Going mobile is the key to the future of PdM

June 13, 2006
Moving from reactive to predictive is a culture change. It requires thinking and acting differently, which takes new priorities, retraining and fundamental shifts in daily activities. Short of wholesale outsourcing, a plant can’t buy its way to predictive. But one small class of tools can do the most to facilitate the change: mobile computers.

Transitioning from reactive to predictive maintenance (PdM) is arguably the single most powerful way to reduce maintenance costs while improving reliability, overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) and return on assets (ROA). Most maintenance professionals have at least passing familiarity with predictive technologies such as oil analysis and vibration, temperature, power and ultrasonic monitoring, and many have implemented one or more. Most plants have some form of computerized maintenance management system (CMMS), and some have made a considerable investment in reliability-centered maintenance (RCM). Now the big boss is saying the entire plant must embrace Lean.

Yet many maintenance departments remain mired between reactive and preventive activities, unable to free enough management or technician time (or mindshare) to collect accurate data, organize and correlate it, and use the results to reduce wasted activity and prevent failures.

Moving from reactive to predictive is a culture change. It requires thinking and acting differently, which takes new priorities, retraining and fundamental shifts in daily activities. Short of wholesale outsourcing, a plant can’t buy its way to predictive. But one small class of tools can do the most to facilitate the change: mobile computers.

Change agents

The foundation of efficient maintenance is timely, comprehensive, accurate data on machine condition and maintenance activities. With it, you can stay on top of changing priorities, improve workforce efficiency and build the repair histories necessary to track failure modes, quantify the costs of problem equipment, evaluate preventive maintenance (PM) procedures, and support decisions about PdM programs.

Mobile computers foster comprehensive, accurate data collection by minimizing the number of steps and opportunities to introduce errors as data flows in and information flows out of the CMMS. Danny Justice, building maintenance lead at Gordon Food Service (GFS), Brighton, Mich., works in a 380,000 sq.ft., distribution center that ships more than 500,000 cases weekly. “With 6.5 miles of conveyor and a large fleet of mobile equipment, our 15 mechanics stay quite busy,” he says. “We have been using Intermec 700 handhelds loaded with the Maximo Mobile Work Manager for more than three years now. The devices allow our mechanics to record all kinds of data while on the floor. Before the implementation of the handhelds, our mechanics had to wait for one of three shop PCs to record into Maximo by hand.”

The comprehensive, accurate data also helps justify maintenance expenditures. “At one auto plant, unionized employees have been cooperating for seven years,” says Richard Padula, president, Syclo ( “They don’t want to track the time, but now they can prove the work that gets done. Management thinks that people are sitting around and it wants to cut 10% —tracking allows maintenance to show management what they’re getting for their money.”

Barcode scanning capabilities can simplify inventory control and equipment identification. “The mechanics pull their own parts here at GFS,” Justice says. Each part has a barcode label printed on it for easy scanning into the device. “Our four unlocked, open parts rooms maintain a 99% accuracy rate almost every month. All of our equipment is labeled, and makes for easy scanning of equipment numbers. The days of guessing, ‘what equipment are they referring to?’ are gone.”

Along with more complete, accurate information, mobile systems can improve the timeliness of data transfer. Southern Nevada Water System (SNWS), Las Vegas, has two treatment plants and 12 maintenance technicians (Figure 1). They were buried in paperwork before turning to PDAs. “I might hand a maintenance tech a month’s worth of preventive maintenance work orders, which could include hundreds of tasks,” says Jeffrey Deitch, SNWS business systems analyst. “He might just bite at this work load day to day and, at the end of the month, come back with a stack of paper and say everything is done. If you want more timely input on the status of your equipment, you need input more than every 30 days.”

SNWS already had an Avantis.Pro asset management system, so Deitch installed the mobile PDA option. “With the PDA, instead of receiving a stack of paper work orders for the day, technicians get a PDA loaded with their work assignments,” he says. “At the end of the day, they hand in the PDAs.”

