Untethered efficiencies:

The two critical information flows in field service pertain to getting technicians out to customer sites quickly, and getting timely reports back from the field. At Toshiba America Medical Systems, a CRM system paired with an earlier generation of mobile technology—namely pagers and cell phones—was effective for the first part of that equation: rapid response.

By Roberto Michel, Senior Contributing Editor May 1, 2008

The two critical information flows in field service pertain to getting technicians out to customer sites quickly, and getting timely reports back from the field.

At Toshiba America Medical Systems , a CRM system paired with an earlier generation of mobile technology—namely pagers and cell phones—was effective for the first part of that equation: rapid response.

What was lacking at the Tustin, Calif.-based provider of diagnostic imaging equipment was a better way of getting information back from the field. Now a new generation of mobile service software and devices delivers this real-time reporting.

Using a mobility solution from Antenna Software integrated with Toshiba’s existing Clarify CRM system from Amdocs —along with wireless services from AT&T and BlackBerry devices from Research in Motion (RIM) —Toshiba no longer waits for engineers to get back to their home offices to file reports. The new mobile reporting, says Glenn Servis, senior director of IT for Toshiba America Medical Systems, is near-real time, and more accurate. The smart phones also take the place of the pagers and cell phones previously used to alert engineers.

“The main benefit of this application is allowing engineers to debrief their work activity while they are in the field, right there after a customer engagement,” Servis says. “By entering that work activity on these devices, we could collect more accurate data related to the cost of servicing our equipment.”

Toshiba’s service mobility deployment points to emerging realities about wireless in manufacturing. First, sales force automation isn’t the only high-value scenario. Other useful applications include field service, plant maintenance, equipment monitoring, and sensor communications.

Some end users also tap middleware products to integrate devices with ERP or enterprise asset management (EAM) systems. While large enterprise software vendors may have their own mobility solutions, the need to integrate a solution with more than one business system—as well as packaged mobility solutions—created a niche for providers that Stamford, Conn.-based analyst firm Gartner calls multichannel access gateway (MAG) vendors.

While mobility solutions often are thought of as “people-to-system,” on factory floors, mobility can be “machine-to-system,” wirelessly connecting sensors or instruments to plant systems. To meet this need, some process automation vendors are partnering with networking vendors such as Cisco Systems .

Real gains

Despite the complexities, real benefits exist for mobility in manufacturing. Toshiba credits mobile field service with cutting the time it takes to close service cases from 13 days to about seven days. This improvement sprang from the real-time reporting.

Antenna’s AMpower Service not only provides the user interfaces and workflows needed on the devices, but also integrates with Clarify CRM so that data entered through the handheld is immediately available within the system. Via this same integration, engineers look up data to determine, for example, whether engineers working in the same area might have a spare part.

Such mobility reduces the number of escalation procedures that need to be initiated when engineers do not respond to calls immediately, and overall, allows Toshiba to better manage its services resources, says David Croteau, senior manager of InTouch, Toshiba’s customer call-center operation. “[Mobility] helps us decide if we have the right people in the right place at the right time,” he says.

Toshiba’s Servis says the Clarify system is capable of very granular, detailed reporting, but the data-entry lag meant reports were less detailed and accurate than they otherwise might have been. With the needed reporting screens right on the BlackBerry devices, Toshiba engineers started reporting more hours and more details.

The Boeing Company is using wireless technology on plant floors to communicate with
“crawlers” and robots ( see sidebar, below ).

“The field engineers have different report categories,” says Servis. “We measure those, and look for opportunities to improve. We can compare the time it takes to diagnose a problem, the time in takes to replace a part, and we can understand actual travel time. We look at those numbers and adjust our training or our scheduling. Accurate data gives us much better metrics.”

Servis says Antenna and RIM also provide software that allows IT personnel to monitor the mobile devices and update and provision them centrally. The BlackBerry devices in use by Toshiba are some of the more rugged units in the RIM lineup, says Servis, and were deployed first for general phone use and email before the applications in field service.

Today, close to 500 engineers use the solution. “Our operational efficiency increased dramatically,” says Servis. “With these new methods, we continue to be responsive to the customers, but it takes less operational work to make sure that happens.”

Managing complexities

The primary reason that companies choose middleware or a packaged mobile solution from a MAG vendor, says Bill Clark, a VP with Gartner, is that MAG vendors reduce the complexity of integrating mobile applications with back-end systems, as well as devices. MAG platforms contain software libraries that make it easier to configure hundreds of potential devices for wireless applications. Besides Antenna, other MAG vendors include Sybase and Syclo .

“It takes a fair amount of engineering to get the integration right, and get it tested,” says Clark. “Part of the value of MAG vendors is they have lived through all of these integrations.”

