Field Data Security – Significant Improvement Possible


There exist several bottlenecks in the management of information in the assembly and field. Most significant reason for inefficiency is work and information organized into quite independent silos defined by different disciplines and organizational barriers. Such results sharing of potentially inconsistent and outdated information to the assembly lines and field service. Same applies also for the field status, which is typically based on intentional reporting by using scattered tools, which are specific for each silo. Due to high effort required, quality and coverage of the reports has been constrained, further leading into unclear and uncertain status of the field.

IT systems have traditionally been targeted to management and engineering, not for use in assembly and service technicians. IT systems have also been deployed by following the organizational barriers, mostly due to the constrained communication capabilities in the early days. Majority of current It systems still follow the historical principles and remote and mobile accesses are mainly the same engineering tools with reduced functionality, typically viewers. From assembly line and field operations point of view, there exists variety of engineering oriented tools, which are not capable of communicating with and providing links between each other.

A new system for assembly line and field information management has been developed. Due to the typical existing processes and IT architectures, the new system utilizes the existing identification systems, documents, drawings, etc. and creates links between the originally independent information items. In addition to the added linking, principle of operation was redesigned in order to serve optimally the primary assembly and service tasks, without compromises with security and privacy. Instead of manual searching from mass of documents, the linking capability covers also links from target systems to information items.

Field status is continously recorded by storing in the background all actions performed in the field. Most important is, that status coverage is significantly better, because information is accumulating in the background and intentional reporting is not required. Based on the collected status information, various kinds of exports may be provided to the corresponding IT systems for further analysis and reporting purposes. Most essential is, that assembly and service technicians may concentrate on their primary tasks and information is automatically processed in the backround. As essential is, that thanks to the excellent coverage and accuracy of the information, strategic decisions may be done based on the facts.

Current way of working

Several bottlenecks may be identified in traditional way of working in the distribution of product information in the assembly line and field service. Main root causes are tight borders between discipline specific organizations and strongly scattered storage of information. When each organization concentrates on its own discipline and manages its own information only, there typically exists inconsistencies between the documents of different disciplines and different parts of organizations. The problems are continuously increasing, when development iterations become shorter and shorter, increasing backlog of the design documentation maintained in a traditional way. Especialy information transfer from design into assembly and service has traditionally been clumsy and required lot of human effort.

”Information exchange should be changed from oral discussions, emails and memos under coordinated systematics”

As an example, electrics schematics may consist of measurement or drive positions, which are accidentally left out of the hydraulic schematics or having outdated or incompatible type of component. Such may be tolerated in the assembly line, but leads into serious problems in the field when incompatible spare parts are received. Such typically results significant downtime of the system and extensive logistics, when multiple parts shall be sent back and forth. It is also common, that newer optional structures are missing from the documentation delivered with the system, leading into not only delay in the service but also significant extra workload in the design department, which needs to organize the missing documentation outside of the scheduled work.

”Standard identification systems have been somehow used for decades, now it is time to globalize the usage”

Security is also important topic in the industry. Regarding the product data, it typically means keeping the essential information private to each vendor. Traditional printed hard copy approach does not support the target at all – based on the long indusrial experience, the printed manuals, drawings and schematics are often copied by competitors’ personnel. Copying hard copies – icluding CD and DVD discs – is easy, because of their stand-alone nature it is not possible to control usage of the material and number of actual copies in the field. Another topic closely coupled to the hard copies is, that it is all too easy to lose pages and get the material inconsistent. Further inconsisteny risk appears, when the documentation have been updated. It is extremely challenging to communicate the updates to all related parties by using hard copies.

”Printing was invented in 1436, would it be the time to take a step ahead?”

Further bottlenecks may also be identified in the opposite direction, where status in the field needs to be communicated back to the design and product management. Due to the typical organizational structures, after sales is a separate organization, which collects status for its own needs only, without considering the needs of communicating the status to the maintenance design and product management, making strategic decisions. Missing direct feedback has lead into very constrained feedback regarding not only the assembly and service problems but also missing, faulty or inconsistent product documentation.

”Modern way of working consists of value chains instead of individual players.”

Typical example is spare part consumption. After sales departments are worried about too high spare part consumption and assuming it as a result of bad part quality. However, in most cases the root cause may be in operating environment, invalid installation or use or even mistake in the design. Another example is, that a change has been added aftewards to the assembly documentation, but not in the documentation shared to the field. Such results significantly increased troubleshooting and repair times, together with numerous mistakes caused by the inconsistency between the actual product and corresponding documentation. It is impossible to make correct decisions without systematic information collection from the field.

