Distributed assets need close, personal attention

Nov. 20, 2012
Software and technology bring distant maintenance needs into focus.

In brief:

  • Recent technology advancements are furthering the possibilities for distributed asset management.
  • Asset management software assists in the oversight of work performance, as well as facilitating spending decisions.
  • The greatest opportunity in distributed asset management is to increase mobility adoption and use it to its fullest potential.

The logistics of managing far-and-away assets is more complicated than those within sight of the maintenance office. Sprawling industrial complexes, behemoth-sized process plants, and remote repair shops are all impeded by time and distance when an asset fails or requires service. With integrated software, sensors, control systems and mobility solutions, the assets can be monitored more efficiently and managed more effectively. Recent technology advancements are furthering the possibilities for distributed asset management.

Recognizing the challenges

Figure 1. The main Grassland Dairy Products plant has undergone four major and a few minor expansions over the past 30 years, and it will continue to grow in the future. Plans are already in the works to add a Lactose dryer. (Source: Grassland Dairy Products)

Grassland Dairy Products (www.grassland.com) is the largest privately-owned dairy producer in the United States. It produces about 150 million packages of quarter-pound butter sticks, 100 million packages of one-pound butter sticks, and 150 million packages of one-pound Elgin-style butter annually (Figure 1). Jim Hills, the dairy’s assistant corporate maintenance manager, oversees maintenance for the main 100-acre manufacturing plant in Greenwood, Wisconsin, as well as two West Point Dairy Products plants in Nebraska and Utah and the Graf Creamery in nearby Zachow, Wisconsin.

“We have approximately 75 refrigerator trucks, tanker trucks, and other vehicles on the road, in addition to butter-processing equipment, anhydrous milk fat (AMF) blending equipment, three dryers that make dried and powdered products, and other key pieces of equipment dispersed across the sites that need to remain operational. And the plant facilities themselves need to be maintained,” says Hills.

“We also do occasional field service for the three other plants, as needed,” he continues. “We can be called upon to install or repair new equipment, and we build and rebuild machinery that is rotated between the sites. Scheduling is our biggest challenge — getting the right mechanics at the right time to the right place. We use our equipment 110% of the time, so trying to get downtime is hard. And we have a diversified team here with specialties in specific areas.”

Inside battery limits (ISBL) oil refinery units face unique challenges, says Dr. Shri Goyal, owner of Coking Solutions (www.cokingsolutions.com), a Houston-based company that provides safety and profitability assistance for facilities using coking technologies. These units typically have a physical boundary separating them from the supporting equipment outside. Because they are classified as hazardous locations, the communications options within the plant are limited.

“A typical ISBL refinery can span 50 to more than 2,000 or 3,000 acres. Currently, handheld data loggers are generally used to capture information at the equipment’s location, which do not automatically update the historian and asset management system. Additionally, no information can be retrieved from a data logger,” explains Goyal.

The role of asset management software

Proper maintenance of distributed assets comes down to having the right tools. “Essentially, companies should work to not fixing an asset when it’s broken, but being able to be predictive in fixing the asset before it’s broken, An asset management solution provides manufacturers with visibility into the gaps within the operations before unplanned downtime or an injury occurs,” says Nuris Ismail, manufacturing research analyst for Aberdeen Group (www.aberdeen.com).


“In the manufacturing environment in particular, in certain processes, decision makers need to get access to data that is as real-time as possible. However, many manufacturers still rely on spreadsheets or word processing tools and desktop-bound tools, which allows for data error and lag time. If only one person is using that software, it increases the risk. Gaining access with proper asset management solutions enables manufacturers to be more predictive and to perform condition-based maintenance,” explains Ismail.

Planning, scheduling and routing are also more effective using asset management software. Once you understand what happened, you can use analytics and a dashboard to optimize your work plan. Another capability of the software is inventory optimization for parts and tools. It gives you insight into what spare parts are available in the inventory, what parts are needed to service an asset, and when to buy,” adds Ismail.

