IIoT / Big Data Analytics / Smart Manufacturing / Condition-Based Maintenance

Avoiding the black hole of data

If technicians can’t access data readily and managers can’t get real-time reports, what’s the point of entering it?

By Bob Argyle, Leading2Lean

I needed to catch a flight recently, and I was running late. As I got in my car and headed toward the airport, I opened the Waze mobile app. Waze is a community-based traffic and navigation app that allows drivers to share real-time traffic and road information, such as where an accident has occurred or whether traffic has slowed down.

Driving down the freeway, I received directions from the app to take the next exit and was routed through a series of back roads. I wondered what was going on. For a moment, I thought the app may have made a mistake or was malfunctioning. Before I could take action, I was routed back to the freeway. As I merged back onto the freeway, I looked back to see that there had been an accident just behind the on-ramp and traffic was backing up. If not for Waze, I probably would have missed my flight.

What makes Waze a true innovation is that it gives users useful and up-to-date information right when they need it. The app pools data from the community of users to guide them on the best route to get where they need to go in the least amount of time. Waze makes the data accessible, easy to understand, and immediately actionable. And the result is better decisions and greater efficiency for all who use the app.

These same factors are critical to success on the manufacturing plant floor. However, few companies truly capture the benefits of real-time data, and most don’t take full advantage of the incredible technology at their fingertips. The result is that the accessibility and quality of the data available to workers doesn’t help them do their jobs better. When they don’t find value in the data, the quality of data being entered suffers further. In many cases, workers input data and don’t know where it ends up or how to access it. I call this the Black Hole of Data.

It happens time and time again: A maintenance manager will introduce a software system that is supposed to streamline operations and solve all problems on the plant floor. In getting started, the manager will realize that a couple of individuals need to be designated as experts and will train them to know every aspect of the system. After the new experts have completed their training, the challenge of getting the rest of the technicians and plant members to input data into the system begins.

Often, the number of system licenses is limited; this can cause work orders to come in and be issued to maintenance technicians via paper instructions. Maintenance technicians then enter data such as labor hours, cost, and comments onto the paper work order to be entered in later by those system experts. These experts then input the information into the system days or weeks following the completion of the actual work.

This is a common systems approach, and unfortunately it turns out to be totally ineffective for many users. Why? Because this approach to system licenses creates inaccurate and late data (yesterday’s fake news). Technicians can’t access the data in a timely manner and have to jump through hoops to get the information. This inefficient process creates further issues. Among them:

  • A lack of personal value in the data for the technicians – as a result, they tend to input the bare minimum amount of information.
  • A tendency to skip filling out the work order if that process takes longer than the fix itself. Reactive maintenance rarely gets captured and never matches operations’ account of downtime.
  • A lack of understanding about how the data is ultimately used. When asked what happens with the data entered, technicians often will say: “I have no idea. I guess management uses it for something.”

The only way a maintenance manager will be able to see the data is by asking his or her experts to pull a report. However, whatever gets pulled will be yesterday’s news, as opposed to accurate, real-time information. And because technicians need to account for how they spent their time, they end up expanding the time recorded for particular tasks to match the actual amount of time they worked that day. Managers then aren’t sure if the data is accurate. Suppose that preventive maintenance that is estimated to take two hours always gets recorded in the log as having taken exactly 2.0 hours. Unlikely that was in fact the case, right?

Let’s return to the Waze app analogy. What if the traffic information entered into Waze weren’t accessible to the users entering it? Would they continue to input traffic information? Of course not. The whole concept would fall apart. The same principle plays out on the plant floor. If the data isn’t visible to all users of a system when they need it, it won’t take long before they’ll just stop putting data in. But if we all enter the information and we all know it will be there for us when we need it, then it’s a whole other ballgame. We’re motivated to do it because it benefits us directly.

We welcome technology into our everyday lives to make us more effective and efficient. Why wouldn’t we want this on the plant floor? Ultimately, the end goal of any systems deployment should be to make the workforce more effective and efficient, isn’t it?

Advances in technologies are making it possible to obtain real-time data, and systems are getting better at making it easy to access the data. In today’s environment, opportunities exist to achieve real-time access for more than just system experts and management.

Cloud-based systems in particular make accessing data easy for plant workers, as the data is ready exactly when they need it and from wherever they are. This is because users are connected to a real-time stream of applicable information through the internet. This availability of a high level of information makes the data more valuable and usable for workers, which in turn fosters the motivation to ensure that accurate and complete information is fed into the system for future use. A real-time environment also allows for data to be captured as things are happening, making the data much more accurate and believable. Times can be captured as they happen vs. entered after the event has come and gone.

Using real-time data effectively is a significant way in which manufacturers are driving competitiveness in 2019. As members of the industry, we must seek ways to provide access to data that will enable and empower people to solve problems. When data helps identify problems early so that they can be addressed early, users can avoid much bigger and costlier problems.

When data is transparent and accurate, it becomes highly useful in solving problems.  Individuals then are motivated to input that data because it benefits them. Provide your technicians with tools, not tasks.