Mobile computing enters maintenance mainstream
Computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS) and enterprise asset management systems (EAMS) are marvelous tools. They provide a wealth of information to maintenance departments to better manage and execute mission-critical activities.
Computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS) and enterprise asset management systems (EAMS) are marvelous tools. They provide a wealth of information to maintenance departments to better manage and execute mission-critical activities. But they usually have one common flaw. They focus their power on the desktop, while the action primarily happens out on the floor or in the field.
From the keypunched cards of yesteryear to today's Windows-based systems, most maintenance applications center on desktop keyboards and paper. Workers use paper forms and reports to perform and record their daily activities. Office personnel enter information from these forms into the computer system and generate even more paper.
What's wrong with this paper-centric approach? Calculate the amount of time your maintenance department spends doing paperwork and keying paper-based information into computer systems. Is all this effort really adding anything to your bottom line? Also, the inherent potential for losing information in all this paper shuffling is obvious. When we turn our craftspeople into paper pushers, we shouldn't be surprised if they do not give us a full accounting of daily activities.
We don't expect craftspeople to haul each piece of equipment back to the office for repair or servicing. So why do we expect them to move paper between the job site and the maintenance office? Why not give them tools to access and record CMMS /EAMS information at the job site electronically?
Mobile computing in maintenance management is not new. The ability to collect, process, and review maintenance information remotely using handheld devices and computers has been around for years. But until recently, mobile maintenance solutions have been the providence of costly custom development efforts or specialty niches like the maintenance storeroom. The cost/benefit dynamics have kept it outside the mainstream of maintenance information management.
However, recent developments have dramatically changed the dynamics of mobile computing. Technology has driven down the cost, and solution providers have responded with a new generation of mobile maintenance applications. Mobile computing is rapidly becoming part of the maintenance mainstream.
Like most aspects of the computer industry, mobile computing technology has become less expensive and more powerful. Several forces are driving this shift.
- A new generation of handheld devices . Handheld computers and data collection devices are not new. Handheld PCs have an established track record in everything from inventory control to asset tracking. The older generations of these devices were relatively expensive and had limited functionality. They typically ran special versions of DOS and required software developers to use vendor-proprietary libraries for system development.
Times have changed. For those mobile applications requiring a lot of computing power, a new generation of lightweight, full-screen, pen-based PCs run Windows 95/98. But the real change in mobile computing has been the advent of personal digital assistants (PDAs) and palmtop computers. These devices are powerful enough to run real business applications at a fraction of the cost of a notebook PC.
PDAs and palmtops can be categorized by operating system: proprietary and Windows-CE. An example of a Windows-CE device is 3Com's Palm series with its PalmOS . Windows-CE is a lightweight version of Microsoft's Windows operating system. Dozens of vendors including HP, Compaq, Casio, Sharp, and NEC offer Windows-CE PDAs and palmtops.
Although these devices aren't as powerful as a low-end desktop or notebook PC, they do provide sufficient processing capabilities and a user interface suitable for a mobile work order and inspection or storeroom applications. Many support modems, LAN connections, and other peripherals through PCMCIA cards, just like PC notebooks.
- Various communications methods. Mobile computing means communication. Most mobile maintenance applications require a two-way flow of information between handheld devices and the central CMMS/EAMS. This communication can be supported through a variety of methods: docking cradle, infrared port, private radio-based networks, public packet data networks, and cellular services.
Mobile maintenance applications can also be categorized by the way they interact with the central system. They can exchange information with the central system in either an online or offline mode. Online mobile applications send and receive information from the central system on a real-time basis through a wireless connection. In offline applications, processing occurs on the remote device. Information is periodically uploaded and downloaded from the central system.
A simple offline application might be an inventory count program in which a handheld device records by part the count quantity, then uploads all the collected quantities to a CMMS through a docking cradle or infrared port. Given the processing power of the current generation of PDAs and palmtops, off-line applications are capable of much more. Portions of the central CMMS/ EAMS database can be replicated on the handheld computer. The remote application accesses and updates this information. The remote and central databases are periodically synchronized through a wireless connection.
Key factors to consider in mobile communications are cost, coverage, and bandwidth (how fast data move to and from the device). Any mobile phone user can appreciate the first two. A private, radio-based solution such as a Spread Spectrum network works fine within a four-wall environment provided there is no interference. A public packet network protocol like CDPD might work well for a campus environment, especially with the use of replication/synchronization to hold down connection time. But the campus must be within the coverage area of the service provider.