End-user companies can build and manage their own mobile applications, says Clark, but this becomes more challenging as mobile applications and devices proliferate within a company, or when a single mobile application needs to integrate with multiple back-end systems for different data sets. MAG software also can help when end users need to roam between cellular and Wi-Fi networks.

Wireless applications have to coexist and interoperate, requiring common systems management to address performance, security, and management concerns—most especially as applications scale over time.

Another complexity of mobility in manufacturing is crucial information flows aren’t necessarily centered on mobile workers. Jeff Becker, global wireless business director for Honeywell Process Solutions , says Honeywell offers solutions for mobile workers doing tasks such as plant maintenance, but also sees industrial mobility as encompassing sensor-to-system communication.

Under its OneWireless plant mobility software platform, Honeywell can support mobile workers and mobile operator workstations, equipment health monitoring, and wireless field instrumentation.

Becker says Honeywell’s wireless solutions grew out of user interest in wireless field instruments, but it soon saw the need for a common, plantwide platform.

“One of the things we’ve discovered—and we’ve installed wireless sensor networks at more than 500 sites—is our customers were using wireless for a number of different things,” he says. “We are a big believer that if you’re going to do plantwide networks right, you need to standardize.”

Plant-floor wireless may involve different standards than the Wi-Fi variants found in most office settings. Two of these include ISA100, overseen by industry group ISA; and WirelessHART, overseen by HART Communication Foundation. Bob Karschnia, VP for wireless with Emerson Process Management , says Emerson supports WirelessHART for its wireless sensor network solutions, while also partnering with Cisco Systems to ensure the sensor network can plug into larger networks and the plant systems that run on them.

The WirelessHART standard, explains Karschnia, overcomes the interference challenges on metal and concrete plant floors awash with electrical currents, or interference resulting from chemicals. This is because WirelessHART makes use of advanced mesh networking technologies and intelligent routing that allows the network or “mesh” to essentially skip around points of interference.

Another big difference between a plant-focused standard such as WirelessHART, and 802.11 variants, says Karschnia, is hardware in a WirelessHART network is battery operated, as opposed to the 802.11 paradigm, where some components may need wired electrical power.

Battery power makes WirelessHART cost-effective to install in sprawling plants, but the real reason such networks are catching on, says Karschnia, is they allow manufacturers to collect more data than was possible with occasional manual reading, or costly—and thus often impractical—wired options.

As Karschnia sums up, “It just comes down to getting more information into the system so you can make intelligent decisions.”

Boeing taps SMA for secure plant-floor communications

The Boeing Co. has been using wireless LAN (WLAN) technology on its plant floors for quite some time, and now believes a standard known as Secure Mobile Architecture (SMA) will enable greater security for both wireless and wired plant-floor communications. SMA is being piloted by the Chicago-based aircraft manufacturer at multiple plants, including facilities in Bellevue and Everett, Wash.

In the pilots, SMA secures wireless communications between “crawlers”—the large robots that carry assemblies—and the robot controllers, says Richard Paine, an advanced computing technologist with Boeing who also worked on SMA standard development under The Open Group, a technology consortium.

SMA does not replace the 802.11 WLAN infrastructure in use by Boeing, but rather adds security to communications riding the network by enabling lightweight, encrypted identities for each packet of information on the network.

SMA results in fast, cryptographic communications for TCP/IP networks, both wired and wireless, even supporting voice, says Paine. “The concern was to secure all of our factory communications—not just the wireless piece,” he says.

With the crawler robots, the equipment vendor initially proposed installing its own wireless LAN for communications, says Paine, but Boeing wanted to stick with its common 802.11 infrastructure plantwide to reduce potential interference and network management complexity. Paine says a Boeing committee scrutinizes all mobile applications to avoid unnecessary proliferation of unlicensed frequencies within Boeing facilities.

With SMA working within Boeing’s 802.11 infrastructure—access points are a mix of 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11bg—Paine says Boeing can achieve both secure communications and flexibility in its assembly processes. For instance, he says, the mobile crawlers aid a Lean production strategy by making it easier to do away with fixed tooling centers and the inevitable bottlenecks that occur with fixed tooling.

“One of the issues in lean is the need to improve processes,” says Paine. “Mobility is one of the secrets to lean process improvements because it enables you to change and make better use of facilities.”

The SMA specification was published in February 2004, but some supporting commercialization around the standard is still taking place. For instance, says Paine, Boeing is working with vendors to create an “end-box” piece of network gear to facilitate legacy manufacturing and machine-tool equipment communications under SMA. For its production pilots of SMA implemented in 2007, says Paine, Boeing configured its own end-boxes from generic computing gear, but wants to see vendors come out with such boxes.