Solving Maintenance Problems with Mobile Collaboration

Marieke Wijtkamp, Librestream Technologies Inc.

Time is money. For companies with operations spread across the globe, delays in equipment maintenance issues or production line problems can kill the bottom line. If the most skilled engineer is located in New York or Detroit and the most important machinery is in Mexico or China, costs mount quickly when decisions are delayed. Typically, the expert (or a whole team of experts) would board a plane to go and try to solve the problem, causing further delays and incurring expensive travel costs. With mobile collaboration, no one leaves their desk, let alone the country.

Secure Mobile Video

The standard form of video collaboration facilitates face-to-face meetings in video-conferencing boardrooms. However, for manufacturers, the heart of their business is often the plant floor — where traditional video conferencing doesn’t reach.

With the development of new mobile technologies, the opportunity for video collaboration has expanded. Manufacturers are now taking video collaboration outside the boardroom and onto the plant floor, to a supplier location or into the field where the problems are occurring.

These mobile technologies generally include wireless video devices for use on the plant floor and collaboration software for the remote experts’ desktops. Plant workers use the mobile device to share video, voice, telestration (i.e., onscreen drawing) and images with the experts who interact live through the collaboration PC software. Remote experts can also share images or pre-recorded videos to play on the touchscreen panel of the device. By sharing this visual content, the experts provide plant floor personnel or field technicians with visual instructions.

For many manufacturers, the plant floor operation contains competitive sensitive information. For this reason, cameras are typically not allowed on the plant floor. In many Fortune 1,000 companies, potentially “rogue” video devices such as smartphones must be checked at security. New video-conferencing mobile devices overcome that concern by providing tight security over the wireless communication, media content and device usage. Security, encryption, authentication and even centralized administrator control have become tablestakes for mobile video-collaboration products.

Reducing Equipment Downtime on the Plant Floor

Production equipment downtime costs can be staggering, sometimes as much as $3,500 per minute for an entire auto-factory line. Trying to troubleshoot an equipment problem through pictures via e-mail or waiting for an offsite specialist to travel to the problem site adds costly hours that can be avoided with mobile collaboration technologies.

For one major consumer packaged goods (CPG) manufacturer, mobile collaboration now allows them to perform remote production-line equipment maintenance and repair. In the past, when a machine was down and the right engineer was not available onsite to troubleshoot the problem, downtime rapidly escalated. With mobile video collaboration, plant technicians can now show a remote expert the failed equipment, removing costly delays from the repair process.

Improving Repair Decisions in the Field

Heavy industrial equipment manufacturers face the challenge of servicing equipment around the globe. In some cases, these manufacturers are 100-percent liable for any downtime and repair costs associated with their equipment. Often, field technicians have significant decision-making power, and costs can escalate 10 times if the wrong choice is made in the field. With experienced field technicians approaching retirement, it is becoming more difficult and expensive to provide in-person coaching of junior technicians. Travel costs alone can range from $2,500 to $5,000 per trip.

For one industrial equipment manufacturer, implementing an enterprise-grade mobile collaboration system was the answer. They now can bring remote experts into key field decisions quickly, delivering a positive financial impact on the profit contribution of the contract. Previous attempts to diagnose field situations using home-grown solutions such as webcams and cellphones were unsuccessful. These solutions lacked the real mobility, interaction and detailed optics that enterprise mobile solutions delivered.

Accelerating Product Development

Manufacturers also use mobile collaboration to streamline product development. Design reviews and first-run production samples are an ongoing part of standard communication between manufacturing locations including suppliers. Normally, team members would try to review e-mailed pictures and often have to travel to these locations for live interactions, introducing delays into the process.

Instead of travel, mobile devices are now kept at internal manufacturing facilities or shipped to major suppliers to perform live visual communication when needed. The camera optics within these mobile devices are so advanced that remote experts can see detailed design aspects where even a fraction of a millimeter matters. In some cases, third-party cameras such as microscopes or borescopes can also be attached to the mobile device to show the remote experts even more detailed visuals. By interacting live with suppliers on the plant floor, manufacturers accelerate product delivery, reduce travel costs and leverage scarce expert resources in their own company and that of their supply-chain partners.

Manufacturers also use mobile collaboration with OEM vendors to perform acceptance test processes on new production-line equipment. The process was traditionally conducted at the supplier site. Multiple skill sets were required to adequately inspect and test the new production-line equipment, which equated to teams of people travelling to the supplier’s facility.

Instead of sending a team of people, manufacturers now send one person with the mobile collaboration device to stream video and interact with colleagues to perform the acceptance test.

Network Requirements

It is important to consider infrastructure requirements for the mobile collaboration system. Mobile devices require either an Ethernet or wireless network connection to access the Internet.

Wireless connectivity is the most common method used in facilities such as a manufacturing plant. The bandwidth consumption typically ranges from 250 kbps to 1 Mbps, depending on the existing infrastructure.

For field-based applications, it is more common to see bandwidth consumption below 128 kbps due to narrow bandwidth backhaul connections. Even with only 128 kbps, mobile collaboration can include live video, voice, telestration and image sharing between the field technician and the remote expert.

Another alternative to consider is the use of 3G or 4G cellular networks through mobile Wi-Fi hotspot devices such as the MiFi or Cradlepoint. By using a hotspot device, a wireless network can be created anywhere that offers adequate cellular coverage.

Mobile Collaboration Benefits

With the advent of mobile technologies, securely extending the power of video collaboration across an enterprise is now a reality. Enterprises are already experiencing the benefits of mobile video within manufacturing, including product quality improvements, production-line downtime reductions, accelerated product development and more effective supplier communication. Now, engaging in a full video collaboration session has become as simple as making a phone call.

About the Author

Marieke Wijtkamp is the vice president of Librestream Technologies Inc. in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Marieke can be reached at (204) 487-0612 or via e-mail at

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About the Author