In some industries, like commercial aviation, remote monitoring has been around for years. Every time you get on a Boeing aircraft, there’s a good chance that Boeing is keeping tabs on what’s happening during that flight, while GE Aviation monitors the engines and a third-party maintenance provider collects performance data used to schedule repairs. It’s become a commonplace, mature technology.
In the materials handling industry, major systems integrators like Dematic, Intelligrated, Knapp and Schaefer Systems have remotely monitored their customers’ integrated system installations for some time, covering conveyors, shipping sorters, automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) and automatic guided vehicles (AGVs). Today—with the increasing expansion and acceptance of machine-to-machine (M2M) Internet of Things (IoT) technologies that provide exponentially more Big Data all the time—that level of service is beginning to filter down from major systems to subcomponents, including fulfillment equipment, mobile devices and lift trucks.
Here, remote monitoring is an emerging technology that is offered as a service by some and is on the drawing board for others. But, its growth is fed by the same factors that drove it into the big systems: the criticality of uptime, a lack of trained service technicians, the increasing burdens on information technology professionals, operational improvements and the growing complexity of the equipment itself.
Here’s a look at some of the services already being offered or coming soon to a DC near you, by providers of solutions you might not have considered before.
Stand-alone automated equipment
Muller LCS, a manufacturer of stretch wrap equipment, recently added a remote monitoring offering to its line of high-speed, high-volume Octopus rotary ring stretch wrap machines. The service, says Neil Weisensel, brand and marketing director, grew from the company’s desire to provide more information to customers on a daily or hourly basis—an expansion of on-site quarterly or monthly equipment audits conducted by Muller technicians.
“On-site audits include checking the film pre-stretch level to determine that the film cost per load meets the standard operating parameters set by the customer,” he explains. “However, the audit only provides a snapshot of that moment, whereas remote monitoring collects multiple data points continuously and in real time.”
The service (and the Octopus stretch wrapper) targets operations with two to 20 production lines, each served by a machine unitizing 20 or more loads per hour for eight or more hours a day. It monitors pre-stretch settings, the number of wrap revolutions per load, film breaks and downtime.
“Repeated film breaks in a high-speed food and beverage operation, for example, causes downtime that equates to more than $100 lost per minute,” he says. “Adding predictive maintenance to the monitoring allows us to proactively schedule repairs in advance.”
Further, notes Weisensel, a dip in film pre-stretch level wouldn’t be obvious visually. “You won’t know the film is underperforming until the product ships and is damaged in transit; remote monitoring allows us to alert an operation of such a condition.”
OPEX Material Handling’s engineering team has always monitored its Perfect Pick robotic goods-to-person picking technology installations remotely as part of its service and support, says Jeff Hedges, president. The company is currently developing a remote monitoring tool for customer use as well.
“Remote monitoring services are a natural extension of our company’s all-inclusive service and support contracts, which have been designed to eliminate surprises ranging from unplanned downtime to unexpected costs,” says Hedges. “We expect that in the future some customers will elect to ‘self-maintain’ their systems, which will be much easier for them with access to our remote monitoring service option.”
For companies that prefer to hire technicians on-site, OPEX will train them on how to maintain and service the equipment. But given the current challenges faced by the industry in finding enough qualified service technicians, it’s typically more economical to sign a service contract, Hedges adds.
“Whether an operation has an internal service team or not, management still wants to be able to rely on their original equipment manufacturer for support,” adds Tim Buhr, director of field service who oversees OPEX’s service and support network. “Having access to that real-time information helps us evolve preventive maintenance tasks to a more of predictive maintenance task.”
From handheld bar code scanners to smart phones, companies deploying mobile devices to employees (or allowing them to use personal devices on corporate networks) face myriad challenges in ensuring proper use and help-desk level support. With the broad variety of device and operating systems on the market, overtaxed IT departments simply cannot become experts on all of them, says Jay Gordon, vice president of Enterprise Mobile sales for Honeywell Scanning & Mobility.
