Mobile Plant Maintenance Smart Solutions Trend: Plant Maintenance Goes Mobile with Industry 4.0

Author / Editor: Dominik Stephan* / Dominik Stephan

Will tomorrow's machine fitter be an IT expert?–In the near future, members of the maintenance team will be expected to be as proficient in handling data and smart phones as they are with wrenches and welding torches. But what needs to be done to turn the vision of Maintenance 4.0 into a viable concept? PROCESS took a closer look at the next industrial revolution.

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Maintenance 4.0 will also be one of the main topics on the agenda at Maindays (March 23rd -25th, 2015 in Berlin).
Maintenance 4.0 will also be one of the main topics on the agenda at Maindays (March 23rd -25th, 2015 in Berlin).
(Picture: © cherezoff - Fotolia)

Is that really maintenance? Walking around the Maintain trade show in Munich, the annual gathering for maintainers and industrial service providers, was like visiting an Apple store. On display: Explosion proof smartphones and tablets configured for equipment maintenance, promoted with slogans full of buzzwords like iMaintain and Maintenance 4.0.

Well–known industrial service providers like Bilfinger exhibited new mobile information systems and cloud-based data management concepts. It seems as if the Internet of things has finally set footinto the world of maintenance. Off course, visiting service engineers took photos with their cellphones and shared the images in real time with colleagues and business partners alike.

Gallery with 21 images

No doubt about it – mobile devices are mainstream. Tablets and smartphones are everywhere. Now, the first augmented reality platforms like Google Glass are about to make an impact on the world. But mobile applications have not really taken off in the process industry despite their enormous potential.

Nevertheless, experts are convinced that the future belongs to technologies like e-maintenance, RFID, CMT and the convergence of virtual reality and physical world. “In the future, practically all of the information about products, customers and a company’s internal resources such as staff capacity will be available in digital form,” states Bernd Bienzeisler, who leads a Competence Center at Germany's Fraunhofer IOA technology management institute. “For this information to be of any real benefit, it has to be collated in a meaningful way.”

Maintain 2014 – The Best of Europe's Showfloor for Plant Maintenance
Gallery with 23 images

Big Changes on the Horizon?

Maintenance experts are convinced that is only a matter of time for mobile solutions to come into widespread use. The idea itself is not new: Eye-catching visualizations have been showcased for years at trade shows and presentations, highlighting the benefits for plant and service personnel. And yet, nothing has changed.

A study by the Salzburg Research Initiative in Austria came concluded that only 5 % - 25 % of the surveyed companies have started phasing in Industry 4.0 concepts in their repair and maintenance operations. In cases where projects had been initiated, the authors of the study reported that monetization often leaves much to be desired. It seems unlikely that the results in other parts of Europe would be much different.

Yet this time, things are expected to change. The enormous pace of development and the advantages of connected field devices could make mobile solutions attractive in industries which so far have been reluctant to embrace the technology. Experts claim that tablets will become a standard item in the maintenance crew toolkit, taking their place right next to the wrenches.

However, just because the description and images of handhelds in glossy brochures make a nice impression on potential customers does not mean the technology will automatically turn into a big seller. “The question is whether the introduction of mobile systems is driven by technical possibilities or by organizational changes,” explaines Uwe Sahl, Senior Manager at management consultants T.A. Cook. “To make real progress, you need more than just technology. The value-add only exceeds the roll-out costs if the technology fits logically into the organizational structure."

Can Mobile Solutions Really Bring Benefits?

Whether mobile applications actually bring benefits depends primarily on the structure and type of company involved. When employees work on their own in a distributed organization, the effects will become more readily apparent than in highly centralized corporation.

Typical applications of mobile solutions include employees downloading work instructions and checklists or accessing the company’s central knowledge base or for feedback, documentation and management. Whatever the case, the basic task in most cases is information transfer. Thus, the question is how can information be provided in an intelligent manner? How do you share employee expertise within the company?

Three Success Criteria

Experts cite three basic prerequisites that are vital to the success of mobile maintenance solutions: technical usability, motivation and reduction to the essentials. Just because the technology is available does not necessarily mean that it is suitable, reports Sahl. “Just think of the standard notebook display. It may work well inside a building, but once you get it outside in the bright sunlight you can hardly read it.” And that incidentally is just one very trivial example, said the T.A.-Cook consultant.

He emphasised that any technology has to be suitable for field use. Otherwise even the best smartphone is useless. Splash protection, readability, the ability to operate the devices wearing gloves and explosion protection certification must be verified before an order is placed.

The next step is to gain employee acceptance for the new tools, which is not always easy. Sahl recommends that companies try to persuade employees to use the devices even if that involves a small 'bribe'. “If employees are allowed to keep a tablet for their own private use after it has been written off, you would be amazed how careful they are to keep the devices in good condition.”

The analysts of Salzburg Research even go one step further: Besides the willingness to embrace new technologies, they claim that communication skills are a key qualification needed for mobile units and solutions. To use data on the network, you have to be able to work in an interconnected company environment. However, the soft skills needed to do this do not necessarily come naturally to every technology specialist at the company.

Once employees have devices which are suitable for field work and actually use them, it is important to provide exactly the information they need – no more and no less. Real time data collected from the process control systems could also be made available, but is that really useful?

“Too much data is now actually as much of a problem as not enough information,” explained Sahl. If the engineers say “we will take all the data you have” and the IT people say “we can provide you with whatever you want”, its up to the maintenance personnel to ask what all this information will be used for. Real time data acquisition can be a very powerful tool, but it can also be highly dangerous.

Who Owns the Data?

At Maintain, Bernd Bienzeisler from the Fraunhofer Institute urged people not to allow themselves to become IT–slaves. “It is very tempting to entrust your data to a seemingly low-cost cloud infrastructure, but once you relinquish your expertise, you become dependent on third parties. If you rely on others, you may suddenly find out that you have to pay for your own data”, he added.

He also pointed out that the impression made on customers should not be underestimated: Workers who use a tablet to verify every task are likely to undermine customer confidence and ultimately reduce willingness to pay.

How to Turn Mobile Solutions into Profits

Data exchange and intelligent field devices could potentially expose companies to cyber-attacks, sabotage and industrial espionage. In addition, the new transparency could generate resistance within the company. If equipment operation and maintenance is primarily based on experience and gut feel, applications running on the network could expose undetected weaknesses. This in turn often leads to mutual accusations or denial, which is not constructive.

The only viable option is to look forward, argues Sahl. Analyzing weaknesses, identifying and exploiting change potential and verifying that changes have produced a successful outcome must be included in the company checklist. “It's then that you can really start to count the money.”

Maintain 2014 – The Best of Europe's Showfloor for Plant Maintenance
Gallery with 23 images