Equipment Type

Remote Technology Builds An Information Network

Laptops, hand-helds and digital cameras give managers eyes in the field that deliver data for centralized decision-making

August 01, 2006

You've heard of remote diagnostics, that is, using hand-held devices, digital cameras and laptops to locate field equipment and determine performance. But Greg Kittle, CEM, equipment operations manager for Ryan Incorporated Central, says there is no such thing as remote diagnosis.

"I look at remote diagnostics a little differently," he says. "You can't diagnose anything since you are looking only at error codes and events that are past history. You're not looking at any prognosis data. I call it remote data gathering, not diagnostics, and we do a lot of that."

Kittle says true remote diagnostics is "pretty spotty."

"There are no standards to identify different manufacturer signals," he says. "Whatever kind of signal a machine is capable of delivering to the ECM (electronic control module) — for example, a temperature signal — will be pushed across the can bus. But unless you buy the OEM's specific box, you can't interpret the data. There are no standards for that, so that's a huge frustration for us."

Kittle says Ryan does not purchase a manufacturer's box because it wants to retain ownership of the information. "We don't mind sharing that information with them," he says, "but we want to retain ownership." Instead, Kittle uses the manufacturer's software and analyzes the data with a laptop.

In addition to laptops, Kittle uses tools such as Symbol 97 handhelds and Nextel phones to ride herd on 800 pieces of heavy equipment; 1,200 fleet support units; and 40 to 45 technicians. The entire equipment department, he says, uses the specialized handheld devices for all its tasks: time sheets, logistics, preventive maintenance scheduling and coordination and parts ordering, for instance.

"We have written all those programs for Nextel phones," he says. "Our suppliers and customers use these devices as well for such things as automated logistics or fuel data capture. The handheld devices are like a hardened PDA, only with more functionality. Within the device is a bar code and a receiver that runs on a Windows mobile platform that our software is written in. That interacts with our main management software, which is web-based. There is also a digital camera within the handheld device that can be used to send back images of damaged equipment or equipment being used for something that it was not designed to handle."

In effect, Kittle says, what Ryan has done is take decentralized equipment actions and centralized the software the department uses. "All the folks who use to move equipment can still do it, but now all the information is shared instantaneously with everyone in the company," he says. "Electronic work orders are also sent with an electronic job map and instructions. That expedites the process and eliminates the need for tracking equipment location manually."

Kittle decided to use Nextel phones because of their prevalence in the construction business. "We have them; our suppliers have them. We decided to use them so there would not be any additional costs for a supplier to move over to our system."

Symbol 97 units add to the capabilities of the Nextel units. "They now have automated purchase orders and equipment repair history because Symbol has a lot more memory and is more robust," he says.

All the programs that Ryan uses have been written in several different software languages: Java, which Nextel phones use; Pocket PC; and Palm OS. This allows anyone who has any kind of handheld device to use the software.

For instance, the company uses a lot of contract labor and requires vendors to fill out time sheets for accurate costing. They can either use Nextel or laptops to do time sheets online," Kittle says.

Once the data are gathered, Kittle says they are able to see "a prognostic view of the machines—how they are running, and what's happening to them." Other data, such as machine pricing and current value add to the overall picture. "We know what its health is, precisely what our costs are, and that information provides a format so we can view total life cycle, which is what we are interested in." he says.

Kittle has other issues with remote diagnosis, in addition to the lack of standards for manufacturers.

"The boxes that provide the gateway, the modem to send the information, comes in different types of platforms," he says. "One uses GSM, another uses CTMA, some are analog, some are digital. That's kind of a strange circumstance.

"Also, the phone carriers have not recognized that data is being transferred, not voice. They have to reconfigure their plans. The carriers have not responded to the Qualcomms and others to package this more appropriately for the construction industry. The data transfer is what I'm interested in, not voice."

If the plans were reconfigured and packages were much more flexible, "we would send far more data across the network," Kittle says. "We could analyze the machines on a minute-by-minute basis."

Bob Decker, corporate equipment manager for P.J. Dick/Trumbull, decided five years ago to use remote diagnostic tools in his management of 20 technicians and a fleet of 480 vehicles.

He equipped all his technicians with laptops. "It makes technicians a lot better," Decker says. "They can diagnose the problems and get their jobs done."

Laptops allow field technicians to look up the parts they need for repairs and order them from the field for direct shipment to the field. "Rather than carrying around 10 or 12 books, they just go online and key in the parts they need."

Without question, Decker says, the benefit of remote diagnostic tools is saving time. Technicians also use digital cameras to show such things as equipment damage.

He says the trend is toward web-based programs. "Caterpillar, for example, used to have a software package where you bought the DVDs for parts," Decker says. "Now they have gone to web-based, so for a fee, we access the website. All manufacturers are headed this way, and the access fees vary."

Decker says his company has slowly moved to remote diagnostics over the past five years. "We're up to nearly full speed now," he says. "Some of my technicians say they wish they had had laptops 10 years ago when they were younger."

Rick Bloom, national sales manager for OEM Controls, holds a broader view of remote diagnosis as a supplier of "electronic solutions."

Most of the remote diagnostics being utilized in the field today, he says, moves in one of two directions. They are used to enable a technician to diagnose machine problems in the field via electronic control modules used by manufacturers to transmit codes that help the technician figure out what's wrong with the machine. The second use is to bring information from the machine to either the end user, dealer or manufacturer.

"These things can be utilized with digital cameras for damage assessment or to determine potential abuse of a machine," Bloom says. "Such technology can also capture diagnostic information that can be as simple as doing paperless transactions of how a machine is performing in the field."

This capability is particularly important with today's shortage of technicians, he says. "It gives the guys more time to turn wrenches and spend less time doing paperwork."

Numerous programs are available today that allow technicians to report back to the home office on what has been done to the machine, how long it took to repair, parts that were needed, and work orders — all by eliminating both the paperwork and the nightmare of processing information that a technician brings from the field, according to Bloom.

With the device from OEM Controls, he says, "the history of the machine travels along with it.

"Whatever technician comes to the machine or, in some cases, if the machine goes to the manufacturer or if it's sold or moved from job to job, the service technician can see what was previously done to it as well as who did it. This gives them a base to begin diagnosing additional problems," Bloom says.

Laptops, cameras, handheld gadgets, and all the tools have the capability of doing things faster and more accurately, and they complement what already exists in the shop, where many end-users and dealers have software in place.

"What we're providing is a feeding mechanism to the tools that are already in place," he says. "For those who do not have an existing system, we have software capabilities that will give them the information they need at their fingertips in a virtual real-time situation. All we do is provide those software packages with information. If you don't have that, we have the capability to set up a stand-alone system."

Kittle describes information management as "a kind of last frontier in regards to productivity improvement.

"Information management is affordable," he says. "When you integrate it three dimensionally with your suppliers and your customers, you can spread the cost savings throughout the entire network. In my viewpoint, this is the last frontier of big productivity gain."

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