Tracking, tracing and maintaining equipment in the process industries

Intermec Technologies Aust Pty Ltd
Friday, 14 May, 2010

The processing industries naturally lend themselves to a variety of categories - high risk, high expense and capital intensive, just to name a few. However, it’s becoming apparent across industry that many processing organisations are limited by their knowledge of what is happening on the floor - where their assets are, how well maintained they are and whether they are being utilised to their fullest.

A recent study conducted by Intermec has shown that millions of dollars worth of business decisions being made today are being done based on asset data that may only be about 70% accurate.* This figure is particularly alarming for the processing industry, as maintaining safety equipment and utilising all assets to their maximum is essential in maximising efficiency and contributing to the bottom line.

Today there are a variety of technologies which can be used to effectively track assets across the processing industry, ensuring their effectiveness and maintenance. The two most widely used are barcode technology and radio frequency identification (RFID). Using barcode technology, processing organisations can minimise time looking for assets such as forklifts and harnesses and ensure that their equipment is functioning at its fullest capacity. In the event of a failure, processing organisations need to be able to recognise where the fault lies, and track back where the equipment has come from. Barcodes enable tracking of individual parts of machinery assembled on site (valves, conveyers etc) as well as ensuring that safety equipment maintenance schedules are kept. This allows processing plants to know precisely where their equipment is on the floor, as well as helping to identify risks; and when problems arise, ensuring that they are fixed in a timely fashion.

One major processing organisation to have realised the benefits offered by a barcode asset tracking solution in recent times is Canada’s Syncrude, which turns sand in the Athabasca oil deposit into more than 230,000 barrels of crude oil a day.

Syncrude had an ongoing issue within its business whereby it was realised that its tool cribs were significantly underperforming - processing more than 1000 transactions every day but with a considerable margin of human error. As a result of an exhaustive industry search, Intermec asset tracing technology along with a local Canadian integration partner was selected by Syncrude to apply (with epoxy tools) metal tags with serial number barcodes to all tools and equipment across the processing business.

Employees at Syncrude now sign out needed tools and enter them back into inventory by scanning their barcoded ID badges and the symbol on the tool. In the event of an emergency repair to a particular piece of processing equipment (as production demands are incredibly high), workers can quickly determine what tools are where, and who has them, to most efficiently get the processing back on track. The application of a barcode asset tracking solution within Syncrude has proved so successful that the company recently recorded an impressive 25.7% return on capital.

As highlighted by Syncrude’s application of asset tracking technology, the value of the barcode lies in its accuracy and efficiency. It is an incredibly robust, reliable technology that costs virtually cents to produce and yields high return on investment. Coupling barcode technology with a leading asset tracking system enables organisations to accurately identify fixed and portable assets within processing environments, including vehicles, tools, machinery, valves, conveyors and drives. Asset information is generally recorded via a handheld barcode reader, which has a preprogrammed interrogation system enabling the system user to collate data efficiently, accurately and in an organised and efficient format.

The processing industry is undoubtedly one which can be hazardous at times and Australian and New Zealand businesses have a responsibility to ensure that assets in the workplace have had all of the necessary safety inspections and required maintenance to make them fit for purpose. In addition, any hazards which have been appropriately identified need to have the necessary contingency plans enacted. For example, if a workplace incident involving a key piece of processing equipment was to occur, it is imperative that the organisation can show a full maintenance and inspection history for the faulty equipment. If the organisation cannot show asset records which highlight how maintenance schedules are adhered to, it may find itself liable for a range of criminal and civil action.

Despite the obvious benefits of tracking health and safety equipment, anecdotal evidence tends to indicate that many employers - including those in the processing sector - have incomplete, inconsistent or inaccurate records relating to workplace safety and asset or equipment history. Asset tracking solutions help build and maintain safer workplaces by correctly managing and maintaining organisations’ assets, including the systematic coordination and tracking of individual risk assessments, scheduled inspections and maintenance, as well as ad hoc and reactive maintenance tasks.

Asset tracking solutions promote a better approach to safety by ensuring that scheduled maintenance tasks are reported and comprehensive audit trails are kept when maintenance is completed.

As an example of this, a major mining organisation identified an OHS risk with the issuing, returns and maintenance of its respirators. Its current system was paper based and manually intensive, which led to a number of issues including:

  • No definitive record of who was issued which respirators;
  • The possibility of incorrect or faulty respirator units being issued;
  • Critical respirator maintenance being overlooked or incorrectly completed.

In addition, the mining company was unable to identify the actual cost of the maintenance to the equipment and, as a result, struggled to even charge repairs to the appropriate sections.

Following a successful implementation of significant asset tracking solutions, the company was able to have full and accurate visibility of the returns and maintenance processes for all respirators, leading to increased equipment reliability and enhancing worker safety at the site.

By implementing complementary asset tracking technologies like handheld computers, owners and managers of processing plants throughout Australia can deliver more accurate and timely information, to limit equipment downtime and expedite repair order applications. For instance, when a repair order comes in, equipment repair specialists can set to work using what is on hand to repair, or track orders when the equipment is not available. Using a handheld computer can give specialist repairers on site a task detail showing the exact location of relevant parts and assets among the thousands that exist in a large processing plant. As the specialist picks a replacement item or puts something in to be repaired, they scan its bar code with the integrated scanner on the mobile computer. The program immediately subtracts the item from its inventory count. When a replacement is issued or an item returns from repair, the specialist sends a task update through the mobile computer to the project manager, which automatically updates the system.

In addition to barcoding, RFID has always been considered a forward-looking technology, but one which is gaining credence in its applications in processing environments. The sooner that RFID is applied to products and components in processing environments, the more benefits it can provide. Tags for genealogy and lifetime traceability can serve double duty as enablers of efficient production tracking, routing and materials management applications. Genealogy and lifetime traceability is critical in processing environments that serve the sectors such as the international aviation field. In the aviation industry, for example, if positive identification and lifetime service records (including data on the equipment processor and production process) aren’t available for a part, it can’t fly. Misidentification and record-keeping errors could potentially cost airlines millions of dollars in unnecessary replacement costs, putting pressure on local processors in the field to themselves have proper asset tracking solutions in place.

Processing operations that require sequencing or build-to-order production rely on item-level identification to ensure the right components are added to assemblies. RFID provides a way to quickly verify identities, and can be integrated with production control systems to route your assets to where they are needed most - preventing assets being underutilised.

RFID’s benefits to Australian and New Zealand processing companies taking advantage of the technology include monetary savings through locating and redeploying existing assets (for example, replacement parts for machines, respirators or forklifts) instead of buying or producing new ones; maintaining existing assets to ensure that they do not deteriorate to the point where they require replacement; and reducing labour costs by ensuring that all assets are being maintained regularly, instead of some being over maintained and others being allowed to worsen.


*Intermec White Paper: Do You Know Where Your Assets Are? Maximizing ROI with RFID Asset Management.

By Tony Repaci, Managing Director for Australia and New Zealand, Intermec

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