Touring NPEM 1999: Information technologies for maintenance management show promise, innovation

Because in part it coincides with the end of winter, I always look forward to attending National Manufacturing Week and the National Plant Engineering and Management Show at Chicago's McCormick Place.

05/01/1999


Because in part it coincides with the end of winter, I always look forward to attending National Manufacturing Week and the National Plant Engineering and Management Show at Chicago's McCormick Place. Like a sunny March day in Chicago, it can offer promise or disappointment. This year I liked what I saw.

Walking the show aisles is an easy way to measure the pulse of maintenance solution providers and see where they are heading. It is also an excellent opportunity to see what's new in information technology. By new, I don't mean totally new innovations or concepts. I mean new in an evolutionary sense. You don't need to walk the floor at a trade show to stay on top of new advances in technology. The media provide this perspective very well. But a trade show is a good place to gauge when a concept makes the leap to a tangible, marketable product.

One development that struck me was that top-tier CMMS vendors have officially repositioned themselves as enterprise asset management (EAM) providers. A stroll past the booths of three EAM providers -- Datastream (www.dstm.com) , Indus (www.indusworld.com) , and PSDI (www.maximo. com) -- was enough to find three major information technology impact stories to tell. They focus on three subjects:

- Internet-based systems

- MRO e-commerce

- Mobile computing.

All three vendors have or are in the process of rolling out solutions that address these areas. Although these technologies are not new, the functionality and packaging of these solutions are. If the other EAM/CMMS vendors don't have or aren't working on similar products, they must be seriously thinking about them.

Web-centric

Many EAM/CMMS vendors have built into their packages some sort of web-based front end for entering work requests and purchase requisitions. But the three companies mentioned have taken this concept a significant step further. Like SAP and Oracle applications did before them, these systems offer a three-tier architecture. Instead of the traditional client containing all presentation management software and connecting to a single database server, they feature a "thin" client with separate application and database servers.

The application server delivers user interface and business rule services to the client. The client can be proprietary software or a web browser. In these cases, the vendors have started to make more functionality and features accessible to a web browser.

Such an approach lowers the total cost of ownership for the customer by making it easier to deploy and maintain the systems. It also makes these packages scalable and easier to integrate. Scalability means the packages run on a variety of devices and platforms enabling customers to choose the configuration that best suits their needs and transaction volumes. As for integration, in this instance it facilitates the ability to communicate with the outside world. To appreciate the potential of integration and scalability, one has only to look at the other two major story topics: e-commerce and mobile computing.

E-commerce

We are all familiar with the potential of the internet for buying and selling products. Until recently, it has been mainly talk. For most maintenance departments, supply chain automation means a lot of data entry and faxing. The new generation of EAM packages lets MRO purchasing operations finally realize the benefits of true automation. Datastream, Indus, and PSDI all made major announcements in this arena, truly integrating the internet into their purchasing modules.

Anyone involved in MRO purchasing appreciates the benefits of this approach. Users electronically browse vendor catalogs from within their EAM/CMMS purchase requisition options. Purchase orders are electronically transmitted to vendors and distributors over secure web connections. Customers can even receive advance shipment notices informing them when their order has gone out the door. No more paper catalogs, excessive data entry, or faxed purchase orders and invoices. It is as the commercials say: "A truly global, seamless network." The benefits are obvious: quicker turnaround time and lower purchasing costs.

With its acquisition of M/net, an internet trading network service, PSDI has generated a truly innovative offering with its M/link for Maximo. M/net supports access to more than 300 MRO suppliers. If you are doing business with one that isn't included, PSDI will be happy to add it to the network. M/link provides all the expected features from online vendor catalog searches and the ability to check vendor stock availability to secure transmission of purchase orders. It even supports contracted pricing.

Mobile computing

Because I like gadgets, this category is near to my heart. I also used to develop mobile computing solutions back in ancient times (in the computer industry, ancient times means more than 5-yr ago). Therefore, I really appreciate the features and devices currently offered.

Mobile computing for maintenance management is not new. But it has been expensive for both developers and users. The processing power of handheld computers was also limited, restricting their usefulness in the workplace.

