Context-aware tech, part 1: What does it look like, and what's it worth to my company?

Here’s what context-aware tech looks like today and what it means for asset management in your plant.

By Christine LaFave Grace, managing editor

Context-aware technology means different things to different companies, but generally it refers to some combination of hardware and software that provides insights into an asset’s real-time operating conditions. A robotic, vision-guided forklift that can detect objects (or people) in its path and stop moving before a collision occurs is one example. Sensors on maintenance tools that allow technicians to pinpoint the tools’ location within the facility are another. Context-aware technology also can encompass the combination of digital photography, asset sensors, and design software that allows for 3D modeling of a given asset or facility.

The benefits associated with using context-aware technology to detect real-time operating conditions are pretty readily apparent – a prevented warehouse collision can help an organization avoid product loss, equipment damage, and personal injury (and all of their associated costs). Context-aware technology applied for personal use, as in the form of RFID tags equipped with bio sensors that detect heart rate and body temperature, can be invaluable from a health and safety perspective, too.

But going beyond the benefits of immediacy, of enabling just-in-time action to prevent unplanned downtime or worker injury, the continued collection of context-sensitive data gives companies a better view of how their assets are performing over time. Contextual data can add a layer of perspective that helps businesses pinpoint where the trouble spots and logjams are in their facilities, which conditions pose the greatest risks to production, etc. This in turn allows for more predictive rather than responsive planning for everything from maintenance on the factory floor to fleet and field services management.

Context-aware technology can provide “understanding that the systems you’ve put in place, the technology you’ve deployed, is actually being used the way you intended it to be used,” says Tim Spang, VP of operations at Seegrid, which developed a line of automated vision-guided pallet trucks and tow tractors.

Far from promising theoretical benefits at some point in the future, context-aware technologies already are delivering hard results for a variety of early adopters, say IFS’ Veague and others. And some of the biggest names in business are hungry for more. Peoria, IL-based Caterpillar became a top investor last year in Chicago tech company Uptake, which incorporates contextual data such as weather and traffic conditions in its predictive analytics platform to help manufacturers and other industrial companies predict failures, avoid unplanned downtime, and optimize their processes. Caterpillar has said it’s using Uptake’s platform to support analysis of customers’ use of Cat equipment.

And although two-year-old Uptake is tight-lipped about its clientele’s projects, within the rail industry alone, “We are generating tens of millions of dollars of incremental profitability, cost reduction, per month for a small subset of clients,” says co-founder and CEO Brad Keywell (who previously co-founded Groupon).

What do context-aware tech’s benefits look like for other industry heavyweights? Boeing, for one, relies on RFID tags to help it drastically reduce the time it takes to locate specific tools in the company’s enormous manufacturing facilities, saving time and money, Cisco manufacturing services business development manager Bret Small says.

“The Boeing facilities that manufacture planes are extremely large facilities, and there’s a fair amount of tooling and fixtures that might get used once or twice during the manufacturing cycle,” Small says. “Inside of a building that’s several acres in size, if you don’t know where (a tool) is, finding it can be quite a challenge.” With RFID tags in place and a strong WiFi network backing them, “We have documented cases of reducing the search time from eight to 12 hours down to 10 or 15 minutes,” Small says.

When tools are located faster, work gets done faster, and improved productivity saves money. “If someone’s hourly wage is X, and they spend four hours searching (for something) as opposed to 20 minutes, there is some ROI there,” Small adds.

Still, Small knows the protests put forth by those skeptical about investing in context-aware tech: We’ll just work on storing our stuff better and communicating about where tools are, they say, so we don’t need to add context-aware technologies.

Small’s reply: “If you ask most of these manufacturers, ‘Has your line ever actually stopped because you couldn’t find X?’ almost inevitably all of them say, sheepishly, ‘Yes, once or twice a year, we get stopped because someone can’t find this.’ ”

The cost of a line stoppage and the hourly rate of the line running are numbers that companies “have a pretty good handle on,” Small says. And with RFID tags, “We can’t guarantee that (a search-related stoppage) will never happen again, but if we reduce the likelihood of that substantially, that can be factored usually into a pretty significant ROI.”

When planning maintenance tasks, too, having data about an asset’s performance history in varying operating conditions can help schedulers make more-strategic, cost-saving decisions, IFS’ Veague says.

“What if you didn’t have to maintain your assets as often as you think because their operating characteristics are actually in less harsh conditions than what the manufacturer built their maintenance intervals around, so you can safely extend your maintenance interval?” he asks. Further, he adds, “If you had better insights into the nature of a failure or the nature of maintenance condition requirements before you go out, you can be sure you have the right spare parts with you, (and) you have the right knowledge and skills when you go.”

The more-comprehensive perspective generated by context-aware tools can help companies avoid unnecessary costs of sending personnel out to a remote asset to verify a possible issue, too.

(Context awareness is) assisting in the decision-making that has to happen on an hourly basis for these plants.

– Sandra DiMatteo, Bentley

Bentley, which acquired 3D modeling software solution ContextCapture in 2015, is looking to help businesses use drone-provided aerial photography and sensor technology to more cost-effectively analyze remote assets. Consider a utility company substation, says Sandra DiMatteo, who leads marketing strategy for Bentley’s asset management and operations products.

“They no longer have to run out, if there’s a problem, and take a trip out to the substation to verify (it), because we virtually flew in and captured it using a drone,” she says. That’s exactly what’s happening with ERDF, which manages public electricity distribution for most of France. The company is using ContextCapture and asset sensors to capture images and data for 10,000 brownfield substations throughout France, Bentley senior product marketing manager David Huie notes, in an effort to support maintenance efficiency and worker safety.

“The concept we term is continuous inspection, as opposed to a single-point-in-time thing that you do on a very infrequent basis. It can now be done regularly because of the ease and inexpensiveness of doing so.”

Whether it’s at a substation, an oilfield, a wind power farm or another remote site, the use of asset sensors and aerial/digital photography can enable the automatic creation of 3D models of a facility or a particular asset as it exists right now. When looking at whether, how, where, and when to tend to a problem at a remote site, that’s powerful, Huie and DiMatteo say.

Context awareness is “assisting in the decision-making that has to happen on an hourly basis for these plants,” DiMatteo says.

Part 2: Who's leading the charge?
Part 3: What are the hurdles to adoption, and what's next?

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