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 not? 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 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-plus reading documents. That is about 500-plus readings per day for 11 plants.”
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,” explains Osterman. “The tasks are presented in the order that they do their rounds.” She adds: “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 hand-written 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.”
NorthWestern Energy’s situation is unique in that it inherited an existing mobile solution. “Ours were not the challenges that you typically have with a new mobility project,” says Osterman. “As part of the hydro facility acquisition, we kept their existing hardware but implemented a new software solution that integrated with our enterprise system.” She continues: “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% 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.