How to incorporate mobility into your maintenance practices

Portable asset management information puts knowledge where it’s needed.

By Sheila Kennedy, Contributing Editor

Our love affair with mobile devices has quickly spread to the modern workplace. The lucky maintenance professionals who have already experienced the benefits of mobile asset management would surely be lost if their portable devices were taken away now.

And why wouldn't that be the case? Much of today’s workforce has grown up quite literally having information at their fingertips. Even the Baby Boomers have rapidly adapted to the Information Age. If they can navigate the complexities and nuances of a smartphone, then they can undoubtedly handle simple tasks on a rugged mobile device.

NorthWestern Energy and Loram Maintenance of Way are examples of companies that have successfully incorporated mobility into their maintenance practices – one for inspections and the other for service management – and neither one is looking back. Their mobile strategies demonstrate of how once-stodgy work practices can be transformed by incorporating advanced technologies.

Inspections at NorthWestern Energy

Power generation, transmission, and distribution operations are prime candidates for mobile technology. NorthWestern Energy inherited a mobile solution during a 2014 acquisition of 11 hydroelectric facilities and associated assets in Montana with a net aggregate generation capacity of 633 MW.

“Our hydro plant operators use the mobile solution for daily, weekly, and monthly safety, security, and operational inspections,” says Amber Osterman, business analyst at NorthWestern Energy’s Business Technology Department. “Over a month’s time period, we gather about 15,500+ reading documents. That is about 500+ readings per day for 11 plants.”

Figure 1. NorthWestern Energy hydro plant operators use the mobile solution for inspections.

The handheld devices contain client software that synchronizes with NorthWestern Energy’s enterprise asset management (EAM) system. “The operators pick their inspection list for the day, walk through their routes with the device in hand, and check off their inspection points as they are completed. The tasks are presented in the order that they do their rounds,” explains Osterman. “It’s a disconnected device, so when they’re finished with their rounds, they dock their device via a USB port, and the data is transmitted.”

Visibility for plant management is improved with this solution. “Everybody wants to be more proactive rather than reactive,” says Osterman. “The group that’s in charge of our preventive maintenance heads up this program.”

The current process is more efficient than the previous method of using paper logs with all of the inspection points listed on the left and readings on the right. “Some of the plants put their information in Excel, but there was still a lack of consistency between the plants and the information was not centralized,” remarks Osterman.

“Now the information is centrally available for analysis and reporting. This is especially helpful when gathering data for auditing and compliance as opposed to manually gathering handwritten logs and Excel spreadsheets of various formats,” adds Osterman. “In addition, it is possible to trend the data and make changes in operating procedures or equipment maintenance if needed. When additions or changes are made to the inspection lists, the changes are available the next time the device is synchronized, which is daily.”

Figure 2. NorthWestern Energy inherited a mobile solution with their acquisition of 11 hydroelectric plants. Source: NorthWestern Energy

NorthWestern Energy’s situation is unique in that they inherited an existing mobile solution. “Ours were not the challenges that you typically have with a new mobility project. As part of the hydro facility acquisition, we kept their existing hardware but implemented a new software solution that integrated with our enterprise system,” says Osterman. “A new solution can be perceived as more work at first due to the learning curve, but training and support can go a long way to mitigate this.”

Mobile, remote operators appreciate the reassurance that they are not alone. “The fact that our operators knew they had somebody to call for help eased them. I don’t know if it’s unique to us but that really worked. Make it known in the beginning that someone will be available and accessible to help, and that will save a lot of frustration,” recommends Osterman.

Asset management at Loram

Mobility is essential at Loram Maintenance of Way, a Minnesota-based company dedicated to maintaining and improving the railway infrastructure of railroads, transits, and commuter rail around the world. Since its founding in 1954, Loram has become one of the leading global suppliers of track maintenance machinery and services.

Vast amounts of track are managed by Loram service personnel. Rail grinding, drainage maintenance, ditch cleaning, and excavation are among the many tasks performed on site, in the field, over great geographic distances.

Loram’s field workers needed a mobile EAM solution to access, capture, and communicate timely and accurate maintenance information. “It had to be easy for us and it had to be mobile,” says Denis Zilmer, director of IT at Loram Maintenance of Way. Documenting service performance and customer value was crucial. “If we service an asset five times over five years, the first thing the customers ask is what is its history, and how did our last service affect the problem that is there today?”

Timeliness of information was a key benefit of the chosen solution. “Our customers not only required that we record all the maintenance we’ve done, but they wanted to see it in a timely manner – not a month later with the bill, but within a day. With our mobile work order solution, we can do that. As soon as the data is replicated, it gets exposed to our customers,” explains Zilmer.

“If you think about what we did in the past, our guys had pieces of paper where they recorded everything they did. I’ll bet that maybe 70 percent of that information would make it back to the office and it would be at a much later time, so it would be dated,” added Zilmer. Now, the teams can bring their devices into the field and take pictures and add information to the system on site. The data is in the system right away if they are connected, or it replicates the next time the device is in a cellular service area.

“Those guys will log everything in their mobile device – when they start the job, the materials they consume, actions taken, photographs taken, and when they finish the job. If you were the customer online, you could within minutes see exactly what that technician did because it’s automatically reported,” adds Zilmer.

“The data history that’s recorded by the technicians is great, but one of the biggest sources of feedback from my technicians is the camera. The fact that we can take pictures with the camera really reduces the number of questions about the state of the asset. It also helps to justify insurance claims with photographic evidence,” explains Zilmer.

