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One of the key factors in the success of any computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) implementation is the amount and quality of the data input. Not realizing they're creating a serious productivity hurdle, many electrical plant operations departments today are still using paper as the key means of collecting information about asset performance and maintenance activities. Relying on such paperwork creates a bottleneck of information flow to and from technicians working at the point of performance. Without the right data available in a timely fashion, the electrical plant operations management staff is not gaining the most from its CMMS investment.

Because electrical technicians and electricians are always on the move, they need fast access to equipment and repair information. Managers must provide their employees with the technology and data they need for successful mobile maintenance. Mobile computing offers a proven solution for efficiently populating the data into a CMMS system, helping technicians in the following areas:

Equipment — Collecting data, such as pressure, temperature, amps, and oil levels, on a handheld device as well as performing inspection routes and calibration checks.

Work orders — Generating and/or dispatching work orders on a handheld device. Electrical technicians can perform the actual work with instructions on handhelds, enter time taken/work performed details, and close the work orders right on the handheld. All the information is transferred into CMMS either in real time or via synchronizing later.

Parts inventory — This is one of the major areas for potential savings. Parts receiving, parts addition and depletion, cycle counts, and annual physical inventory can all be done efficiently using handhelds.

The three main categories to consider are mobile devices, software, and data communication.

Mobile devices — A primary component of the application, mobile devices include PDAs (Pocket PC, cell phones, etc.), tablet PCs, laptops, or netbooks.

You can further enhance the power of mobile technology by using bar code and radio frequency identification device (RFID) technologies. For example, instead of entering an equipment number into a handheld, you can scan it using a bar code reader, saving time and increasing accuracy.

You can use RFID technology in limited areas, such as inspection and security checks, with its relatively high cost being the limiting factor. However, as the cost comes down, you'll most likely see more widespread use of RFID in maintenance applications in the near future.

Software applications — Mobile application software enables developers to generate electronic forms, transforming key data from CMMS applications into usable work orders that make it easier to view on handheld devices, and create an easy-to-follow workflow. Mobile software integrates directly with existing CMMS, allowing electricians to pull data directly from the CMMS and update information remotely. Mobile software also manages the synchronization of data between the devices and application database.

In addition, business rules and procedures can be enforced more easily with the use of software than with paper-based systems. For example, you can make it mandatory for an electrical technician to enter a failure code before closing the work order.

Data communication — Wireless network access allows for immediate transport of data. There are different options to achieve wireless network access. One is wireless cellular network access, often called wide area wireless. Wireless connection costs can be controlled if users only connect occasionally and just long enough to exchange data. Connection is not necessary to store, access, or compute data on mobile devices. An alternative is the use of wireless LANs (commonly referred to as Wi-Fi or hotspots). Throughout a plant or campus, access points with wired connections to a LAN relay data wirelessly from mobile devices and on to LAN. During an inspection or maintenance job, workers' devices can access data from the CMMS. If you own the access points and LAN, this wireless exchange is free.

Mobile computing offers a proven solution for access to equipment history and repair information for electrical engineers, technicians, or electricians on the move. With handheld devices becoming lighter, more affordable, and powerful, companies should take advantage of this technology to improve their productivity.

Bagadia is president of PEAK Industrial Solutions LLC in Brookfield, Wis. He can be reached at krisb@peakis.com.

Sidebar: Benefits of Mobile Technology

  • Establish a complete paperless work order system.

  • Provide more information at the point of performance. Electrical technicians have access to history and other pertinent information while they are fixing machines; therefore, they don't have to return to the office to retrieve that information.

  • Faster troubleshooting yields more wrench time.

  • Help with compliance issues.

Sidebar: Advantages of Bar Code Technology

  • Reduction of time spent in data entry.

  • Increase in data accuracy.

  • Provide active audit trail.

  • Labels are inexpensive.

  • Great diversity of hardware offerings and supporting computing infrastructure.

  • Software integration tools are very mature, developed, and readily available in the marketplace.

  • High level of expertise available.