In a wastewater plant, a spill or inadvertent release of polluted water can trigger as much a $15,000 EPA fine. Maintenance people need to know when conditions are ripe for a release so they can immediately tend to the problem. The city of Xenia, Ohio, installed an HMI/SCADA system from Indusoft ( which includes wireless PDAs. Everyone from managers to maintenance techs can see key data and receive alerts, at the plant or at home. Since the system was installed, there have been no regulatory violations as a result of slow maintenance response to alarms. The entire system paid for itself the first time Xenia responded in time to avoid an EPA fine.

The case for wireless

Wireless data transfer can take timeliness to a new level. Most handheld devices today use a cradle or docking station, which charges the PDA’s battery, downloads information from the PDA to the CMMS, and uploads new work orders. Technicians have to cradle their devices at the beginning, the end and sometimes during a shift. Going wireless eliminates the cradle.

At Philadelphia Newspaper’s 681,000 sq.ft. plant in Philadelphia, maintenance manager Ken Smith chose wireless instead of docking stations. The plant already had a CMMS from Mapcon (, so Mapcon installed a wireless PocketMaint software application for $6,000. Adding wireless to the plant, Smith says, cost about $4,000. Thirteen employees — Smith’s maintenance team and six environmental staffers — received Hewlett-Packard iPaqs for another $13,000, bringing the total cost of the wireless upgrade to $23,000.

“We’ve put barcodes on equipment,” says Smith. “I can be standing next to a stacker that’s registering bad counts, scan the stacker and the work order will come in with the ID number and everything else I need.” Smith says other employees are enviously eyeing the PDAs. “The vehicle maintenance director wants a couple to track fuel management. The systems department wants to track and barcode equipment.”

Todd Pacific Shipyards (Figure 3) is a sprawling, 46-acre facility in Seattle and Everett, Wash. Todd Pacific installed a CMMS from IFS ( that uses handheld terminals. A large wireless system lets foremen download daily activities from anywhere on the site, see where every worker is deployed at any given moment, and assemble project teams on the fly. “We want to deploy wireless PC tablets with voice recognition on our ships,” says Mike Taylor, IS director. “By writing on the tablet or speaking into it, our employees will be able to generate work orders quickly and load them into the IFS system no matter where they are.”

Making the wireless connection can be extremely simple, according to Ernie Roland, president of InduSoft ( “A PDA connects via a Wireless Access Point (WAP), Bluetooth or even infrared,” says Roland. “If the control system or network doesn’t have wireless, but it has Ethernet, then you simply plug a WAP device into an Ethernet port. A serial converter to Bluetooth is another inexpensive option.”

Roland says a WAP also allows the PDA to tap into individual PLCs, machine sensors and controls, process control systems and smart devices. This is especially useful if the device has a diagnostic software package that the vendor’s techs run on a handheld. There’s no reason why a plant maintenance tech can’t use the same software to diagnose a “smart” pump, motor drive or controller. It’s just a matter of writing it into the RFQ when you buy new instrumentation or controls.

“Wireless LANs are gaining ground, and wide-area is now working well,” says Padula. Bringing wireless inside the buildings is best, he says. “If they don’t have to go outside to connect, that’s good.”

At Gorden Food Service, Justice is looking forward to a wireless future. “Today, we cradle the handhelds before each work break and at the end of the day to synch up to the Maximo database,” he says. “Due to the amount of steel racking and snaking conveyor in our building, our thoughts of going wireless are fleeting, but not yet out of the question. That will be the next step.”

Resistance is futile

When mobile computers were first introduced, they were often accurately perceived as expensive, delicate, hard to use and limited in functionality. Management was concerned that techs would break or steal them, and the techs thought management would use the information to monitor and discipline them. Many devices met untimely deaths under suspicious circumstances.

But many of today’s devices and their software are highly adapted to the specific needs of industrial maintenance, and acceptance comes quickly. “The adoption rate is accelerating,” says Padula.

