James O'Brien: From IT to “Eyes” Underground, A Steady Hand

Aug. 26, 2015

James O’Brien, EMS, equipment manager for robotics and video equipment for Insituform, has simple advice for other young managers: “Always be willing to go the extra mile and be open to new tasks.”

It is advice that took him from solo computer and video work to a position that oversees a team of technicians and a myriad of equipment involved in an exacting, unusual process—equipment that needs to be up and running so 60 crews can keep working.

Insituform, Chesterfield, Mo., installs cured-in-place pipe into existing sewer pipes so owners and municipalities can rehabillitate the pipes without traditional excavation and replacement.

“We put a liner within a pipe to rehabilitate it; it’s trenchless repair,” O’Brien says. “Instead of digging up a damaged pipe, we can go in, put in a new pipe, cure it, and you’ve got a new pipe within a pipe.”

The process calls for robotic tools that include sewer cutters and video equipment.

“They’re tethered to a truck, we call it a TV truck, and the crews put the tools down into the pipe before we line, and then afterward,” O’Brien says. “The operators use these cutters to get out into the pipe, and they will record video to show the condition of the pipe before it’s lined, and then we line it. If you put a liner inside a pipe that has businesses or homes connected to it, you’ve in essence blocked all their connections to that main host pipe.

“So we have to put that tool back in after it’s lined and cured, and the operator in the truck uses the tool to cut open those services. Now you can have flow back into the pipe from the homes and businesses that are connected. Without doing that, their sewers would back up into their houses and businesses,” O’Brien says.

The last phase is to put the robotic tool back and record a post-lining video.

“That shows our customer that we lined the pipe and opened up all the services, there’s no defects, and they can approve the quality of the work,” he says.

It’s rugged work for precise equipment.

“The robot is tethered to the truck through a coaxial cable that has multiconductors to conduct the operation of the robot, but it also has a video conductor that sends video from the robot into the truck and to a computer where it’s recorded,” O’Brien says.

“It’s a big process. We’re always going to have robots come in for repairs. They come in just about every day. With the stress of the job they’re used for out in the field, it’s only a matter of time that something’s going to break on them. We know that, so that’s why we have to do our best to stay on top of the repairs and not let it get ahead of us.”

O’Brien, who was trained in the IT world, was brought aboard in 2009 to maintain and provide tech support for the computers and video recorders on Insituform’s TV trucks. Not exactly textbook equipment management.

When he was asked to take over maintenance and management of all the robotics and video equipment, he found a department somewhat underwater. There were only two repair technicians with a large backlog of robots to repair, and one tech was leaving.

“I got approval from my management to add four technicians based on what I saw with the backlog and the need for help in the department,” O’Brien says.

“This is not something necessarily that anybody off the street can do. It’s a proprietary piece of equipment. You’re looking for people who have electrical backgrounds, mechanical backgrounds, but then you still have to train them on how to do these repairs. It was a very stressful time, but we interviewed some people and got some great staff in. The tech that was originally with us, he’s still with us, and he’s my lead supervisor in the shop. He did a great job of training the new hires and getting them comfortable,” O’Brien says.

“Once we were able to establish a good team in the repair shop and get them the training they needed to be effective with their repairs, it gave us a leg to stand on to start working on the backlog and whittle it down to a more reasonable number of robots.”

Insituform has 60 crews around the country at any given time and runs a fleet of about 165 robots. “We’ve got ones that are in for repair, and some crews require three depending on the job,” O’Brien says. “We try to keep every crew with two robots at all times as an average.”

In addition to attacking the pile of robots, O’Brien changed the department’s repair philosophy, set out to lower repair costs, and initiated a tracking program for his assets. He also updated training for crews. It’s all intertwined, and helmed with the steady hand of an IT professional trained in investigation and problem-solving.

“If a robot is coming in for what may be self-inflicted damage, we can use it as a training tool to train the field operators on how to better use the equipment,” O’Brien explained. “I do have one trainer, and he travels the country training new people and others when we feel someone needs some refresher training. We try to track what’s coming in so we can say, ‘Hey, we need to get out to this crew, they seem to have some consistent issues and we need to find out what’s going on.’”

O’Brien uses JD Edwards software to track his assets and also keeps detailed repair records. “Every piece of equipment when it comes into or leaves our office is tracked through the software so that at any time we can look at it and know where the robots are, what crew they’re assigned to, who’s using them, and how long they’ve had them,” O’Brien says. “We also know how long since they’ve been in for maintenance and repair.”

When robots come in for repairs, O’Brien and his staff keep thorough records. “We can always track what repairs were done, so if we get a robot back in maybe a month after it was in for repair, we can pull up the previous repair record and see what was done to see if it’s coming in for the same problem,” he says. “Is it a new problem? That way we can track those to see if there’s anything we can do differently on our end to create more long-term repairs.”

Previously, the operation focused on getting robots up and running and out the door as fast as possible. It was a reactionary scenario that translated into high repair costs. With a change of philosophy and focus, O’Brien has cut repair costs by 20 percent.

“During the process of catching up, we also we went through a spike in costs with just lack of knowledge and learning on how to do the repairs,” he says. “In essence, we were trying to do whatever we could to make the robots work but not extending the life of parts that should be reused. We were replacing everything to try to find a fix. Then we started working on our troubleshooting skills and taking a little bit of time to make sure we’re fixing the problem and not just throwing parts at it hoping something sticks. The parts for these units are very costly.”

Another result is that Insituform’s repair operation has become more focused. “I’ve got a great team back there that makes me look good,” O’Brien says. “They really understand that yeah, we fixed that robot and it’s out there, but why is it fixed? Yeah, I replaced this, this, and this and now that robot works, but that repair cost might have been able to be cut in half if we took a little bit of time to pinpoint the problem and fix it. I stressed when I came on board, let’s not just fix the problem, let’s make sure that we’ve looked at the entire robot when it comes in so that we can try to prevent the next problem. Let’s do the best that we can to look at the robot as a whole before it leaves the shop.

“Since I come from an IT background, I like to troubleshoot and solve problems, so I think I approach everything that way; coming in with the thought process of how are we going to fix this, and take it step-by-step,” O’Brien says.

And an equipment manager was born.