Revolution in Usability of Field Service Information

The nature of field service operations differ much from the working in offices. Thus, the IT tools made for office use do not apply for the field service use, without decreasing the operational efficiency. Instead of continous working with single issue, field work is typically checking variety of locations and things and synthesizing the findings. It is also typical, that field operations are related to multiple disciplines and interfaces between the disciplines.

Main challenges are a need for access to multiple systems, laborious logins and information access based on laborious manual searches. Such operations does not fit well to the nature of the field service work, where the main focus is outside the use of tools. Further challenges are harsh environment and compatibility with various devices. Under special environmental conditions, only rugged devices may survive and thus there should not exist special compatibility constraints.

Data4Profit, based on protected hyperlink, can solve the main challenges by enabling easy access to any information. There is not significant constraints regarding the terminal devcie either. Further advantage is, that the identifications principles, which are already in use by the customers, may be utilized in order enable smooth adoption of the new information distribution. The distribution approach results comprehensive status feedback on the use, enabling implementing efficient quality and performance measurements and improvements.

Characteristics of the service work

Typical field service activities differ quite much from the typical office work. Instead of continous working with same task several hours, the work consists of repeating numerous small tasks, including various checks, measurements and proofs or exclusions of potential root causes. From another viewpoint, instead of working with single discipline, multiple disciplines apply all the time in the field service work so, that the service technicians need to move between the disciplines back and forth. Such results, that each service case is unique and differs from the other cases. The most essential questions in the troubleshooting and service are: ”What is the problem?” and ”Where is the problem?”

”What is the problem and where?”

The working environment varies a lot, depending on the roles of involved persons. Managers work mostly in office environment and they can use practically any kind of devices. The service technicians may work practically in any conditions and all kinds of devices may not tolerate the harsh environment. Such leads into requirement, that service IT systems shall be compatible with almost unlimited set of devices. From communication point of view, both WiFi and GPRS should be supported, because either one exists almost always.

”There may be raining cats and dogs in the field.”

There are some identification systems in use in the industry. Each component has typically a unique identifier and further, sub-assemblies and final products are composed by structure of components and sub-assemblies having unique identifier. Such has been serving well manufacturing. For documentation and service purposes there exists often a system architecture definition, in the context of which the physical or logical target positions are identified by reference designators.

”Existing and missing information are supplementin each other.”

Information management in the field is bi-directional. Various instructions, product- and spare part information shall be distributed to the field. It is worth of noticing, that in addition to the schematics, drawings and instructions, the documentation may also contain various SW and configuration packets, which shall be downloaded as an integral part of the assembly procedure. Additionally, various network measurement setups may be needed for troubleshooting and commissioning. Feedback from the field covers various status reports, spare part orders and working hour etc. administrative reports. Existing information is not everything, also missing information may provide important indications.

IT problems in the field service

Demands of software tools for office and field use are very different, due to the different way of working. The most common software tools used in the service are based on old designs and targeted to office use. Typical charateristic is that user logs in, uses the tool long time and logs out, which introduces significant challenges in the service work consisting of small, repetitive tasks. Another typical characteristic is traditional, complex graphical user interface (GUI) with plenty of functions. There is also tight operational and business logic, which is sometimes difficult also in the office and factory use. The fixed logic makes it challenging to manage some certain exceptions. Most field service operations cannot follow any predefined process, because most cases are unique. Thus, the typical tools requiring fixed logic cannot serve the field use.

”How can I manage all these credentials?”

Another challenge is, that information repositories are scattered according to technological and organizational barriers. Such results into the use of several independent IT systems, each of which having their own peculiarities. Currently available field tools are most often just somehow reduced versions of the office tools, based on the similar complexity. The main problem regarding the field use is, that multiple independent tools are required. Multiple tools expect not only knowledge and training, but also regular updates.

”Which tool should I use?”

Third challenge has been the unreliable connections, why most tools were synchronizing the information between server and local repositories. Such sounds great approach, but slow synchronization caused by slow and unreliable connections has lead into the use of outdated local copies instead of up-to-date information. Same have applied to the field status, which may have been days or weeks in the local repostory, waiting for synchronization to the server. Furthermore, after getting large enough backlog, average service technician does not have long enough time windows for complete synchronizations.

”There exist later versions, why can’t I see them?”

The most significant problem with many SW tools is, that they have been designed to certain operating system. One may think, that there exists variety of application often also for mobile operating systems. Yes, but almost as often there exists requirement for certain version of such operating system. It not uncommon, that the entire operating system shall be updated before updating the application(s). Lifetime of devices designed for harsh environment is longer than lifetime of typical consumer problem, which introduces the version compatibility problems. Due to the harsh environment, standard consumer devices may not survive in the field use.

