A traditional pen and clipboard approach to field-based inspection can be time-consuming, error prone and difficult to use within an integrated predictive maintenance strategy. Paper-based methods are also notoriously unreliable, incomplete and can be difficult to read. But the drawbacks of manual data inputting don’t end there.
If the information is to be made available across an entire enterprise, it has often to be input a second time, which is inefficient, unproductive and can lead to errors. On top of this, variations in information detail collected between operators can hamper efforts to identify trends. And there is the potential for paperwork to be misplaced and, therefore, not be available when required for audit purposes. Furthermore, operators might skip inspection points and thereby miss certain defects. Even if collected efficiently, data might just end up in an unused pile on a desk, providing little value to decision makers.
In short, it pays to replace traditional-based inspections with a digital solution that automates the collection of data and improves decision making, leading to increased plant reliability and safety.
Ultimately, says Chris Bye, president of Getac UK, it’s about digital transformation throughout an organisation to make employees more productive and processes more efficient. “Digital inspections are inspections performed by technicians using a device – a laptop or tablet – to record the results. On some platforms, the inspection results are printed out and added to a shop management system manually,” says Bye. “Inspections are the key to proper maintenance, and as such, their value is impossible to overstate. But it’s tough to extract the full value from inspections using antiquated tools like paper-based forms.”
Some industries, explains Bye, have struggled with digital transformation because devices haven’t been able to withstand the environments in which they operate. But if the field engineer’s input can be captured digitally, then it can facilitate automation and simplification of tasks, such as asset maintenance, safety inspection tracking and logging, and data capture.
“It also paves the way for the introduction of new augmented reality concepts that will further enhance safety and more efficient operations. This means workers will benefit from significant productivity, efficiency, data accuracy and security gains, removing the need for time-consuming paperwork and reducing downtime,” he says.
Companies are increasingly adopting new methods that enable operator or maintenance personnel to electronically capture data in digital logs and checklists during their rounds. These digital solutions consist of mobile applications used in conjunction with ruggedized and intrinsically safe handheld devices to facilitate data collection in the field, and PC-based applications for route configuration, scheduling, and the reporting of key performance indicators.
Oliver Pogmore, commercial and business development manager at AVT Reliability, believes the use of Android tablets is becoming increasingly common in the industrial market: “Even those that had resisted for many years are now finding that the benefits far outweigh the cost.
“One of our main targets when working with new clients is pulling them away from literally walking around with a pen and paper-based checklist and, instead, sending them down a path of easy-to-use electronic data capture.”
He says the traditional method is often seen as a tick box exercise, with the resulting information being filed away into storage, never to be looked at again until an audit is done: “This no longer has to be the case,” he says. “With a low-cost tablet and app we are enabling our customers to perform in depth checks with accompanying digital images of any issues.
“Better yet, this information is time/date stamped and stored digitally, so it can be viewed online from anywhere. This means that any auditing process is very simple, and access can be granted to those that need to see the data quickly.”
For Martyn Williams, managing director of COPA-DATA UK, traditional inspection methods can determine the health of equipment in that current moment. However, he adds: “More often than not, this information comes far too late. To accurately monitor the health of industrial assets, manufacturers need access to real-time performance data and, perhaps more importantly, software that can understand and interpret this data.”
Software, he says, is the driver of smart inspection. “Using intelligent software that continually collects data from assets in a facility, the manufacturer can gather much greater insight than scheduled, manual inspection. “The right software allows manufacturers to collect performance data and predictive insights on the health of their machinery.”
These analyses enable maintenance decisions to be made based on actual data and prediction models. This, for Williams, includes two types of prediction: time-based prediction, which forecasts how a value will develop over time, and value-based prediction, which shows how one value will behave if another is changed.
“For inspection, this can identify how equipment could deteriorate over time and inform the best method of dealing with this asset’s maintenance. Potentially, this could also highlight ways to change the equipment’s operation in order to prolong its lifespan.”
Many operations engineers have visions of hideously complex IT projects being implemented and failing, but Williams is reassuring on this: “Deploying software can be simplified by choosing a platform that is independent. ‘Hardware-independent software’ describes software that can be implemented into any industrial automation system, regardless of the brand of equipment used in the facility… For manufacturing facilities that house various types of equipment, often from numerous original equipment manufacturers, this can make the process of collecting performance data much simpler.”
For Bye, the biggest trend at the moment is for tablets. “We’re seeing increasing use cases for augmented reality and virtual reality (VR) and VR glasses to help field engineers carry out their tasks safely and efficiently, but some engineers still require more traditional input methods to capture large amounts of written data. Likewise, if field engineers have to view large amounts of technical information, such as documents, or schematics, then they will still require large screen formats.”
Constantin Pop, business development manager for reliability solutions at Emerson, adds that within process plants with hazardous environments, intrinsically safe ATEX-approved handheld device communicators are widely used to increase the efficiency of maintenance activities.
For Pogmore, the next big thing will be improved automation: “We are already thinking about how far automation will go, but imagine miniaturised sensors that can diagnose a huge number of faults with particular assets from all types of monitoring techniques.”
The industrial internet of things is also changing how field service technicians do their jobs, because sensors, and other tools, can provide comprehensive data about what’s working, what isn’t, the environment and so on, according to Getac’s Bye.
“These are big changes, but they’re only possible if engineers have a device in hand that lets them see, interrogate and understand the data.”
Box Out: Screen test
There are many advantages and a few disadvantages of using digital technology for inspection:
● Information can be collected offline, so the new solution doesn’t exclude sites that have little mobile or Wi-Fi signal
● Once back in the office, all this data is synchronised with the cloud, making it fully accessible
● Digitisation can make the entire organisation more productive and efficient. Organisations that fail to embrace digital transformation risk being left behind by those that do
● It standardises the approach, ensuring that all tasks are performed correctly and provides a uniform set of information to key decision makers.
● Resistance to change – some team members and customers find the use of new technology daunting, so suppliers tend to be careful to ensure that suitable training is in place
● A tablet costs more than the traditional pen and paper.