The Value of Stuff

— December 01, 2006

The topic of wireless asset management typically addresses warehouse, inventory and supply chain management. However, using wireless and mobile technologies to track, monitor and manage physical resources has greater potential to improve the bottom line.
The declining costs of RFID and GPS are encouraging an increase in asset management deployments. Also accelerating interest is the ability to provide an inexpensive WiFi infrastructure both within buildings and through impending municipal wireless networks, plus the low cost to imbed WiFi capability into almost anything that stores data.

Location, Location, Location
Suppose you lease a $1 million piece of repair equipment that circulates constantly throughout your facility. What's the cost if a worker spends 10 minutes at the start of every shift looking for it because it wasn't returned to the proper place by the last person using it?

Dr. Charles Emerman, chairman of emergency medicine and associate chief of staff at Cleveland's MetroHealth System, recommends a WiFi-based asset management system from PanGo Networks. He believes determining the potential ROI is easy. "These sensors go on pieces of equipment and we know how much each one costs. You don't have to use fancy calculations."

If there are three shifts working 365 days a year, this adds up to 183 hours that your asset isn't delivering what you paid for, or nearly $21,000 in lost productivity. If those workers make $40,000 annually, there's an additional $1,377 of lost employee productivity. MetroHealth has 35 pieces of equipment tagged in the first stage of its application deployment, and it expects a nice ROI within a few months.

Installing the software and placing electronic tags on assets can recover lots of missing treasure. Micky Long, director of solutions marketing for asset management software vendor Indus International, recalls the day one of Indus' telecommunications customers turned the system on and found $25 million worth of assets.

"There are lots of mergers and acquisitions, lots of rapid growth with people changing departments or responsibilities," Long states. "They forget where things are, or even what they own. Or a repair person comes in to fix equipment and puts extra parts on a nearby shelf. The parts aren't being used while the knowledge about them rests inside the brain of someone who figures they'll come back to service the equipment again."

Besides financial costs are the intangible benefits. Long Beach Memorial Medical Center's emergency department, after deploying Versus Technology's asset management system, reduced average patient wait time before seeing a triage nurse from 80 minutes down to only nine minutes.

Anticipating Problems
Wireless technology can help you predict the future actions of trusted machinery, vehicles and other key assets by transmitting real-time data about their performance or surrounding environments.

The ROI of such applications are pretty straightforward. How much can I save if my assets tell me before they malfunction that intervention is needed? How much can I save the organization if I get real-time alerts when something goes wrong? How much can I extend the life expectancy of my assets by more accurately monitoring performance?

Catching a problem before it happens prevents greater repair costs and prevents lost productivity of employees waiting for the asset to be fixed or replaced. Wireless information on performance enables repair people to know what needs to be done even before they look at an asset. Smart Signal's software allows Delta Airlines to monitor aircraft engines in flight. If parameters such as RPMs go out of spec, there's a person on the ground ready to fix the problem the moment the flight lands.

Companies build significant customer good will when they better monitor product performance and deliver effective preventative maintenance. A simple WiFi device attached to research lab equipment can let a manufacturer receive alerts automatically when it's time to re-calibrate settings or upgrade parts. Customers get great service and longer use from their investment.
The human factor is also driving adoption of wireless asset monitoring. According to Long, "We're seeing a downward turn in experienced repair workers, so the machinery has to do more. The service technician is becoming more of a customer rep." Wireless communication from assets gives experienced managers instant access to critical information so they can better deploy and guide repair or maintenance workers.

The Human Component
To maximize wireless asset management and maintenance, organizations need to integrate this technology with a mobile workforce presumably carrying PDAs, rugged laptops and other mobile devices. Ideally, that workforce should be able to intervene in the process at appropriate times, from any location.

Renee Lowe, a lab manager for a leading biotech firm, says, "Completion of an experimental procedure previously triggered a pager message alerting research techs to the status of the process. But now these alerts go to research assistants' PDAs so they can perform quality-control calculations, input data and move the process along to the next step or stop the process if it fails quality control requirements. In expensive, time-critical drug development operations this added efficiency and control leads to a higher rate of experimental success and lower costs."
Maintenance crews equipped with mobile devices can have a major ROI impact in several ways. Those who currently rely on paper forms can eliminate these to cut costs, increase productivity in the field as well as the back office and to make more--and better--decisions on site. Workers can download asset data directly to their devices, record actions taken and immediately relay everything to the office. By reporting from the field, workers can speed up invoicing, cash flow and asset availability.

This level of human integration is, for now, limited because older equipment must be retrofitted to imbed wireless technology, an investment some organizations are reluctant to make. Some organizations subsequently may wonder when they should jump on this trend.
"You should watch the technology until it evolves to the point that appears to satisfy your basic needs," says MetroHealth's Emerman. "There will always be new technology with another set of bells and whistles. But when I can have the functionality that I want, I get it and we're done." //

Craig Settles is president of the Bay Area consultancy Successful.com.

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