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How BYOD affects maintenance environments

Editorial
article image It is possible to integrate SCADA and Computerised Maintenance Management Systems on a single mobile device.

When users at the recent IBM Maximo User conference were asked what their most pressing issue was, the unanimous reply was mobile working.

Integrating mobility into daily maintenance activities - inspection routes, reactive maintenance and planned maintenance - is a priority for companies across industry. Numerous case studies exist showing the benefits seen in airport terminals, utilities plants, automated distribution centres and on the production shop floor, when maintenance engineers are able to access Enterprise Asset Management (EAM) systems like Maximo using a mobile device.  

The advantages of using Maximo with a mobile are clear – reduced downtime and faster response times, plus reduced paperwork and errors. In some instances, companies providing maintenance services to customers have been able to commit to tighter SLAs as a result of smarter, mobile working.

Now, the advent of another trend, BYOD, is set to further accelerate this switch to mobile EAM as it becomes economically viable for maintenance workers to use smartphones and tablets instead of traditional ruggedised devices. 

BYOD has a very broad definition which ranges from workers simply accessing work related emails on personal smartphones or tablets, to organisations subsidising the cost workers’ own mobile devices, in return for them using these devices during their working day to access business applications and data. It is this latter definition that is more relevant to maintenance engineers.

Whether BYOD is actually viable for industrial environments has been hotly contested and many people have argued against it. They believe that the working environments are unsuited to sleek and sexy iPhones and and other mainstream smart phones.

Our direct experience as mobile maintenance application specialists suggests this is wrong, in particular because HTML5, which is the development environment of choice for most mobile app developers today, makes it commercially feasible. In addition, some of the features within HTML5 make mobile EAM in particular - very attractive, due to the frequently remote nature of maintenance engineering work and the huge scale of many automated environments. 

How is technology accelerating BYOD within industrial environments?
HTML5 will enable mobile EAM and BYOD as a technology strategy to take off because it is technology that enables software developers to create a single application to run on any device and support offline working. This makes BYOD a more cost effective option for any business wishing to introduce mobile working across the organisation since the cost of smartphones is significantly lower than traditional ruggedised handhelds and the user experience is incomparable.

Before HTML5, mobile applications would have been developed specifically for use on a particular device using so called ‘native applications’. So for example, a company that had adopted traditional rugged devices built its mobile applications using C++.

If they wanted to introduce Android or Blackberry devices, the same application would have to be re-built using Java. Adding an iPhone into the mix meant more development in Objective C and so on. Re-purposing an application to adapt to a larger tablet format e.g. iPad, required yet more development.

Working in this way is costly and slow. As soon as an organisation wants to introduce any flexibility over which hardware devices its workers can use, it needs to significantly increase software development resources to render a single application compatible with additional hardware devices. This can take months so before HTML5, the concept of BYOD was unviable.

Support for remote working
The ability for HTML5 to support so called ‘disconnected working’ offers another specific benefit for automation users, especially in the context of mobile EAM. Maintenance engineers may experience extended periods within the working day when they need to continue working whilst disconnected from the main EAM system.  

Consider a plant maintenance engineer working remotely and required to complete an inspection route across a series of geographically dispersed treatment plants. For remote workers, this capability within HTML5 offers multiple benefits, particularly for planned maintenance activities, which can cover a very large area, making it highly likely to affect connectivity.

In this context, the user downloads their task sheet at the start of the day and then works in real time on the inspection route and offline when breaks in coverage occur. As the day progresses and the engineer roams in and out of coverage during the inspection route, data captured is stored locally on the device and seamlessly synchronised without any action required by the user. 

As a result of using mobile devices, maintenance activities can start to move away from being predominantly reactive to being entirely preventive. Taking advantage of technological developments like HTML5, widespread adoption of mobile EAM solutions, running on an engineer’s own smartphone or tablet device, will become a daily reality.

[The author, Oliver Sturrock, is CTO at SCHAD and an expert in mobile and enterprise software application development using HTML5.]

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