Grassland Dairy implemented its asset management software in 2010. Hills estimates that 90% of the maintenance tasks were reactive or retroactive prior to installing the system, and the equipment maintenance history was purged after three months. Now, there are about 1,700 pieces of equipment and 12,000 inventory items in the new system, and more are being added.

“We have saved 30-35% on maintenance budgetary spending costs per year since implementing our asset management software, and the system paid for itself within six months,” says Hills. “Before it was implemented, we assigned work on the fly, based on memory, but the size of our business has exploded in the last two years. Without our asset management software, there is no way we could track what everyone is doing at a given time with all the equipment we have. It is vital to our day-to-day operations here,” he adds.

“The software is a vital management tool for larger companies in particular. You can’t do all your work on a memory basis. If you have thousands of pieces of inventory and your system is paper-based, you’ll be dealing with stacks and stacks of paper. Having all the documentation associated with a piece of equipment available in a digitized form is almost necessary, especially if your company goes under regular audits,” explains Hills.

“We have numerous centrifugal pumps that move fluid like water or milk from Point A to Point B. In our software, there is a parts list associated with each pump, and we can interchange certain parts with certain pumps. Attached to our work orders are the parts lists, document management spec sheets, lockout/tagout procedures, and quality and safety attachments such as the sanitization forms that track all quality control measures needed before, during, and after the work to ensure there is no contamination. In addition, within the system, we can see the pattern of equipment use and track its history. This software is hands-down essential to me now,” adds Hills.

“An important trend is the connection of asset management software to remote condition-monitoring technologies, especially in field service for the process industry,” says Aberdeen Group’s Ismail. “For example, in the oil and gas industry, some pipelines are offshore or located in remote locations. Some manufacturers utilize wireless sensors, which enables them visibility into when they need to fix the asset before it causes an unscheduled downtime. This is especially critical in the process industry where an unscheduled downtime could translate into significant financial losses,” she adds.

“Utilizing wireless sensors gives manufacturers a way to gain insight into what is happening at the asset level, and have a means to roll up the data from the plant floor and the field to make predictive decisions and react to a situation before an event occurs,” explains Ismail.

Visibility for repair shops

Third-party or remote service providers benefit from asset management software, and their customers do, as well. Asset management software assists in the oversight of work performance, as well as facilitating spending decisions, explains Aberdeen’s Ismail.

“Service companies benefit from using asset management software to understand what is happening from a client-to-client perspective. It allows them to ensure repeat business and customer satisfaction by eliminating poorly performing service personnel,” says Ismail.

Customers also benefit from oversight capabilities. Ismail recalls a company that makes highly complex, built-to-order products using an extremely expensive machine that they couldn’t afford to go down. “With the software, they had visibility into the length of time it took their service provider to get to the site after putting out the work order, and how often service was required. When their service agreement came up for renewal, they were able to put a case forward that they were paying too much for service performance and were able to significantly reduce the cost of the service agreement,” she explains.

Mobility enablers are increasing in scope and value

When handheld devices are linked to asset management software, they provide portability and visibility into distributed asset management. “Adding mobility to asset management software aids in workforce productivity. You can use a mobile device to enter a work order for in-house maintenance, or send a maintenance request. There is some adoption in this regard, but it is relatively small. Companies need to adopt this in order to be more predictive, with more stability of data,” advises Aberdeen’s Ismail (Figure 2).

Figure 2. While best-in-class companies are more likely to invest in asset management solutions, they are also more likely to empower their employees with mobility tools. (Source: Aberdeen Group)

Thanks to recent technology improvements, smart devices are providing a wider scope of functionality that is capable of being introduced to a broader range of industries.

“Today, commodity products like Microsoft Windows 8 and RT, Microsoft Surface, Google Nexus and a range of smartphones can be combined with commodity software to make mobility accessible to more industries than ever before,” says Rakesh Verma, president of Parijat Controlware (www.parijat.com). “End users in electrical and water utilities; oil and gas drilling, refining and pipelines; chemicals; and transportation are benefiting from this technology. Mobility solutions for control systems have been around for several years. Now there are solutions in place using iPad units that are Class I, Division 2-certified for use in hazardous environments,” adds Verma.