Bandwidth is always lurking in the background for mobile applications developers. Regardless of the protocol used, a wireless connection isn't going to move data as fast as a wired one. Both online and offline applications must contend with lower bandwidths than are available with a desktop PC.
- New development tools and architectures. Although an end user is only interested in the final product, developers need appropriate tools to produce economical solutions. The early days of mobile computing required developers to use proprietary languages, libraries, and tools for each handheld device they supported. Today a Windows-CE or PalmOS developer can use familiar tools such as MS-Visual Basic, C++ or Java. Online applications developers can use a web-like browser approach using XML and HTML. The bottom line is that because developers can employ the same architectures and develop tools across platforms and devices, they can hold down costs and make more solutions available.
The final link in the mobile computing equation is the solution provider. A quick look at the types of players in this field tells more than an examination of bits and bytes issues.
- Syclo (www.syclo.com) has an established reputation as a mobile maintenance application provider. It offers bolt-on mobile work order solutions for MAXIMO, MP2, TabWare, and Assetworks. (Datastream's Pocket MP2 was developed by Syclo.)
Syclo's solutions automate the flow of work order information between the field and the office. Armed with a Windows-CE device and Syclo software, a craftsperson can open, review, close, and record labor, material, and condition codes against work orders. Because the solution is Windows-CE based, it provides an intuitive user interface similar to the desktop. It is an offline application that can synchronize remote and central data through a docking cradle or wireless connection. One company using Syclo's S.M.A.R.T. for MAXIMO increased maintenance productivity 28%.
- iMedeon (www.imedeon.com) [formerly Future Horizons] is another supplier of mobile maintenance computing solutions. Its iM:Work and iM:Workforce suites provide enterprise-strength scheduling, routing, and dispatching services for field maintenance operations. iM:Work is a scheduler and work manager. iM:Workforce is a collection of work order, inspection, and storeroom mobile applications. iMedeon customers are primarily utilities, telecommunications, and transportation companies.
The company partners with top-tier EAMS provider Indus and ERP providers SAP, Oracle, and PeopleSoft, as well as with Outage Management and customer relationship management (CRM) vendors. Given the nature of its target market, iMedeon solutions work with a wide spectrum of communication services and networks. Its iM: Workforce product can be configured to select the most appropriate communication method based on coverage, cost, and bandwidth. It can switch from a private radio-based LAN to a cellular service to a satellite link depending on the location of the craftsperson.
Mobile maintenance solutions are not restricted to third party providers.
- PSDI (www.psdi.com) recently released its MAXIMO Wireless product, which supports all MAXIMO functionality including labor reporting and equipment condition monitoring and work order and materials management functions. It is an online solution that requires a real time connection between the handheld computer and the CMMS. It operates on Windows-CE devices and is based on an ultrathin client architecture in which the handheld device runs browser-like software that sends and receives data from a central server.
- Micromain Corporation (www. micromain.com) is a CMMS/EAMS provider that offers its own mobile computing solutions. Its msITRAK and msMOBILE modules provide remote inventory and work order processing for Micromain's MS2000 CMMS. Both modules are off-line applications that operate on 3Com Palm devices. msITRAK supports physical inventory counts. Micromain plans to add work order issues and receipts to the module. When combined with Symbol's SPT 1500, a version of the Palm computer with an integrated bar code scanner, msITRAK is a powerful tool for doing physical inventory counts. For most maintenance storerooms, the labor savings from msITRAK on the first count far exceeds its acquisition cost.
Mobile computing for maintenance management has come of age. It doesn't take a technology expert to foresee the future. More and more solutions will continue to find their way to the marketplace and they will be cheaper and more powerful.
A colleague questioned why anyone would take the leap into mobile computing. After all, he said, any solution purchased now would be obsolete in 18 mo. I think obsolete is too strong a word, but, certainly, better and cheaper solutions will be available. However, this circumstance is true for any computer-related investment.
Cost savings and productivity increases generated by mobile computing can be realized today. It is a reliable, easy-to-use technology that can produce a quick return on investment. So why not go mobile?
Tom Singer is an information technology consultant who specializes in designing, developing, and implementing systems solutions that meet client operational needs. He has worked both as a developer and integrator of CMMS solutions. He is a project manager with Tompkins Associates, a total operations consulting firm headquartered in Raleigh, NC. He can be contacted by phone at 630-472-1524 or by e-mail at email@example.com.