IoT Sensor Solution Identifies Equipment Failures Before They Happen

By Claire Swedberg

Equipment manufacturers and users have begun utilizing a wireless system from ServiceMax that employs RFID and other technology to capture sensor data about a piece of equipment, and to identify problems as soon as a change in performance is detected.

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Field service technology company Servicemax has partnered with software and services firm PTC to offer an Internet of Things system using radio frequency identification, satellite, long-range low-power (LoRa) RF or Wi-Fi technology to report when a piece of equipment starts to malfunction—even, in some cases, before a user notices the problem.

The system, known as Connected Field Service (CFS), was released last year and is in use by equipment manufacturers, maintenance companies and equipment users. Such users include utility companies, oil and gas firms, and manufacturers. CFS employs a variety of wireless technologies (including RFID) to capture the sensor data, says Amit Jain, ServiceMax’s senior director of product management, while in some cases it also utilizes wired connections.

ServiceMax’s Amit Jain

ServiceMax provides field service software and mobile applications for businesses that need to manage assets, Jain explains—anything from wind turbines or elevators to small appliances. The software is designed to manage data about each asset and its field service, as well as schedules for future services. It enables users to schedule services and track the parts and inventory used with that asset.

The ServiceMax mobile app (for iOS, Android or Windows) adds another layer of visibility by allowing technicians to view details about a particular asset—by entering that asset’s ID number into the system—and to record new information in the fieldindicating which parts are being used, what service is being provided and the time required to accomplish that. The data can be collected, managed and stored in the cloud, Jain explains.

“Our core business grew about five years ago,” Jain says, “with a focus on customers with complex work flows.” Companies that use ServiceMax are often those that make equipment, for instance, and provide that equipment, as well as maintenance services, to customers—for example, a generator that might be installed at thousands of customer sites.

The most recent addition to the solution is ServiceMax’s CFS IoT sensor system, released last year to provide automatic connection between an asset and a cloud-based server. ServiceMax provides the sensors that can be applied to equipment (which can include temperature, humidity and vibration sensors or motion detectors), though Jain says most users of the technology have their own sensors already in place. The sensors forward that data via ZigBee, Wi-Fi, satellite or other wireless technologies to the PTC ThingWorx platform, which interprets the collected data. ServiceMax software then manages the results and distributes it to the appropriate parties.

RFID technology is most often used by customers in scenarios when an asset is movable and its location must be tracked along with its condition and service status, Jain explains. While equipment is traditionally scheduled for periodic inspection and maintenance, problems that occur between those visits can catch users off-guard and sometimes cause operational failures. “Historically,” Jain states, “until an issue happens, it’s hard to know there’s a problem.” Once users notice that a machine isn’t acting right, they can place a phone call.

With CFS, if a vibration or temperature sensor on a device, for example, detects a change in its measurements, the cloud-based software receives that change and can issue an alert to field personnel or managers. In the past, Jain says, tracking this volume of data proved too cumbersome for most companies. “The volume of data can get quite large,” he explains, “but in recent years it’s become economically viable to store sensor data in the cloud.”

This data not only enables the prevention of an equipment failure, but also allows a company to run analytics based on the regular sensor readings. This enables the business to understand how well its equipment operates, for how long and when the next maintenance visit should be scheduled.

According to Jain, customers using the CFS system report, on average, an 18 percent productivity increase, since they no longer spend time manually filling out paperwork or placing phone calls to learn details about an asset while in the field. In addition, the company has conducted customer satisfaction studies, and has found that those using the technology express an 11 percent increase in satisfaction. What’s more, he says, the technology boosts efficiency since workers have a better understanding of the maintenance issue when visiting a site, and can thus bring the appropriate tools and replacement parts.