By Brian Albright, Field Technologies magazine
M2M-based remote service capabilities have enabled Welch Allyn to slash shipping costs and cut repair times from weeks to days.
Remote monitoring can provide direct cost reduction benefits to service companies through avoiding unnecessary truck rolls and increasing first-time fix rates. However, being able to remotely diagnose, update, and repair equipment for your customers can have other benefits, too, even if you aren’t heavily reliant on dispatching technicians to customer sites.
In hospitals and clinics, equipment downtime has to be avoided at all costs. If a device goes down, clinical engineers are tasked with getting those devices back on the floor as quickly as possible. This becomes problematic if the device has to be shipped back to the manufacturer or distributor for repairs, which can take a week or more and require costly purchases or rentals of replacement equipment.
Medical technology provider Welch Allyn has created a remote service offering with cloud-based M2M (machine-to-machine) platform provider Axeda that allows its customers to diagnose and repair Welch Allyn’s products themselves using its proprietary service software and a remote service platform. By enabling this type of self service, eliminating the need for customers to ship their devices back to the company and providing remote technical assistance and expedited parts shipments, the company has been able to slash its shipping costs and improve resolution times from nearly two weeks down to just a few days in most cases.
M2M Transforms Expensive, Inefficient Mail-In Service System
Welch Allyn develops and manufactures medical diagnostic equipment sold in the United States and around the world, shipping everything from patient monitors and stethoscopes to endoscopy equipment and heart monitors. PartnerConnect, the remote monitoring service the company developed with Axeda, began as part of Welch Allyn’s push to increase its software and service revenues. “We also wanted to enable our customers,” says Jason DiFraia, director of global services marketing at Welch Allyn. “Particularly in hospitals, the clinical engineers often want to perform device upgrades and repairs themselves. By providing them the capability in the products along with our service tool, they can keep devices in-house.”
Welch Allyn also wanted to improve service resolution times. Prior to Axeda/PartnerConnect, any device that required a repair or an update (even something as simple as a software patch) had to be shipped back to the company. This negatively impacted customer service and left both Welch Allyn and its customers paying frequent shipping fees.
The company had a central monitoring system in place for some of its specialty products, but Welch Allyn wanted to expand those capabilities to multiple types of devices. “Eventually, all of our new products will have the PartnerConnect technology capability,” DiFraia says.
Cloud-Based Platform Cuts 12 Months From Remote Service Deployment
To enable the PartnerConnect remote monitoring solution, Welch Allyn selected a cloud-based M2M platform from Axeda after evaluating several vendors. According to Eric Jensen, senior manager, global service engineering, the company chose Axeda because its cloud-based solution could be deployed at a lower up-front cost and without the additional burden of having internal IT staff support new servers and manage the system on-premise. “We would have had to purchase servers and hire new staff just to support that infrastructure,” Jensen says. “Leveraging the cloud infrastructure and data center shaved an estimated 12 to 18 months from the deployment process, speeding our time to market.”
Axeda also had significant experience in the medical vertical, and its solution was compatible with the privacy requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). “They had already worked through all of the HIPAA compliance issues and firewall security issues that would be of concern to a medical facility,” Jensen says.
In order to launch the remote repair/diagnostic service, Welch Allyn had to integrate Axeda’s platform with its M2M-embedded products. Welch Allyn’s engineering team worked with Axeda to integrate the software agent during the development of their device process. The Axeda Agent is modular software that is configured to capture data from Welch Allyn devices and communicate directly with the Axeda enterprise server in the cloud.
The Welch Allyn solution allows for remote communication and management of the devices; for diagnostics and repairs, customers install the Welch Allyn Service Tool software (which was developed in-house) on a PC at their location. When a customer installs the software, the system creates an account on PartnerConnect/Axeda. Once the customer connects a Welch Allyn device to the PC, the Service Tool and PartnerConnect automatically create a record for their account.
Under the traditional service arrangement, if a device required a repair or upgrade, customers would have to call Welch Allyn, then ship the device back to them. Once the device was repaired, it could take 10 to 15 days before it was back in service, and the customer would usually have to purchase or rent a replacement device in the meantime.
