Empower Field Workers With Mobility

by Charles D. Mohrmann, Wonderware

Part of optimizing performance in power and utilities groups is having the right information in the right place at the right time. In most field and plant environments, instrumentation and monitoring is widespread. Pages of graphs and reports describe every operational characteristic and are used by operational management to steer businesses to optimal performance. But in a modern facility, the right time to view this information is not when standing in front of an operator console; it is in the field, in front of failing equipment or when discussing a problem while on the move. Usually the right way to deliver information is to put it in a mobile worker’s hands.

Additionally, the right way to collect information also involves mobility. Remember that 40 to 60 percent of field and plant assets are not instrumented (for example, stranded assets). Optimizing these assets’ life and cost of ownership depends on mobile field workers. Armed with the right tools, mobile workers can cost-effectively gather data from noninstrumented equipment and manual processes that can be readily analyzed and integrated into existing back-end decision support systems. Bidirectional flow of information to and from mobile workers is a key competitive imperative required to make fully informed operations decisions.

An Information-Poor Environment

Most companies make their mobile workforce decisions in information-poor environments and with little support or historical information. Field workers frequently do their jobs based on personal experience acquired over many years. They are closest to the equipment and processes, and they feel the heat, hear the noises and see the changes that can first indicate trouble.

This approach makes operations vulnerable to high levels of variability based on individual talent, skills and training. Because of massive automation investments during the past decades, management often is blind to what decisionmakers in the field do, and they find it hard to ensure that best practices occur across field worker roles, production shifts, facilities and assets.

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The situation worsens when business conditions change and new orders are not understood, communicated, adopted or enforced in field organizations. Furthermore, much of the relevant field data and field worker insights are not captured to provide management with information needed to better monitor performance. This can make it difficult to close the performance gaps and achieve operational excellence.

Time to Rethink Mobility

Moving a server or desktop application to a mobile device generally does little to improve mobile worker effectiveness. Merely going paperless provides a fragment of the potential value of mobility.

Mobile devices are not simply the equivalent of Internet browsers; they are powerful computers able to combine location information, automated data capture through radio frequency identification (RFID), remote access to data and video with repositories of historical information and step-bystep guidance to perform tasks.

These capabilities enable mobile devices to capture events such as early signals of impending equipment failure and suboptimal operating conditions and make sure appropriate follow up is performed to prevent further expensive incidents.

A New Way of Working

Exploiting mobile computing power requires that work processes involved be re-imagined and redesigned. The right way to think about mobility is as an invitation to a new way of working, a search for applications that can accelerate and sustain process improvements that transform operations, not merely moderately improve them by moving the same process from paper to a mobile device.

The groundwork for applying mobility to various mainstream processes has already been laid, and best practices for applying mobility to achieve operational excellence ensure a high-reliability organization, increase energy optimization, leverage mobile learning on the job and cost-effectively improve environmental, health and safety process performance.

Industry leaders repeatedly have proven how mobile technology can enable disconnected workers, help monitor noninstrumented equipment and assure that field operations and personnel execute against standard operating procedures consistently and repeatedly according to defined best practices.

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These leaders see step-change process improvements with rapid, hard-dollar paybacks, accountability and total visibility based on intelligent, precise stewardship and corresponding empowerment of their mobile workforce.

The Payoff

The impact from empowering mobile workers and increasing their productivity can be financially staggering. In process manufacturing industries, more than half of maintenance costs are incurred when equipment is operated improperly (outside of normal operating envelopes.) This can have significant impact on plant operating efficiencies tied to equipment availability because low mechanical availability leads to increased unplanned downtime and slowdowns.

Many reliability audits show that about two-thirds of maintenance costs are due to equipment previously identified as problematic. Providing mobile workers with a tool that guides them with interactive best practices offers a low-risk, low-cost way to improve performance: Achieve higher operating efficiencies and lower maintenance costs.

Providing a systematic way to capture remote data on stranded assets and enabling mobile workers to act in real time at the point of incidents based on best practices move company operations to a predictive maintenance approach based on condition monitoring.

This approach can free critical resources that historically spend significant time on preventative maintenance inspections whether equipment needs it or not. An operating efficiencies increase as little as 0.5 to 2 percent can result in millions of dollars annually in improved margins to a large operation.

The corresponding 1 to 5 percent decrease in total maintenance costs (elimination of secondary failures and lower costs to repair primary failures) can yield a six- or seven-figure cost savings.

The payoff for improving support for mobile workers comes in other ways, as well. Mobility turns field staff–previously off the radar regarding process optimization–into a visible part of the enterprise’s designed processes that operates according to standards with accountability and auditability.

It also addresses aging-workforce issues and turnover by institutionalizing experienced workers’ knowledge and helping assimilate new hires through on-the-job mobile learning.

Advantages to the Power Industry

  • ¼ to 2 percent reduction in de-rates as a result of improved asset reliability,
  • 2 to 5 percent reduction in total maintenance cost budget, and
  • Better cost-effective safety and environmental compliance.

Transmission and distribution

  • Improved asset tracking and work validation (time stamped during inspection or incident),
  • Best practice-based, guided procedures for visual inspections to properly and consistently identify asset conditions (substations, towers, lines, poles), which results in significantly longer mean time between repair or replacement and lower maintenance costs,
  • Better cost-effective safety and environmental compliance, and
  • Dynamic procedures immediately available to field workers to address changing business conditions (for example, from severe weather to changing business priorities).

Guided procedures improve field worker productivity and allow customers to capture information for continuous improvement to change work processes and roles, including rapid assimilation of new workers who are less experienced with the system.

Connecting mobile staff can change the mobile workforce mindset. Providing staff the ability to recognize events, capture insights about specific equipment behavior and suggest process improvements can be transformational. Field staff can become part of the team and actively optimize a plant’s workings. Management can gain full visibility into field workers’ activities.

Technology exits to make cost-effective, step-change process improvements with mobile technology, and it is easy to use. Improving operations through plants, offsite facilities such as substations and field workforce should be part of your strategy.


Charles D. Mohrmann is vice president for mobile solutions at Wonderware.

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