“Implementation is faster, and plants are committing 100% upfront instead of doing pilots or, if they pilot, they already have the full cost committed.”

Steve Reilly, vice president of Design Maintenance Systems (, defines “asset basic care” as a commitment by the operations and maintenance staffs to ensure that plant assets maintain an expected level of quality and production, and they reach their expected lifespan. Frequent inspection and recording the results using handheld computers are key to establishing and maintaining a successful program.

“It can be difficult to convince maintainers and operators to accept handheld computers for asset basic care programs, but it has been proven in hundreds of installations that they are a integral tool to help move plants from a reactive to a proactive maintenance mode,” Reilly says.

For example, at a pulp and paper mill in Louisiana in early 2004, operators initially resisted implementation of a automated asset basic care program. However, by June 2005, the basic care program was credited with a $30 per tonne reduction in maintenance costs, “This at a time when paper mills have been shutting down due to high operating costs and oversupply,” Reilly says. “Plant personnel achieved this by embracing the basic care concept, the cultural changes that it implies and the technology that enables it to be implemented.”

The key to acceptance is to give something back to the user. “Help them get their jobs done,” says Padula. “If technicians don’t have to spend time filling logs at the end of the day, they can do more maintenance. Supervisors can supervise instead of doing paperwork.” When a PDA ends up in a barrel of oil or crushed by a lift truck, it’s probably not because of the “big brother” concern. More likely, it’s because the device isn’t doing the technician any good. It’s taking time and not giving anything back.

Market research firms Gartner Group and ARC Advisory Group both recognize the future of handhelds. “Our research shows that users will not accept critical business applications unless they are available on a mobile platform,” says Michael Maoz of Gartner.

“A recent ARC survey identified the use of mobile solutions for asset management as an important trend,” says Houghton LeRoy, ARC research director.

J. Gold Associates, another market research firm, agrees. “The enterprise is being overtaken by a race to mobility,” they report. “Personal mobile devices, such as handhelds and smart phones, most of them wirelessly enabled, are being deployed as data access devices. The majority of mobile workers will be enabled with such capabilities within three to four years.”

Padula cautions that it’s key to correctly set expectations. “There’s some hype out there,” he says. “Focus on what’s practical today.”

Handheld CMMS functions

  • Read equipment barcodes
  • Generate work requests and work orders
  • Complete work orders
  • View work order details and instructions
  • Enter readings, parts used and time spent on work orders
  • Input meter and gauge readings
  • Issue and return parts
  • Input inventory counts
  • Initiate purchase requests
  • Produce after-the-fact work orders
  • Browse data (equipment, work orders, inventory, vendors, stock status)
  • Design lookups to find info fast
  • Run reports
  • Display real-time data
  • View equipment specs
  • View equipment preventive maintenance procedures
  • View equipment troubleshooting and diagnostic guides

More at
Build your own Tricorder: Senior Technical Editor Rich Merritt began his technical career as a software engineer. Here’s his unpublished sidebar on how to put together the ultimate maintenance handheld.

Mobile strengths

  1. Eliminate manual entry. Workers no longer have to spend two hours at the end of each shift keying work order data to a PC. “We’d spend hours at the end of our shifts entering and closing out work orders,” says Ken Smith of Philadelphia Newspapers. “It was quite labor intensive, and took a lot of administrative and desk time.”
  2. Log all activities, making it easier to justify workers and budgets. Datastream offers this example: “Jim” gets five work orders per day. He does the five tasks. On the way back to the shop, he checks two other machines, cleans up a spill, and helps another tech get a part out of the inventory crib. In a paper system, this work does not appear, and Jim appears ineffective. With a handheld, Jim can document the extra work. Supervisors can prove that their people are working effectively and efficiently.
  3. Have accurate data. “Before the mobile solution from Blue Dot [], we had to fill out seven complicated and lengthy inspection forms using clipboards,” says Barb Basse, information systems manager for Duro-Last, a manufacturer of prefabricated roofing systems. “Handwriting illegibility, re-keying the information, and manual filing introduced a lot of errors into our process. With Blue Dot’s mNow mobile system, consistent data is entered into a digitized inspection form.”
  4. Avert breakdowns. BASF in Antwerp, Belgium, uses Emerson’s handheld machinery health analyzers to keep tabs on 3,000 machines (Figure 4). The handheld makes it possible to check any machine quickly. In one case, a technician suspected a chalk-dryer fan was going bad. Analysis proved the technician was correct: the fan had a defective bearing cage. The problem was corrected before failure, saving BASF more than $10,000 in potential product losses.
  5. Earn kudos for maintenance. How important is goodwill? With handhelds, maintenance techs respond faster, have all the instructions they need, and can obtain parts quickly. Improved response time makes other departments happier.