“Until recently the concept of bringing mobile devices like touchpads and smartphones into ISBL units was unheard of because they had not been classified as intrinsically safe for use in hazardous locations,” says Coking Solutions’ Goyal. “Now, there is potential for the iPad and Windows 8 Touchpads to be safely used and connected to the refinery’s network and Intranet, providing access to the control systems and asset management system from the devices. In addition, the mobile devices can potentially provide a link to an outside Internet connection,” he adds.

“The newer-technology devices could allow maintenance personnel to retrieve live control system data, maintenance records, manuals, drawings, purchase orders, and other data in the system from wherever they are on the property, creating a virtual control room for the plant personnel,” explains Goyal. The mobile devices could also be helpful in monitoring the operating condition of units where equipment condition monitoring sensors or control systems are used as well as for calibrating field devices or troubleshooting, he explains.

“These units show full, live HMI/SCADA data,” says Verma. “They allow users to take notes, create work orders, and view work orders associated with HMI tags by clicking or touching on them. Users also have access to plant history data, control systems, PLCs, and the spare parts database from their iPads,” he adds.

“Support is also provided for live video conferencing using the built-in camera or outside cameras and audio sharing, allowing the field force to collaborate via ‘tele-presence’ with subject matter experts sitting elsewhere. Google Earth or Microsoft Bing maps can be used as integrated GIS applications for viewing live data from PLCs and electronic flow meters. Think of it as giving a technician or operator access to a virtual control room from the field. Using security controls, a complete audit trail of user activities can be maintained to ensure that only authenticated users are accessing the system,” explains Verma.

“I believe this type of access will be implemented sooner or later in ISBL refineries, and a few of them are looking into it already. It’s going to be very good,” says Goyal. “A technician needing on-the-spot advice about a leaking valve, for example, could send a picture or video to a vendor based 200 miles away while he is still in front of the equipment,” he adds.

“Another opportunity for the future might be the RFID tagging of equipment. I think there is a benefit to identifying equipment such as vessels and pumps, and tracking their chain of ownership. With refineries closing and equipment being re-sold, understanding that history could be helpful, but I don’t see this happening for many years,” says Goyal.

Smart decisions

As the software and technology become more powerful and commonplace, opportunities to improve distributed asset management will increase, which will likely convince more companies to upgrade their processes.

Sheila Kennedy is a professional freelance writer specializing in industrial and technical topics. She established Additive Communications in 2003 to serve software, technology, and service providers in industries such as manufacturing and utilities, and became a contributing editor and Technology Toolbox columnist for Plant Services in 2004. Prior to Additive Communications, she had 11 years of experience implementing industrial information systems. Kennedy earned her B.S. at Purdue University and her MBA at the University of Phoenix. She can be reached at [email protected].

“The asset management software version that we currently use is a legacy product, so we don’t have mobile access yet. We expect to make the conversion to the newer, Web-based version next year,” says Grassland Dairy’s Hills. “Two years ago we considered the mobility solution but chose not to implement it. Now, in this day and age, using smartphones and Web-based software to email work orders and exchange documents from remote is pretty common,” he adds.

“With our current system, the other plants call us regularly to ask whether we have needed parts. When we all switch to the Web-based asset management software, we’ll be able to look up inventory over the Internet, which will save time looking for parts. It will also save us from ordering excess parts; we once found parts in a storage area that we didn’t know we had,” says Hills.

Aberdeen Group encourages this approach. “I think the greatest opportunity in distributed asset management is to increase mobility adoption and use it to its fullest potential. Using mobility tools with asset management software provides greater visibility into the assets and allows you to continuously improve your processes,” says Ismail. She cautions that it will require a culture change to get the employees on board to use the system. “You need to educate the workforce to use the software. Technology is only as powerful as its utilization,” advises Ismail.