Universal benefits of mobility

Making the decision to introduce mobility into an enterprise is easy. “You can't really expect people who are working in the field, maintaining complex assets, to write everything down on little pieces of paper and then come back and type it all in,” says Rick Veague, chief technology officer at IFS North America. “It seems perfectly reasonable to capture what you're doing, while you're doing it, and keep feeding that information into the life cycle system in real time and at a safe distance from the machines.”

Applying the technology properly eliminates paper-based processes and offers freedom from stationary computers, resulting in a multitude of benefits. Mobility is an enabling technology that improves the ability to:

  • Improve service efficiency
  • Reduce maintenance costs
  • Increase equipment uptime
  • Extend asset life
  • Maximize customer satisfaction
  • Avoid compliance violations and penalties
  • Enhance the bottom line

Real-time operational visibility proves invaluable for service personnel as well as plant management. For the end user, mobile solutions draw knowledge from existing back-office systems and share it when and where it is needed. Work schedules, work orders, equipment history, inventory balances, lockout/tagout procedures – it’s all potentially accessible from the field. The devices also capture information in real time, which improves data accuracy by avoiding dependency on ones memory or handwritten notes.

From the management perspective, mobility speeds insight into current activities, schedules, service levels, and backlogs. It simplifies oversight of compliance requirements, labor utilization, and operational metrics. It helps to ensure that properly skilled and qualified personnel are ready to work with the right work instructions, materials, tools, and safety instructions in hand.

It also enables on-the-fly adjustments as unexpected situations arise. Naturally, maintenance is fraught with surprises. In a perfect world, there would be no equipment failures or production downtime, but reality requires agile handling of unplanned problems and unexpected opportunities. Decisions must be based on the circumstances as they arise and ever changing priorities.

Eliminating data latency via mobile solutions and remote instrumentation allows the data to be acted on much more rapidly. For this reason, sensors and the Internet of Things can also be classified as mobility enablers. Rather than waiting for conditions to be entered into a central computer or reported to an individual, the data is pushed electronically from the field directly into the information system. “Without that mobile aspect, you usually don’t know when something breaks until someone calls you up on the phone, and at that point it's too late,” explains Veague.

A wealth of human resource advantages come from mobility. For the older workforce, mobile devices facilitate knowledge capture. “The oil and gas industry and energy, too, seem to be dominated by an older workforce that carries a lot of information and experience in their head. They don't always need this rich device with lots of information, because they just know it,” says Veague. “But with that mobile device and the right kind of systems in the back-end, you start to have the ability to collect some of that data from the older workforce, such as work instructions, notes, blogs, wikis, and other forms of collaboration.”

Likewise, mobile devices are effective recruiting and retention tools. “A younger person who has less experience needs lots of support. Studies have shown that this generation of digital natives behaves very differently; they learn differently, and they have very different expectations about how long they're going to stay in a job. If you don't have the sort of working environment that motivates them, they'll go someplace else,” cautions Veague. “This group benefits from the wisdom of their predecessors and will ultimately share their own knowledge via these mobile devices.”

Physical and environmental safety can also be improved by introducing mobile solutions in industrial environments. Safety risks are lessened with improved access to:

  • Proper work instructions and revisions
  • Proper workflows, including inspection and electronic signoffs
  • Collaboration tools that increase awareness of what people nearby are doing

Safety is further enhanced when anyone with a mobile device can photograph and record any safety hazard, problem, or non-compliance issue they encounter. Some apps will even grab the geolocation from the device and picture so that only a simple incident description is needed. This encourages everyone to proactively register safety concerns rather than hoping someone else will notice and act on them.

Common concerns can be alleviated

Implementing a new technology may require a culture change. “Spend time out in the field talking with the end users, observing how they work, and listening to what is helpful and what is challenging for them,” suggests NorthWestern Energy’s Osterman. “Provide on-site support if possible during the initial roll-out and provide a clear support plan with who to call if issues arise. Operators have a lot to do in a day and if you can help them quickly, it will make a big difference in the acceptance of the solution.”

Figure 3. NorthWestern Energy gathers about 500+ readings per day for 11 plants. Source: NorthWestern Energy

The design of the user interface will influence the rate of adoption. In order for a technician to remain focused on the machine and not distracted by the handheld device, the interface needs to be very natural and easy to use with consistency in appearance and navigation. Bolt-on solutions that look and behave differently will reduce efficiency and threaten data integrity.

News reports of data and security compromises have heightened awareness of the need to mitigate such risks. For mobile solutions, this means protecting the device itself as well as the information it contains. Basic device security methods such as encryption, strong passwords, and secure communications should be used. Minimizing the amount of data that's actually resident on the device is also effective. In cases where data must be collected in offline mode, encryption will ensure that the data stored on the device is not usable to others.

Another security strategy is to use the cloud as an intermediary device. This involves having mobile apps communicate through an intermediate cloud-routing service rather than exposing them to the corporate network directly. “What this means is a secure connection to the cloud, and from the cloud a secure encrypted connection back into the IT platform (whether that's also in the cloud or on-premises),” says Veague. “By establishing this air gap between the device and your back-end solution, if the device picks up viruses or malware of some kind, they aren't transmitted through your firewall and onto your corporate premises.”

As the NorthWestern Energy and Loram cases show, mobile asset management solutions deployed with proper training and precautions will provide benefits that extend well throughout the organization, and far outweigh any challenges of implementation.

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