A new generation of devices is making mobile computing popular in maintenance management. Some run Microsoft's (www.microsoft.com) Windows CE operating system. Others use a proprietary operating system. 3Com's PalmPilot (www.3com.com) is rapidly becoming the dominating product in the latter category.

Vendors are taking one of two approaches to mobile computing. Datastream uses a batch method in which files are periodically transferred to and from the central system using docking cradles, local area network (LAN) connections, or radio frequency (RF) communications. Although this approach is not new, the amount of information that can be stored on these devices has dramatically increased in the past couple of years.

Indus and PSDI are going the real-time, wireless route using popular RF and cellular networks. They support two-way communications between the maintenance technician in the field and the EAM database.

What can you do with all this remote computing power? You can open work orders, record inspection results, dispatch work assignments, record labor charges, issue parts, and view procedures. This new generation of mobile computing offers much more than data collection. It offers the potential for a truly paperless environment.

The new generation of mobile computing solutions is not limited to major EAM providers. TMA Systems (www.tma.com) and Micromain (www. micromain.com) both demonstrated applications on the PalmPilot. Symbol Technologies ( www. symbol.com) has added an integrated bar code scanner to their version of the PalmPilot to produce a handy device for the maintenance storeroom.

Mobile computing on display at the show wasn't limited to handheld computers. Peregrine Systems (www.peregrine.com) and its integration partner, Lavelle Engineering Technologies of Indianapolis, demonstrated onsite dispatching for span FM. The module allowed two-way, text communication between field technicians and span FM over a cellular telephone. Datastream's PagerLink provides work request notification to field users using a numeric or text pager. In the text pager mode, the device can be configured to display selected information.

There's more to come

The technologies described here caught my attention through their widespread exposure at the show. However, many other innovations were on display. Several were particularly impressive because of their usefulness in specific situations or because of their novelty.

- Inspect-Write and Maintain-Write from PenFact, Inc. (www.penfact.com). Inspect-Write is a pen-based computer application for recording inspection and calibration data. It provides an authoring function that lets users easily build custom forms. Data collected on the pen-based computer are transmitted to a central server though RF or LAN connections. Once the data are collected, the information can be moved to a CMMS using supplied analytical routines and export functions. Maintain-Write is a companion product that can interface with a CMMS/EAM PM scheduler. Calendar-based inspection procedures are downloaded to the pen-based computer instead of printed. Results are electronically recorded and transmitted to a central database.

- PerformanceWare from iKnowledge (www.iknowledgeinc.com). This maintenance execution system has its roots in document management, but offers much more. Actually a multimedia knowledge management system, its objective is to replace the incessant trips a craftsperson must typically make during a job to access manuals, drawings, and other documents with a single electronic data source. It offers drag-and-drop authoring that allows operations to build their own custom knowledge base.

- Indus-Knowledge Warehouse. Because they are enterprise-strength systems, EAM packages typically have databases with hundreds of tables. These data tables are designed to support transaction processing, not user reporting. The Knowledge Warehouse is a data mart that lets businesses view their transactional database for decision support and analysis. Data warehouses and marts have typically been the province of third-party packages. Their use in the corporate environment to access maintenance information has been limited by the IT resources required to populate them. This prepacked data mart gives customers the ability to mine a wealth of maintenance information.

- eMAINT.COM from Pearl Computer Systems (www.ultimaint.com). This offering clearly wins the "there has to be a catch" award. This web-based, freeware CMMS is really free. What's the catch? It's not exactly a full-featured package. It provides very basic work order, equipment, and inventory list management. Like other internet services, the company intends to sell advertising space on their web pages. They also hope that users will quickly outgrow eMAINT and upgrade to its not-for-free CMMS package, ultiMAINT.

No mention of a product here should be construed as an endorsement. Although many of these items sound great to me, I have no idea if they are appropriate for your organization. There are many factors to consider before you jump into technology's deep end. But if you are interested, I wholeheartedly encourage you to investigate further.

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 tsinger@tompkinsinc.com.





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