Leverage the CMMS

Every plant of significant size has a CMMS, or soon will. The economics seem irrefutable, so most plants bite the bullet, survive the implementation and get ready to watch their maintenance procedures become efficient and productive. But getting a CMMS is only half the battle. Today, you need handhelds to reap more of the advantages.

That’s because a CMMS usually resides on a distant computer or server, but maintenance people work on the plant floor. Without handhelds, someone has to spend time at a suitable PC to enter data manually. With handhelds, more CMMS benefits can be enjoyed on the plant floor (see sidebar, “Handheld CMMS functions”), and no one has to spend two hours at the end of the day inputting data.
The Sonoco Flexible Packaging Plant in Morristown, Tenn., is a 50,000 sq.ft. facility with 150 employees, running 24/7 making packaging for many national brands. The maintenance department has eight employees under Supervisor Mickey Reaves. In 2002, maintenance was primarily reactive, reports Reaves, and Sonoco didn’t have an organized inventory system for repair parts. The facility installed iMaint OnLine, a Web-hosted enterprise asset management system from DPSI ( It allowed maintenance employees to access the maintenance management and inventory control system from any computer with a Web browser and Internet access. This system let Sonoco track maintenance records, work orders and data collected from plant assets, but it still required manual data entry.

In 2004, the company added iMaint Mobile software and Pocket PC wireless PDAs with integrated barcode scanners. Each technician was assigned a PDA that connected to the system through a plant-wide wireless network. “We’re much more efficient in our work order processes,” reports Reaves, and no one has to enter information by typing it into a PC workstation. 

“All that work is done directly on our PDAs at the work location, and work orders in iMaint are updated instantly,” he says. “Each PDA has a detailed list of current preventive maintenance and work orders. It’s easy to generate new work orders or PMs on location, or combine repairs with preventive procedures when scheduled PM is about to come due.”

The system has also automated the parts inventory control system. “A big advantage is that when a tech scans a part out, inventory levels are instantly updated,” says Reaves. “Plus, an engineer troubleshooting a breakdown can know instantly if a needed part is in stock, and where it’s located.” No more than three of any part is kept in stock -- the system reorders parts as needed.

Reaves reports the gains in productivity and efficiency, plus improved inventory control, paid for the handheld equipment many times over and have enabled Sonoco to go from a reactive program to a proactive one.

Many CMMS software vendors are adding mobile capabilities, either on their own or by tight integration with specific partners. So when you’re ready to add mobile devices, Dave Loesch, director of maintenance solutions for one-stop solution shop Oracle (, says you have to examine the offerings carefully. “Probably the biggest issue for maintenance users is the fly-by-night nature of mobile vendors and their integration with the CMMS vendors,” he asserts. “MRO’s customers were happy with Syclo until MRO came out with its own mobile platform. Datastream customers jumped on board with the Global PTM solution until Datastream took it in-house with 7i. Indus customers loved Future Horizons, which became iMedeo, which became Virynet.”

Why all the switching around? “The CMMS vendors are developing their own mobile platforms because they want the margins and their customers don’t like the multiple-vendor solution,” Loesch says. “The bottom line is that users can no longer afford to deal with these hodgepodge vendor solutions.”

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