May 4, 2013 - IECEx—the IEC System for Certification to Standards relating to Equipment for Use in Explosive Atmospheres—has launched the first mobile application to show international certificates for equipment used in explosive atmospheres. A person in the field can now look at a piece of installed equipment, and the app will provide them with the ability to confirm there is a valid certificate for the apparatus on the IECEx online Certificate System. This free app of the IECEx online Certificate System—for iOS, Android tablets and smart phones—can be found at the Apple App Store and Google Play. It installs a simplified version of the main IECEx online Certificate System covering Certified Ex Equipment, and allows the user to synchronize the Ex Mobile App with the IECEx online Certificate System, as required. The offline mode provides advanced search capability and CoC (Certificate of Conformity) abstracts (simplified details), while the online version gives the full details of CoC.
“Mobile solutions are a fundamental change for field and plant workers, because they provide access to the office computer, other company personnel and the internet — but also because they revolutionize the old world of manual data collection,” says David Berger, founding president of the Plant Engineering & Maintenance Association of Canada and a consultant with Western Management Consultants. Technicians are now using mobile computing power to do things undreamed of a decade ago: collect equipment performance data like pressure and temperature readings or send a picture with a message to a manager or co-worker for advice. With mobile devices, technicians can also handle work-order details more efficiently, transfer information to their CMMS database in real time, or search vendors’ websites and make direct inquiries without office support.
Early challenges with mobile computing have been overcome, and the full capabilities of hardware and software are now being realized. “The first step involved software firms providing some version of what you had in the office on a mobile device, but usage was clumsy,” Berger says. “There were issues with operating systems in that sometimes you could only view things instead of use them, you had to scroll around a lot, and the units weren’t rugged enough.” He notes that now systems are readable and usable on small screens, and workers have access a large range of powerful tools, from cameras, RFID/bar-code scanners and GPS to a scribbling function and the ability to hold a conference call.
Being connected to a company’s CMMS at all times (or most of the time using a store-and-forward function where data is collected, stored and sent when the device encounters a Wi-Fi or cell network) can result in productivity improvements of anywhere from 10 to 30 percent. “New instructions can be sent to the technician based on data the technician has sent in or a change in priorities on that day,” notes Kris Bagadia, president of PEAK Industrial Solutions. Having the data collected in real time also means workers can be alerted and respond on the spot. “An immediate reaction to a reading that’s out of the normal range can save a significant amount of money,” he says.
Tablets offer more
Up to this point, PDA-style handhelds have been more common than tablets — and are still the number one way of collecting data, notes Florian Lenders — but their limitations have put the focus on tablets. “The small screen size of handhelds makes it hard for technicians to see the text, especially in poor light situations, and workers are also looking for more information access on-screen,” says Lenders, the vice-president at Ivara Asset Performance Management Software in Burlington, Ont.
“There is a shrinking market for cheap ($500 to $600) PDA-style handhelds with only a handful of suppliers providing ruggedized, units at a price equal or higher than the latest tablets.” He adds, “There’s also concern about the life expectancy of the current PDA operating systems, as Android and other options gain ground.”
Besides, whether you use a handheld or a tablet, both hands are needed — and while handhelds can more easily be clipped onto a belt, tablet portability has come a long way. “They’re stored and are brought out like a clipboard when needed,” says Scott Ball, the Canadian business development manager for Austin, Texas-based Motion Computing. “They can also be attached to a shoulder strap during climbing.”
The greater amount of information that can be accessed with a tablet is critical for technicians and managers. “They have the capacity to contain CAD diagrams and full electronic versions of a manual,” he observes.
The computing power of a tablet is also important, allowing things like saving multiple trips to a given area of the plant or field site. “The software supported by a tablet can analyze a given reading and determine whether, for example, an oil sample should be taken,” Lenders says. “And once the data is automatically transferred or downloaded later to your company’s CMMS back at the office, the system automatically plans the next work order, alerts the lab that an oil analysis request is coming, and so on.”