PartnerConnect allows Welch Allyn’s customers to plug equipment into a PC, run diagnostics, update software and firmware, and contact Welch Allyn’s service team to assist with remote diagnostics and repairs. As customers perform maintenance, the solution will track history and other repair information.
PartnerConnect is available to all customers, regardless of whether or not they purchase a service plan. “The service agreement includes other benefits, but we’ve made the remote management function available to all customers,” DiFraia says. “That gives us better reach, particularly in countries where we don’t have any service infrastructure.”
Remote Monitoring: An Alternative To On-Site Field Service Visits
With remote monitoring and a service plan, the customer can do most of the repairs on-site; they also receive online training, free parts, and expedited shipping. “There’s no need to dispatch a field technician or have them send us the device, because we provide a turnkey solution that enables the device to be up and running within hours versus days or weeks,” DiFraia says.
Hospitals with clinical engineers on staff will plug devices into the PC running the PartnerConnect software and Welch Allyn Service Tool. They are proactively notified of any upgrades, can run diagnostics on the device, see how many times it was powered up and down, review cycle counts, and examine log files for errors. They can also schedule preemptive maintenance and even calibrate the device using the Service Tool.
If the clinical engineer can’t solve the problem, they can contact Welch Allyn. Service technicians can then access the device remotely using PartnerConnect, run diagnostics, and help the engineer fix the problem. If the issue can’t be handled remotely, then the customer may ship the product back to Welch Allyn for repairs. Field technicians may be dispatched on-site for customers with large deployments, but DiFraia says those are rare cases.
If a software patch or update is available, it can now be pushed down to the customer using the PartnerConnect system. The customer can plug the device into their PC and update the software at their convenience. Data about device usage (number of times it has been powered up or down, cycle times, etc.) is transmitted to the PartnerConnect system and is stored in the cloud. This enables Welch Allyn to view data and generate service related reports for their customers.
Skip The Traditional Pilot?
Welch Allyn conducted extensive customer research and then performed testing within its own facility prior to launching the solution, but did not run an official pilot. Instead, technicians were sent to the first facility that purchased the connected devices, an Alabama customer that was deploying 256 units. “It was along the lines of a beta test. We showed we could receive updates from PartnerConnect and take advantage of our recent enhancements to our devices. Everything worked seamlessly, the way it was supposed to,” says DiFraia.
Welch Allyn rolled out the remote service technology and the new service offerings in conjunction with its Connex Electronic Vital Sign Documentation System. “We rolled it out as a total solution, with the device, software, and service together,” DiFraia says. “We positioned the services as a way to improve clinical engineering workflow through software tools and technology, while enabling the customer (through the Partners in Care Services program) to diagnose and repair the device to stay in-house and have maximum uptime.”
So far, that approach has worked well. Customers have generally responded positively to the new service capabilities, and DiFraia says that of the 12,000 devices with the embedded capability that have shipped in the past year and a half, around one-third are currently connected. The rate of uptake is growing at about 80%. “At the end of the day, it allows the clinical engineers to do their jobs more efficiently,” DiFraia says. “Almost all of the customers that have these new devices are using the tool and registering the devices, and we’re able to access usage data (technical data only) when they connect. Having instant access to log files allows our technical representatives to troubleshoot and resolve customer issues more efficiently.”
The only customer resistance (which has been minimal) the company experienced was from customers with questions about the security of the Axeda solution. (Axeda provides full encryption of remote data, and has an SAS 70 data center certification for stored data.) The solution is fully HIPAA-compliant, and no clinical information is shared with Welch Allyn; the devices simply report technical information and usage data. A handful of customers, primarily Veterans Administrations hospitals, declined the remote service solution because of existing policies against outside connectivity.
For Welch Allyn’s customers, the combination of remote connectivity, self-service, and expedited shipping made possible with the purchase of a service plan make it easier to keep equipment operational. “With remote services, they minimize downtime,” DiFraia says. Avoiding having to ship devices back and forth to customers also has benefits for Welch Allyn, which will avoid hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual shipping costs once the majority of its customers are using PartnerConnect-enabled devices.