“Today’s companies want help from third-party experts to drive a world-class support experience for end-users around the clock,” he says, noting particular interest from retailers as well as transportation and logistics organizations. “Remote monitoring of devices offers customers a way to identify and resolve mobility related issues without having physical possession of a mobile device. This reduces end-user downtime, shipping costs and processing time.”
Gordon notes that, as an evolving service, remote monitoring of devices is still limited to certain operating systems and often requires an additional investment in software to enable these feature types. However, it can help users manage routine software updates and administration, as well as troubleshooting.
Perhaps of greatest interest to companies who’ve invested in mobile devices as part of a critical business process, remote monitoring answers foundational challenges with the “identification, location and condition of critical assets—where are they now, and what condition are they in questions,” says Randy Martin, senior manager of managed service for Zebra Technologies.
“In a highly distributed environment with as many as 5,000 devices, it’s easy to lose sight of where the assets are within a supply chain. And, it’s tough to track if their batteries are charged and ready for use through an entire shift, or if the device and application are performing optimally for the work being done,” he explains.
Martin says companies relying on their IT departments to mine and share that type of operational data might not be getting the full picture. “We find that IT departments are under considerable pressure from the crush of daily operations, tactical and strategic programs. Remote monitoring by a third party can assist IT departments and operations teams while adding user accountability,” Martin says.
Within the platform used by Zebra’s channel partners are tools to pull data metrics customized to what the user wants to know, explains Martin. “This includes tracking lost, stolen or misplaced devices, as well as utilization information ranging from device power up, to the number of scans per day, to how many times an application was used and more.”
Lift trucks and powered mobile equipment
Deployed for control, tracking and management of fleets of forklifts, floor sweepers and other industrial trucks, wireless vehicle management systems—such as I.D. Systems’ PowerFleet offering—include on-vehicle devices and companion analytics software to help quantify key performance indicators (KPIs), says CEO Ken Ehrman.
“Our customers want technology that not only provides functional benefits, like access control, safety compliance, damage reduction and productivity gains, but also is low maintenance and highly automated in the way system health issues are identified, communicated and resolved,” he explains.
That means fleet owners expect the supplier to remotely access their systems and perform wireless upgrades of software and mobile devices, provide notifications of issues proactively, log trouble tickets in real time, and resolve issues quickly with the help of the supplier’s support staff.
“Additionally, they want to ensure that the vehicles are being used safely and productively, especially considering the cost of labor associated with their use,” Ehrman adds.
The larger an operation, the more likely it is to have warehouse management system (WMS) and labor management system (LMS), which often translates into a greater desire for productivity and operational information, says Jim Gaskell, director of aftermarket support at lift truck manufacturer Crown Equipment.
“In the beginning, customers wanted to know what the cost of maintaining a forklift was,” he recalls. “Now they want to know the whole picture. For example, if they benchmark that a task involving a forklift should take two minutes, and our InfoLink system documents that the truck ran for five, they can investigate what the operator was doing during the other three minutes.”
Adding telematics devices to all the vehicles in a fleet also helps right-size it, Gaskell says. “The trucks you thought were being used a lot are actually only running half that amount of time, while one might only be used for five minutes, so perhaps you don’t need it.”
Further, connecting electronic, OSHA-mandated vehicle inspection checklists completed by operators to Crown’s fleet and operator management system ensures automatic service notifications are sent to technicians so repairs can be scheduled during off-hours. “It also connects a driver to damage incidents that trigger impact and fault codes,” Gaskell adds. “That additional level of accountability prevents a lot of costly damage.”
Although Crown does not currently offer an outsourced remote monitoring service to fleet owners, the company is testing the waters by remotely tracking its own fleet of rental vehicles, he says.
“Recently, a rental vehicle in the field kept sending us overheat codes, so we went to visit the customer—who acknowledged the issue, but hadn’t told us about it,” he recalls. “That’s the future: when your service provider calls you for service, not the other way around. Because our goal is to reach the point where the truck is never out of service.”
Companies mentioned in this article
Crown Equipment Corp.
Honeywell Scanning & Mobility
OPEX Material Handling