”Why this *** app is not working in my device?”

Each end product has unique identifier, enabling product level follow-up over their entire life cycle. While reference designators defined by system architecture are widely used, the usage is not complete, which has lead into constrained advantages. Reference designators are typically used in electric schematics. Thsy can also be found in hydraulic schematics, but only for assembly locations of main components and ones connected to electrics. In order to more comprehensive and consistent operations, coverage of the reference designators shall be extended to cover assembly locations of least main components of all disciplines, preferably all assembly locations, independent of the applicable disciplines.

”How can I easily navigate from electric into hydraulic schematic?”

As well as product information is coming from several sources, also field status information needs to be reported into several IT systems, according to the technological and organizational silos. Main problem with the current approach is, that there are too many different and independent systems, into which partially overlapping information shall be manually entered. In addition, such tools are commonly designed for office use with complex user interfaces and operational logic. The use of such tools is so complex and time consuming, that due to the hurry in the field, the field status information is typically constraint and not representing well enough the real status in the field.

The solution – Data4Profit

Major requirement in the service work is, that information shall be easily accessible, with a minimum possible searching effort. The easiest way to achieve such is to use unique URLs for each set of information, in order to enable flexible linking from everything to everything else. Because the focus is in industrial operations, access control and traceability are required. So, the URL hyperlinks shall be supplemented by protection, in order to provide access control to the information. The utilization of standard hyperlinks enable flexible access to the information by authorized parties. In one hand, direct protected hyperlinks may be embedded into labels installed to the target systems – the labels exist already, only machine understandable hyperlinks need to be supplemented. In another hand, protected hyperlinks may be flexibly used between documents and applications. As a result, service technicians can get shortcuts from the physical systems to the corresponding documentation and other functions. Inside the documentation and other functions, the service technicians can just navigate as easily as in the Internet.

”The core – protected hyperlink”

One-time licensing of the terminal device is used in order to get rid of the traditional sessions requiring logins and logouts. Such enables easy license activation and the required usage consisting of random information accesses. Thanks to the flexibility of protected hyperlinks, also licensing procedure is based on them.

”Superfast login works in the background after license activation”

In addition to the linked information and resulting simple user interface, Data4Profit provides single interface for the field use. Product information is concentrated from multiple sources to be distributed in a uniform environment. Information linking enables streamlined moving between information of different disciplines and organizations. All information is always available from the server over on-line connection, which guarantees that all information remains always up-to-date and there is no off-line repositories containing outdated information.

”Always on-line and up-to-date”

One of the most significant advantages of protected hyperlink is, that such works on any HW platform, operating system and browser. There is no more wasted time to terminal problems with the traditional mess with the version conflicts between various SW components. One can use Data4Profit with practically any kind of commonly available device – smartphone, tab, laptop or workstation. Such extreme compatibility enables selection of the terminal devices optimal for each individual person and environment.

”You can use just your favourite terminal device.”

The protected hyperlinks are designed so, that each customer organization is able to utilize the identifications principles they are already using. Essential is, that nothing totally new need to be deployed. In order to maximize the efficiency and profit, the usage of such principles need to be expanded to cover also the disciplines, components and target locations, which have traditionally not been systematically identified.

”The sufficient identification systems are already in use in the industry.”

Information linking applies also for the field status. Data4Profit enables protected hyperlink based linking of applications and documents into SMS- and MMS-messages as well as into emails and map services. Thus, each exception message or map visualization may be linked back to the most recent view of the information. If accepted or required, reports to the other IT systems may be replaced with links to the reports. Due to the ease-of-use of the Data4Profit, field status may cover comprehensive information and thus enable further added value. From more rich set of information than before, it is easy to provide dedicated status data sets into wider set of back-end systems. Essential is, that the information may be shared by SW, instead of field technicians, which frees bigger part of their capacity to the actual service work.

Conclusions

There already exists applicable identification principles in the industry, which can be utilized and have already been utilized for linking physical world items into product documents. Such princiles have so far been targeted for the use by people only. So, there exists already a solid base for significant improvement in information access.

”The identification is already in use, just improve the usage.”

When the identification principles are also used in protected hyperlinks, such results revolutionary improvement in accessibility, usability and controllability. On one hand, each set of information may be easily accessed from any source – physical label install in a system, another application, document or message. Main advantage is, that manual searches may be minimize by direct linking of various information items. Further advantage is, that everything is under access control, enabling full control over the access rights.

”Follow the links instead of browsing the indexes.”

Together with the simple and one-time terminal device licensing, Data4Profit is actually an extension to the service persons’ hands rather than just another traditional IT system. After the licensing, any set of information may be accessed any time, under the defined access levels, of course. All information is continuously up-to-date, thanks to the use of on-line accesses.