However, Bagadia points out, “As long as you have Wi-Fi and your CMMS system is web-connected, you don’t need additional programming for your mobile device. You just collect it, send it, your CMMS system does the analysis and any needed results come back.”
Tablets, beyond providing accessing to more data and providing more computing power, also provide another advantage. “To be useful to maintenance personnel, the more things a device can do, the better, and tablets can do a lot,” Ball says. “Our tablets have a bar code reader, camera, GPS, wireless capability and other things, that are now all considered standard features.” (He notes that they are all integrated into the device because attaching items to one another is a potential failure point.) He adds that outdoor-screen technology, which makes it easier to read a screen in direct sunlight, is also becoming standard.
“Most customization of mobile computing solutions for each client is therefore all about the software,” he says.
The first step is to speak to a well-established company about your needs. “You should choose a device that meets or exceeds the software vendor requirements for memory and accommodates the intended use,” Bagadia says. “Managers need to consider the benefit of enough memory to download large amounts of information to the portable device — for example, making the entire equipment or inventory available for technicians.” He adds that in order to help technicians with trouble-free data capture and recording of work progress, the device should give them the ability to choose from lists of pre-defined codes and phrases.
Costs kept low
The best news of all is that the cost of tablets has dropped enormously in the last 12 months. “The release of the Apple iPad has put a huge amount of pressure on manufacturers to lower their prices,” Lenders says. “The cost of a rugged tablet is now $1,000 to $1,500, which is 50 to 75-percent less than about a year ago.”
Bagadia says the overall price of instituting mobile computing at a company will not be as high as one thinks. “Most people have the misconception that if you have 50 technicians, you’ll need 50 mobile devices,” he notes, “but depending on factors like what your technicians are using them for and how many shifts you have, you’ll end up needing only a percentage of that number.”
Ball says service providers generally set up a pilot test with one or two devices where everything from applications to connectivity is examined. (This will also give a company a good idea of how soon cost return can be reached.) “Interference issues where the wireless signal drops off can exist in plants,” he notes, “but wireless infrastructure is not the barrier it used to be. Store-and-forward is there if you need it.”
Bagadia agrees connectivity is becoming less of an issue by the day: “Widespread wireless access is everywhere now. In the very near future, it’ll be hard to imagine anywhere, even two floors down, where Wi-Fi won’t reach.” However, Lenders is less optimistic. "Remember, most industrial plants are usually in the middle of nowhere," he says. "I have customers who still don’t have cell coverage at the plant site, and this gap is not going to be bridged easily. The cost of industrial Wi-Fi is very high and no one I know is pushing for it. The future is a wired industrial world, but it's a few years away as far as I can tell."
When asked to speculate about the future, Ball says he foresees even lighter and more rugged devices, with more battery life. “I can see more use of speech recognition too for some things, but ambient noise can be an issue with that.”
Treena Hein is a freelance writer based in Pembroke, Ont.
The Maintenance Connection Mobile CMMS Tablet Edition was developed in response to the increased availability of larger and more interactive mobile devices that provide users with bigger screens, as well as touch based interfaces. Functionality includes options for members to view and edit open work orders, as well as create new requests when needed. Members can update inventory, have the ability to view asset details, asset history, and make edits when necessary. The application is very user friendly, with icon driven screens and a smooth flow. For example, the Work Order List is especially easy to read and navigate, providing technicians with quick access to their assignments. Once a work order is selected, technicians can easily view icons to access tasks, material costs, inventory counts, history, assignments, labor costs, and areas to enter information required to complete the work order.
The Mobile CMMS Tablet Edition uses a wireless Internet connection, providing real time access and updates to the Maintenance Connection data. The Mobile CMMS Tablet Edition is optimized for tablet devices such as the Apple iPad or Samsung Galaxy. However, it is compatible with a broad array of browsers, and may thus also meet the needs of organizations using netbooks or laptops.