CMMS and GPS work together to keep track of where your assets are

Aug. 11, 2008
Contributing Editor David Berger, P.Eng., says integrating GIS/GPS with your CMMS reveals where your assets are and much more.

It’s safe to say that the growth of global positioning system (GPS) technology has been significant during the past few years. GPS devices for consumer applications abound. They’re in automotive navigation systems, car security systems, portable navigation systems, and even embedded in mobile phones for determining your position and way-finding. In the industrial world, GPS devices are used primarily for surveying, mapping and tracking of assets using a geographic information system (GIS).

The CMMS vendors certainly have kept pace with the increase in demand for GPS- and GIS-related applications. Most CMMS vendors have added fields and functionality to better collect GPS coordinates, as well as to integrate with the more popular GIS systems such as ESRI and Intergraph. This is especially valuable for CMMS users who work with a large and widespread asset base, such as utilities and pipeline companies, or where assets are constantly moving, such as transportation companies. However, a company of any size and in any industry can usually find some benefit in this emerging technology.


A good starting point for gaining a better understanding of applications that are based on spatially referenced data is to define a few key terms.

The GPS is a satellite navigation system developed and maintained by the U.S. Department of Defense and is officially named NAVSTAR-GPS. Your GPS receiver interprets microwave signals from several of the 24 satellites in geosynchronous orbit to determine your location (latitude, longitude and elevation), speed, direction and time.

Although the GPS was originally developed by the military, in 1983, President Reagan promised to make it available to the civilian world. This was after the tragic downing of Korean Airlines Flight 007 by Soviet aircraft, when a navigational error led the plane, carrying more than 250 passengers, to wander into Soviet airspace. Although the European Union and countries such as Russia, China and India are developing their own satellite navigation systems, NAVSTAR is currently the only one that is fully operational.

A GIS manages spatially referenced data, such as a map showing where key assets are located. The first commercial application of GIS technology was pioneered in 1962 by Canada’s Department of Forestry and Rural Development. It was used to collect and analyze rural land-use data. By the early 1980s, the first GIS software vendors (Intergraph, ESRI and CARIS) used the Canadian technology to combine spatial data, attribute data such as descriptors of assets at given coordinates, and the ability to collect, store, present and analyze these data. Within the past decade, many CMMS vendors have developed interfaces with the more popular GIS software packages. They integrate asset tombstone data and work history with the spatial and digitized mapping data.

Linear assets refer to five classes of assets including plant equipment, facilities, fleet/mobile equipment, infrastructure (roads, bridges, pipelines), and IT assets. Linear assets usually fall into what we’d call infrastructure: those assets that need to be defined spatially, such as water or wastewater networks, parks, transmission lines and roadways. These assets usually are divided into segments, each of which is defined in terms of length, width, height, start and end points, and other spatial data, including GPS coordinates.

Asset location

Almost every CMMS package has the capability to record extensive attributes for a given asset, regardless of its class. Even if attributes are missing, there usually are a number of custom fields that can be added or configured to accommodate your needs. Increasingly, CMMS vendors are improving the asset register by adding spatial data fields and related information.

Let’s describe where the fire extinguishers are located in your plant. Perhaps you tag the steel columns in your facility, or describe the approximate location, or simply number them using a logical sequence that makes it easy to locate. With modern CMMS packages you also might consider referencing GPS coordinates, especially given the improved accuracy, lower cost and ease of use of today’s GPS devices. But, some assets are difficult to describe, except by using mapping references or GPS coordinates. Such assets can be:

  • spread out (park furniture)
  • in multiple remote locations (gas wells and hydro poles)
  • not easily visible or detectable (underground valves or vaults)
  • linear assets (water mains and cables)

Tracking assets and people

Personal digital assistant (PDA) devices are handheld computers such as the BlackBerry or Palm Pilot. PDA devices and laptop computers place a lot of computing power and freedom into the hands of maintenance technicians. For example, in any of the cases above, they can download work order information onto their personal devices, access relevant equipment history or diagnostic information, and upload work order information upon job completion, all without ever coming into a central maintenance shop. Most advanced CMMS packages support this capability.

With device add-ons such as a GPS unit, you can accurately determine the location of fixed assets, mobile equipment and even people. This can be done on a regular or continuous push basis, or the location information can be pulled from the server on an as-required basis. Companies that track their technician’s location are reporting productivity gains of 30% or more because people know they’re being monitored. The downside, however, is the potential pushback by technicians because “big brother is watching.” Some feel such close scrutiny of one’s every move fosters mutual mistrust, thereby straining labor relations.

As usual, it’s more likely that poor implementation or disregard for change-management issues will initiate such attitude problems. Just make sure your prime objective in adding the devices is seen primarily as a benefit to the technicians, such as facilitating the dispatch of technicians closest to the work, improved safety and security, and assisting with route optimization and eliminating traffic problems.

CMMS/GIS integration

A number of CMMS vendors are integrating GIS software in their packages. The interface can be as basic as access to area maps from within the CMMS, to such sophisticated features as the ability to:

  • synchronize static asset data, including the asset numbering scheme for cross referencing and location references within the CMMS and GIS applications
  • view a GIS map from within the CMMS, showing hot spots for drilldown to more detailed information about a given asset or location (eg, static data, condition history, repair history, move history including splitting linear assets and maintaining parent/child data)
  • draw a polygon on the GIS map from within the CMMS, for filtering and displaying specific information such as a list of assets of a given type within the polygon, past-due PM work orders for equipment within the polygon, or a list of affected assets if service is interrupted in the area
  • redline the GIS map from within the CMMS, in the field, for example, if technicians discover an asset has moved or to show where repair work was done

Not surprisingly, the increasing demand for integration between GIS systems and CMMS packages has not only pushed CMMS vendors to add spatial functionality, but has caused at least one GIS software vendor to develop its own fully integrated CMMS modules to capture market share.

E-mail Contributing Editor David Berger, P.Eng., partner, Western Management Consultants, at [email protected].

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