”Concentrate on the root causes instead of symptoms.”

There is another problem, especially regarding the expensive and critical parts, for which there exist unofficial parts offering attracting some customers with low prices. The use of such has traditionally been relatively easy, because the parts are not followed up in a detailed level. The use of unofficial parts results complex cases by means of warranty and product responsibility, because system vendors cannot unambiguously identify the potential use of them.

”Trust is good, but control is best. – V.I. Lenin”

One special topic is reporting the field status. In the traditional way of working, all reports shall be intentionally written, because of the use of tools not designed into field operations. Furthermore, due to the scattered organizational structures, field status often needs to be written into multiple IT systems either similarly or with slight differences. Field service technicians typically need their time into actual service work and there is typically minimal time left for reporting, which leads into very constrained knowledge of the field status. Furthermore, constrained field status leads into strategic decisions based on incomplete or missing information.

”Select the right tools for the right purpose.”

It can be summarized, that there are numerous points in the current way of working, which may be improved significantly. Practically each point represent some amount of lost money, where one shall remember that there are lots of service actions performed in the field and even a small action specific loss will cause significant monthly and annual loss across the entire fleet. In addition to the loss of money to the non-productive human effort, there also exist loss of spare parts and consumables due to the inaccurate management principles. Final result is always constrained responses to the customers needs, which indirectly turns into loss of income due to bad reputation in the market.

”Big money is a sum of numerous small money.”

IT systems and policies

Major problem rising from the scattered organizations is, that also IT systems have been deployed separately for each organizational silo. Each IT system thus serves only a small part of the entire organization and manages only constrained set of information. All those IT systems have typically been deployed independently and at different moments of time, when information sharing has not been considered. Many of those IT systems are designed to have numerous options and constrained interfaces has been an odd method for reserving commercial potential to the same supplier. Thus, it has been more predictable and comfortable for IT departments to continue by using just new versions of the tools selected in the early days.

”If you’ll do as you have always done, you’ll get what you have always got. -Marvin Weissbord”

Overall costs of those IT system have traditionally been high, due to extensive customizations. High customization costs have often lead into use of incomplete solutions or minimum viable products. It is all too typical, that finalizing both operational logic and user interfaces was skipped, due to constrained understanding of the significance of such regarding efficient operation. Majority of the traditional IT systems have been targeted to more educated people, designers, managers, coordinators, etc. Together with expensive licenses, such has lead into relatively small number of active users, intrinsically leading into constrained use and further constrained operational efficiency, because a lot of tasks have been performed outside those systems.

”Why not to use integrated chain of proper tools instead of single improper one?”

A well known dilemma in digitalization is, that companies are willing to digitalize existing processes rather than considering opportunities enabled by the new information technology and implementation approaches. Same applies also in the personal level. On one hand many people are so busy with their routines, that they just follow the familiar routines, without searching more efficient routines decreasing the overload. On the another hand, some people are afraid of losing their position, if the routines will be automated. Actually they may lose they position even faster by keeping the efficiency low.

”A person is so busy while rowing, that one has no time to start the engine”

In the assembly lines and field service, usability is important because the IT tools are just supporting the primary operations. Traditionally IT tools in the assembly and service are not intentionally designed for such purposes. Tools used for viewing the design documents are typically viewer versions of the design tools, which have been targeted for designers, not for assembly and service technicians. The user interfaces are concentrated on all-day use – login, use the tool and log out. The operation principle is document based, without support for flexible linking between the documents. Assembly and service work contains mainly other tasks and occassional cheks of schematics, instructions, etc. Where principle login, fast check and logout some dozens of times per day is all too complex and time consuming, rather decreasing than increasing the efficiency of the primary tasks.

”Five levels of open data apply elsewhere, too:
1. Availability in the Internet
2. Availability in a structured format
3. Availability in a non-proprietary format
4. Use URI’s to denote the data items
5. Link data items together to provide context”

Technological evolution introduces also various risks. Concentrating on the traditional approaches is easy, but traditional product platforms may be close to the end of their life cycle. Mobile applications may look handy at a firtst glance, but if there were too many applications, it becomes hard to start quickly the proper one. The applications require regular updates, which may cause significant decrease in the availability. From the developers point of view the mobile applications introduce considerable overhead, because they shall be developed and maintained for all popular platforms, each of which continuously developing and requiring application updates just in order to keep them running. Furthermore, operating systems, such as Window Phone, may quickly drop to the margin when the effort will be lost.

