Knowledge, as the saying goes, is power — and these days there’s a lot of both traversing the factory floor. Data is flowing from more sources, to more workers and equipment, than ever before. Yet of all these increasingly powerful information channels, the most consequential of all may be the one used by an unlikely member of the manufacturing team: the machine maintenance tech.
When an important piece of the production line equipment goes down, the impact is felt immediately. In the past, repair delays only exacerbated the problem, due to the length of time it took to summon a technician, diagnose the problem, locate necessary parts, and complete the repair.
Today, however, thanks to the introduction of WiFi and mobile devices, technicians are connected in real-time to dispatchers, maintenance logs, machine-specific technical manuals, parts inventories — even to each other. They’re working faster and smarter, with huge productivity gains attributable directly to instant, onsite access to information. The result is less machine downtime, more reliable production, and higher output.
Tablets and other WiFi-connected devices are revolutionizing productivity for machine technicians and, by extension, whole factories. Gone are the days when techs would spend a large part of their day traveling from the maintenance shop to the repair site, then to the parts crib and/or document library. Now all the information, from work orders to manuals, is literally in the palm of the technician’s hand.
This new era in maintenance productivity got its start with the introduction of PC-based CMMS (Computerized Maintenance Management System) software in the early 1990’s. Very rudimentary by today’s standards, the first CMMS products simply recorded machine repair histories and essential equipment data, without even a way to integrate email into the work request process.
Today’s cloud-based systems from vendors like IFS, Bigfoot and ATS have evolved into highly-sophisticated, enterprise-specific tools that maintain equipment and parts inventories, real-time repair status, planning and scheduling, even machine performance analytics. Finally, decision makers can conduct “what if” scenarios to optimize service schedules and balance preventive maintenance against potential downtime costs. Managers and technicians alike are able to call up the information they need to do their jobs better and improve manufacturing efficiency.
Making these capabilities available anytime and anywhere through mobile devices, however, has taken CMMS to a whole new level. Ruggedized tablets allow technicians to receive work orders instantly at any location. Needless trips through the factory are eliminated; techs can check parts inventories, review safety documents, order parts, and peruse repair manuals at the point of repair. If a repair challenge proves to be beyond the experience or skill level of the technician, he can instantly post a question online to his tech support community, which can provide advice in minutes.
Through mobile devices, maintenance and reliability professionals at every level can contribute more effectively to production efficiency. In addition to their improved repair capabilities, techs can maintain before/after (as found/as left) records through photos and other documentation. Checklists and customer sign-offs assure that repairs are done to satisfaction.
Managerial duties are also improved; now supervisors have access to real-time situational analysis of an entire facility, enabling them to assign techs according to the most critical needs. Customers are able to view work orders online as well.
Recent studies on the impact of mobile devices on factory equipment maintenance have been overwhelmingly positive. Based on the key performance metric of repair hours to total hours worked, productivity gains of 10-12 percent have been documented. Moreover, maintenance tasks are more likely to be resolved the first time, thanks to better access to diagnostic tools and machine-specific data.
The future for mobile devices among maintenance professionals is even more encouraging. Standardization across all mobile devices — smartphones, tablets and laptops — will provide a device-agnostic solution that’s convenient for contractors, vendors and customers. Software will evolve as well, enabling techs to have direct access to manuals and other content without having to navigate away from the CMMS.
Plans are already underway to also resolve the multiple machine sensor standards currently being deployed by equipment manufacturers. When that occurs, the Internet of Things aspect will take over; production line machinery will themselves call in work orders, even assisting technicians in diagnosing problems. Existing parent/child analytics tools will leverage this standardized sensor data to facilitate and share historical data, root cause determination, and proactive equipment maintenance with much greater levels of accuracy.
It’s clear that the world is becoming a much more connected place. Given that the weakest link in the manufacturing chain is often a troublesome robot, press or conveyor, having the right information at the right time to quickly address problems — or even better, ensure that repairs are avoided altogether — is a transformative innovation. With WiFi-enabled mobile devices in hand, maintenance technicians are making sure those weak links are increasingly scarce. More uptime, and better, more consistent production, will be the welcome result.
Mark Hardesty, CMRP, is Director of Advanced Systems & Strategic Projects for Advanced Technology Services.