Thoroughly modern mobility: Are you making the most of mobility in your asset management strategy?

Industry pros address issues and opportunities for mobility in asset management.

By Sheila Kennedy, Contributing Editor

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It wasn’t long ago that plant service work revolved around stationary workstations. Maintenance, inventory, and supervisory personnel needed these computers to find their work schedules and instructions, log activity, and review job statuses. Mobile solution developments are saving an extraordinary amount of time in the plant, the storeroom, and out in the field, and the benefits extend to greater safety, performance and reliability.

Still, there are underutilized opportunities for mobility in enterprise asset management (EAM/CMMS) as well as lingering challenges to implementation. Analysts, end users, and solution providers are actively addressing these concerns and looking to the future. Following are what some of them have to say.

The industry analyst outlook

Mobile devices allow maintenance engineers to have access to information about the equipment they are maintaining, even when they are a long way from the control room, says Andrew Hughes, Principal Analyst at LNS Research. They can do the necessary control before maintenance and can access any manuals or help they need to carry out a job.

Maintenance is not the only beneficiary of mobility. “We think too often about managers and supervisors getting consolidated information, but the people who can really make a difference to the quality and speed of product in a factory – the operators – often do not have immediately available information when they are away from their fixed workstation. This should be changed everywhere if we are to get the most out of our people,” advises Hughes.

He is witnessing modern technologies augment the capabilities of conventional mobile devices. “In manufacturing operations, we are already seeing a substantial uptake in devices that go beyond the simple tablet or phone, for example wearable bar code readers, NFC-enabled devices for near field communication, or even RFID devices to detect where a person, product, or piece of equipment is currently located,” says Hughes.

Another example is sensors that not only know about location but can also track the condition of a product. For example, an active ingredient in a pharmaceutical supply chain might have sensors to read the temperature and humidity where it is stored, and automatically copy that information to the production plant and line that will use it.

One big opportunity will be in augmented reality (AR), especially in complex discrete manufacturing where AR can help operators and installation engineers to better understand the complex assembly tasks they need to undertake. “Lots of people are already talking about this. The companies to watch are the major PLM vendors as they already have 3D design and simulation capabilities built into their systems,” suggests Hughes.

The mobile service provider perspective

Mobility usage is pervasive at Jacobs, a provider of technical, professional and construction services to the industrial space. Jacobs uses mobile CMMS directly, middleware software to access the CMMS, and specialty software depending on the location and client. Devices include ruggedized tablets, off-the-shelf netbooks, tablets, and handheld PDAs.

“Mobile devices provide real-time visibility and capability in the field, allowing technicians and supervisors to access engineering support, review a drawing, or keep a close eye on inventory,” says Sherry Stovall, Maintenance Reliability Professional at Jacobs. “Our experience shows readily available information boosts craft productivity, improves work quality, and empowers our people in the field to make better decisions so asset management leaders can focus their efforts on asset improvements and innovation.”

Jacobs’ field personnel are empowered to make real-time decisions; as a result they’re engaged, enthusiastic, and more productive. Key performance indicators are available directly from the CMMS without additional reporting or data entry, improving performance management. Additionally, with real-time visibility on critical data, on-site inventory and data quality improves. It simplifies time keeping, requisitions as well as cost accounting associated with an asset, and eliminates dual data entry.

Incorporating mobility required some effort. “Initially, our biggest challenges were the cost benefit analysis and the comfort level of our craft and supervisors,” explains Stovall. “We had to help everyone understand what mobility really is, how it can benefit the project, and why it should be a standard tool, like a torque wrench or multi-meter. Now, our main challenge is providing a sustainable solution as hardware and software technologies consistently improve. We want to continually improve and expand the use of mobility for asset management.”

Jacobs is also working on data standards to enable more enterprise-level visibility and decision making relative to maintenance strategies. “We’re figuring out how to incorporate analytics in the field using condition-based maintenance technologies, and teaching our technicians to use technology to determine what maintenance to perform rather than just reading a job plan,” says Stovall.

The solution provider mission

Companies such as Microsoft, Rockwell Automation, Kyocera Communications, and IFS North America are working with customers and each other to simplify the mobility experience and fill gaps in work processes.

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