”How does the Internet work? Very well, thanks to the standards. -Karen Bartleson”

A new approach

The most significant advantage of the developed approach is authentication mechanism, which requires only a single registration of a device, after which any information is accessible efficiently, without traditional logins and logouts. The authentication works in the background, enabling practically unlimited protected linking of target systems, emails, text messages, documents, applications, etc. Such mechanism is optimal in the assembly lines and field service, where numerous small actions are repeated all the time and in any order. Furthermore, various direct links may be shared among the registered parties, independent of the organizational or disciplinary boundaries. If other parties try to open the protected links, an error message is shown instead of the requested document or application. It is obvious, that in the era of IoT and open data, the new approach cannot be a stand-alone system. Instead, it is intended to be connected into various information producer and storage systems, such as PDM/PLM, ERP, version management, etc. and correspondingly also to various analysis, reporting and management systems. The utilization of protected links enables a new and easy approach to integrate both IT systems and information of different disciplines together. Status information can either be linked or synchronized to the target IT systems, based on the customer selection. Such characteristic also enables efficient internal development and upgrades of the system without breaks in the service.

”Have you ever been dreaming about faster logins without remembering complex credentials?”

Second significant advantage is, that everything works with a standard web browser, without any additional applications. Thus, all additional software installations and updates in the terminal devices may be avoided. There are also same features available in each device, independent of the hardware and operating system. Such compatibility enables users to freely select the best device for the purpose.

”Have you ever been thinking, how you could survive with more than 100 mobile apps?”

Third significant advantage is, that all information from the use of the system is accumulated to database automatically, without intentional actions. Such enables not only more streamlined operation for the users in the field, but comprehensive set of stored information, enabling reliable analyses and reports really representing the actual status in the field. Especially reliable statistics require comprehensive set of source information in order to provide reliable results. Furthermore, the realistic status information enables correct strategic decisions. Recording information accesses enables e.g. tracing of potential information leaks to competitors.

”Most web and social media environments follow the usage – why not to utilize same approach in the industrial operations?”

Fourth significant advantage is, that information is stored in the server, where it can be accessed. The result is, that each user gets always the most up-to-date information available and without any additional distribution effort. Thanks to the unlimited protected linking capability, the use of the applications, documents, drawings and schematics is far more efficient, because users can rather follow the links than manually search the required operation or piece of information. It is also possible to implement direct, dedicates links from the target systems to individual documents, etc.

”A change from a push model into a pull model.”

Fifth significant advantage is, that the system supports both traditional way of working and future improvements of the information management. Linking mechanism has been designed to utilize existing identification principles widely used in the industry. Major requirement for linking is, that the source information shall be machine understandable. Thus, starting with the existing documentation provides some improvement, but in order to achieve full linking support, some improvements may be required to the existing documentation. Regarding the workflows, linking support provides freedom regarding the workflows, which helps in the deployment among variety of customer processes. Further, the flexibility offers an efficient support for flexible process improvements from time to time.

”Does this new approach make all our existing material obsolete? Absolutely no!”

Concluding remarks

While new product variants and adopting new technologies is attractive as well as lower cost components, there are also other issues affecting on the productivity. It does not help if all components are extremely inexpensive and high quality, and designs of each discipline perfectly made. As long as assembly and field service work is performed based on inconsistent, incorrect or obsolete information, the resulting quality degradation dominates in the resulting quality and productivity. Furthermore, in order to get righ results, right things need to be measured. If the real status from the assembly lines and field service is not systematically collected and analyzed, improvements in quality and productivity are impossible to achieve. Technicians working in the assembly and service are experts in other disciplines than IT, which means that they’ll need IT tools supporting their primary tasks, instead of confusing them with complexity.

”Each process follows ‘crap-in, crap-out’ behavior.”

When analyzing the operations, failure costs shall first to be analyzed and then corrective action made. One shall also notice, that any single problem in a single cell of the assembly line affects also to the other cells of the same assembly line and potentially into sub-assembly cells and logistics. Same applies in the field service, too. Most of the industrial systems are integral part of some kind of process. When a single system stops due to a failure, it may stop the entire process. As a result, any saved second in troubleshooting and repair matters by default. Even predictive maintenance does not help, if spare part and information logistics does not work accordingly.

”Where is the money? Everywhere!”