Resolution times have decreased significantly since the shipping of devices has ceased. What used to be a twoweek repair cycle has been reduced to just a few days or, in some cases, just a few hours. “Our terms of service list a five- to seven-day turnaround, but we’re actually beating our own service level agreements right now,” DiFraia says. “Our average is four to six days. Because of the data we’re receiving from the devices in the field, we will be able to better predict when we may see spikes in service business, so we can gear up for that and have the right parts in stock to meet that demand.”
M2M Solution Boosts Service Revenue
Although the new service offerings have only been available for two years, DiFraia says that in the past year the company has seen 86% growth in the number of service agreements it has sold, while the service business as a whole grew 18%. Welch Allyn has also seen its service revenue margins increase, while cost of service delivery has gone down. “Service margins have continued to improve as the new Welch Allyn products are installed in our customer facilities,” DiFraia says. “More customers are also purchasing service agreements. We’re also able to sell service agreements to customers that previously relied on third-party service providers. Because of the remote service capability and overnight parts shipments, we can match or beat the quality and turnaround of local third-party providers, and in most cases the devices don’t have to come back to our facility.”
While customers benefit greatly by being able to repair and return devices to the floor quickly, Welch Allyn has gained access to valuable product data. “We can see trends around how many times devices are powered up and down, view cycle counts, and see all of the same information the customer has access to,” DiFraia says. “We can turn that data back to our product design engineers and our sustaining engineers so that they can use it to improve the quality of our products. If we see issues around a particular sensor, for example, that information is available to the sustaining engineering team so they can be proactive about designing workarounds and fixes for those products.”
Eventually, the company will be able to provide usage data to the sales team and its channel partners to help drive incremental sales. “We can use that use pattern data not just for asset management, but also optimization,” DiFraia says. “We can give the channel reports so they can say to their customers, ‘You have 100 devices, but only 80% of them are being regularly used.’ Maybe they need fewer devices, or maybe they can design a utilization program so that devices are rotated, and they can better manage the useful life of the equipment.”
The company has also partly integrated the solution with its SAP enterprise resource planning software. The provisioning information on each device is shared between SAP and the Axeda solution, so that device configurations and software version information are available between the two.
There are more changes to come. The Service Tool currently is an on-premise software, but Welch Allyn plans to make it available as an online offering. “It will be a Web-based application that enables network capabilities,” DiFraia says. “Currently, customers have to plug one device at a time into the PC to use the tool. In the future, using this portal, they will be able to see all devices over the network and perform universal software updates without impacting clinical workflow. They’ll be able to log into an online portal and see all of the preemptive and proactive service notifications for all of their devices, find service alerts, view cycle counts, and order parts.”
Welch Allyn has shown that, even for companies that use a depot-based service strategy versus having an army of technicians in the field, remote device monitoring and M2M communication can have significant benefits. Enabling customer self-service has helped Welch Allyn develop attractive service agreements that meet its customer requirements and has created a new revenue stream for the manufacturer. What can M2M do for your service operation?
Taking Service Into The Cloud
Medical device manufacturer Welch Allyn traditionally relied on its service depot to handle customer repairs and upgrades, which resulted in costly and time-consuming shipment of devices back and forth between the company and its customers. When Welch Allyn decided to revamp its service operation by incorporating remote service to better serve customers and increase its own service revenue, remote monitoring and device management were critical components.
However, according to global services marketing director Jason DiFraia, the company did not want to have to develop its own solution, or host and maintain the remote monitoring system at its own facilities. So, when the company went looking for a machine-to-machine communication platform, Axeda’s cloud-based solution was the right fit.
Axeda not only provides the communication capabilities, but also hosts the solution and maintains the device information in its own data center. That helped Welch Allyn avoid purchasing new servers and hiring IT staff to support them. “If we had had to establish those resources internally, we’d probably still be trying to launch the service,” DiFraia says. “That allowed us to scale quickly and get to market faster.”
By reducing the cost of the solution and increasing time to market, Welch Allyn has been able to quickly grow its service business over the past year and a half, while focusing on its core competency — designing and building world class medical devices. The Axeda data centers in Boston and in Frankfurt, Germany, have a proven transaction rate of more than 100 million data readings per day and are configured to handle global deployments. Both data centers are SAS 70 Type II-certified and have 24/7 on-site manned security. The centers also have redundant power supplies (so service won’t be lost if there is an outage), and state-of-art fire and environmental controls. For more information, visit www.axeda.com.