheets or word processing tools and desktop-bound tools, which allows for data error and lag time. If only one person is using that software, it increases the risk. Gaining access with proper asset management solutions enables manufacturers to be more predictive and to perform condition-based maintenance,” explains Ismail.

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