Preventive maintenance, Internet style

Aug. 9, 2001
Software connects manufacturers and their products.

George Heath
Mansfield, Mass.

Manufacturers have a common plant-floor objective: maximize production. To reach this objective, companies increasingly rely on the latest technical wizardry to make equipment run faster. But as machines become more advanced, maintenance capabilities in the plant become more limited. Hence, manufacturers are relying on machine builders to reduce equipment downtime and optimize productivity.

In automotive, electronics, medical, and many other industries, equipment downtime is critical. As one possible solution, a few machine suppliers offer remote-diagnostic capabilities. These capabilities, however, typically follow a reactive approach. Machines fail, customers call machine suppliers, and only then the supplier connects to the machine remotely. A better approach avoids machine downtime in the first place.

Machine maintenance takes two forms: unscheduled and preventive. Unscheduled maintenance is the emergency visit necessary to resolve a machine problem. Emergency visits are costly in both dollars and customer loyalty. Unscheduled visits are often the result of operator error, lack of plantfloor expertise, or an absence of preventive maintenance. But attempting to recover this expense can torpedo future sales, so many companies charge it off as warranty expense.

Preventive maintenance, on the other hand, is scheduled. Done right, it can reduce downtime, optimize productivity, and minimize emergency calls and visits. Unfortunately, lack of plant floor expertise, information, and scheduling means preventive maintenance rarely meets expectations.

As machines become more intelligent and intelligence more ubiquitous, the Internet provides the infrastructure necessary to communicate information from machines in the field directly to people and processes that can use it. This has spawned a new software technology called device relationship management. DRM transmits machine data to machine builders and lets companies anticipate and fulfill customer needs.

DRM technology lets companies continuously monitor the performance of their machinery, anywhere. When performance varies from the norm, the machine builder can determine what is wrong and fix it remotely, or send a service technician with the required part, often before the customer even knows there is a problem. The result is fewer emergency calls.

DRM software provides the tools to solve many problems automatically, through software upgrades, code fixes, and even remote calibration. For those requiring additional attention, a field service technician can remotely review status, conditions, alarms, faults, history, documentation, and replay the events that led to the problem.

DRM is implemented in three steps. The first is to install software applets in the machines, typically in the control system or in a PC at the operator interface. Older equipment can be retrofit with software applets or a "black box" containing the intelligence to host the applet. The applet itself is an embedded application server that manages collection and communication of information from the machine.

Second, DRM-enabled machines must link to the Internet, typically through an Ethernet connection. The applet collects and sends information to the manufacturer via the Internet, using XML over HTTP. New technologies even make wireless connections practical.

Third, a DRM enterprise server installed in a central location transforms data from hundreds or thousands of remote machines into usable business intelligence. Messages and portals give unique views of the information.

Field service engineers, for example, can search device information, troubleshoot machines, access online documentation, and even order replacement parts directly through the portals. And all the software necessary for users is installed at the server, eliminating the need to maintain applications on desktops, laptops, and PDAs of field service engineers.

DRM software provides machine builders with many benefits. For example, it reduces warranty expense. A leading manufacturer of chemistry analyzers saves $500 for every scheduled preventive visit that replaces an emergency call. This also optimizes service personnel productivity. DRM permits manufacturers to optimize use of machine experts by keeping them in-house to troubleshoot equipment remotely. With information collected from a population of machines, not just anecdotal information, machine designers can benefit from extensive information about equipment performance in the field.

DRM software also has several benefits for manufacturers. DRM can easily cut downtime in half. And equipment suppliers can offer custom portals that let customers view status of their own equipment, inventory, and orders. With the technology, machine builders can simultaneously improve their level of service and reduce actual cost.

DRM software lets manufacturers view equipment information such as time and location of recent alarms.

Industrial equipment feeds information through a gateway, which is sent through the Internet to an enterprise server and translated into usable data at a portal.

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