Lessons from the pandemic


CEO and founder of InterPro Solutionsfeaturing a suite of award-winning Ops & Maintenance mobile apps designed exclusively for IBM Maximo.

Over the past two years, I – and others – in the mobile technology industry have written about how mobile solutions became invaluable tools during the pandemic for maintaining and managing physical assets in large facilities ranging from college campuses to power plants, hospitals, and more.

The driving factor for the adoption of mobile asset management solutions during the pandemic was that these solutions minimized face-to-face contact. Instead of dozens of technicians coming to the shipping office every morning to collect paper maintenance and repair work orders, jobs were distributed via mobile apps. At the end of the day, that return trip to the shipping office was also eliminated, as all work details at the service point were captured via the technician’s mobile device. The value equation was very clear: eliminate the need for the technicians to collect and therefore minimize the chance of person-to-person transmission of the virus.

While mobile solutions were effective in minimizing face-to-face contact, additional lessons were learned and business benefits achieved beyond the initial security requirements.

Capturing accurate, detailed data is crucial.

By engaging technicians with mobile devices, facilities had real-time visibility into operations. Using near field communication (NFC) tags, geo-fencing and built-in barcode readers, maintenance managers were immediately notified when a technician arrived. As the technician entered work details, along with start and stop times, the crew managers had real-time updates on the progress of repairs. Using in-app messaging, crew members could confer with each other without face-to-face contact, with the added benefit of saving that conversation to the work record.

Using other capabilities, such as speech-to-text, technicians captured details about problems and provided important notes for the next technician. Needless to say, this was more efficient than sending a paper work order back to the shipping office to be typed into the organization’s enterprise asset management system.

Use data to predict and prepare for future problems.

The big “ah-ha” with this move to mobile was the improvement in data quality, which directly translated into increased machine and equipment uptime. Instead of asking the data entry team to decipher handwritten service notes, technicians are now asked to capture data in a structured way, including the option to mandate the capture of certain data elements.

This structured data collection then opened the door for data analysis and modeling to predict and prevent equipment failures. Using speech-to-text, audio and images to document asset health, translated into shorter repair hours and higher first-fix rates – armed with a full understanding of repair history and previous diagnoses, problems can be resolved faster diagnosed and technicians can arrive with the right tools and parts in hand.

Focus on efficiency.

Other device features, such as maps, provided tremendous efficiency. Maps were able to direct technicians to the correct address or building, and with GIS also to the correct floor and exact location of the asset, even when the asset was inside a wall or internal to a large piece of equipment. In addition, the mapping capabilities allow planners to group tasks by proximity to minimize travel time or optimize routes for technicians traveling to perform inspections.

For more mature mobile installs, the list goes on. Using apps, organizations were able to instantly capture labor hours for each task and, in many cases, integrate them with HR and payroll systems. Other organizations extended their mobile functionality to enable parts requests from warehouses and even generate requests and/or purchase orders for out-of-stock items. Many have also equipped their external suppliers, for example elevator technicians or authorized dealers they do not employ, to generate the same efficiencies they enjoy with their in-house maintenance team.

Spend time researching to create meaningful solutions.

If your organization has yet to invest in a mobile asset management solution, or if you’re just getting started, understand that it’s a journey, not a one-time solution. Don’t fall into the trap of replicating a paper form on a mobile device – spend the time thinking about what data is critical to your business. Are you asking for data you already have? Are you asking for data that you will not use in any meaningful way? Sit down with your engineers to understand what they’re doing in the field and design your mobile app to support the way they actually work.

Where possible, create workflows that guide the technician through the repair/inspection and ask the technician for the specific data you need, ideally with drop-down lists, radio buttons or voice commands that minimize the need to type. I have found that this approach not only improves data quality but also improves user adoption. Technicians will embrace the use of a mobile app that makes their job easier – and will resist if it just adds more work to their already full plate.

Prepare for the potential challenges of mobile adoption.

The use of mobile devices is generally welcomed by engineers—85% of the American population owns a smartphone. Since experienced workers typically have the greatest technical expertise, getting them onboard mobile is critical. Bringing together a younger “digital-born” worker with an experienced worker is a great way for the younger worker to gain technical expertise, while the veteran gets more comfort with the mobile device.

Another challenge that one sometimes encounters is the fear of being tracked by the mobile device. While the organization often wants some level of tracking, such as being able to map technicians’ location to minimize travel between tasks, this can be seen as surveillance. In my experience, it’s best to have a written mobile device usage policy that clarifies what is and isn’t tracked and what is expected of your staff, including individual responsibilities and usage restrictions.

Covid-19 forced organizations to rethink how they do business. Managing a large facility with hundreds of technicians is a difficult task, even in the best of times. In response, many organizations have made an effort to adopt mobile asset management tools that allow them to implement security measures. As restrictions have been eased, organizations have come to realize that these mobile tools have also led to labor efficiency and increased equipment availability, and that their facilities teams are more responsive to their organizations.

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