By Brian Albright, Field Technologies magazine
Industrial and automotive manufacturer Gates Corporation creates a new revenue stream using M2M (machine-to-machine) and RFID technologies.
Unplanned downtime is the bane of any manufacturing or industrial operation. When critical equipment unexpectedly shuts down, every hour (in some industries, every minute) that machine is not functioning can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. Often these failures are the result of worn-out components like screws, belts, or the types of flexible hose assemblies provided by Denver-based Gates Corporation.
Gates provides hose assemblies for a variety of applications, including hydraulic systems and fuel transfer, for industrial systems that handle everything from water to food to dangerous chemicals. The working life of these hoses can vary from just a few months to several years. In industries where a hose failure could cause environmental damage or costly downtime (or, as in the case of an oil rig, a combination of the two), accurately tracking the lifespan and condition of each hose is critical.
Downtime on an oil rig, in a mine, or at any of the other remote locations where Gates industrial hoses are used can be costly. When a hydraulic hose fails, it can lead to dangerous conditions for workers, damage equipment, and create chemical or oil spills that are expensive to clean up. If a replacement is not readily available, a company can lose valuable production time. “When a hose fails, whatever system it’s a part of shuts down,” says Barry Shockley, director of services and asset management at Gates. “Once you have a hose failure, that system is no longer in operation. In some industries (and with specific equipment) the cost of downtime, the cost of cleanup, or the risk of injury will quickly exceed the cost of a new hose.”
Accurate Asset Management, Difficult When Done Manually
But because inspecting and tracking hose assemblies can be a time-consuming process if handled manually, Gates’ customers often struggle to establish and maintain accurate asset management programs for their hoses. “Our customers often thought they were doing a decent job of tracking their hose assets, but they couldn’t tell you how old they were or when it might be time to replace them,” Shockley says. “They usually just replaced them after a failure, after they had experienced some of the issues associated with a failure.” Gates set out to determine a way it could help its customers avoid experiencing risky and costly failures.
Customers had begun asking Gates for a better way to determine hose life so that these assemblies could be replaced before a failure, rather than afterward. “Our customers wanted something that would allow them to monitor the system and anticipate failures on a more proactive basis,” Shockley says. “That way they could schedule downtime to replace those assemblies at their convenience, which would be less expensive than doing it during unexpected downtime.”
The increasing frequency of these requests led Gates to evaluate the possibility of offering an asset management service for its hoses. “We have a lot of experience in manufacturing and testing hoses, and really understand how they handle the abuse thrown at them in the environments we serve,” Shockley says. “It seemed like a logical next step to find a way to use this knowledge to help our customers manage their hoses better. We could marry all of this accumulated knowledge with the value we could provide customers by reducing the costs associated with hose failures.” Gates set out to develop a new service offering for its customers that would identify and track each hose, remotely monitor its condition, and accurately determine the remaining lifespan, to avoid failures and associated downtime.
M2M, RFID Combine To Provide Advanced Asset Management
The key to proactively monitoring the hoses would be the ability to predict hose failures ahead of time. Gates already had a significant amount of historical data related to temperature and pressure that could be used to help determine the expected life of a given assembly. The challenge would be to create a system that could monitor temperature and pressure spikes, record the relevant data and calculate failure times, communicate that information to operators, and uniquely identify each hose assembly.
Gates decided it wanted to develop two solutions under the umbrella it named Sentry Services — Sentry IQ for monitoring temperature and pressure and Sentry ID for hose identification. The company learned it could leverage a combination of M2M (machine-to-machine) and RFID technology to achieve the functionality desired. M2Mbased modules would be placed on each hose to calculate temperature and pressure, and RFID could be used to uniquely identify each hose assembly.
Gates also needed a reliable database solution and inspection application in place as an interface for customers to monitor hose data, calculate the time left before a potential hose failure, and accurately manage their assets. “We recognized early on that we wanted to provide a Web-based solution, and that type of repository was not necessarily our forte,” Shockley says. “The solution also had to integrate data gathered in the field from handheld RFID readers, and we knew that trying to do that ourselves would not have been as efficient as working with a company that specializes in that kind of work.”
The company chose InSync’s iApp Builder to develop and run the M2M asset monitoring application. According to Shockley, Gates chose the solution because InSync offered the option of hosting the system, which reduced Gates’ infrastructure investment (saving time and capital), and allowed the company to fully outsource the hosting, delivery, and management of the application. Gates also utilized InSync’s iApp Mobile offering, which allows them to distribute a mobile application to the handheld RFID readers its customers use, as well as run remote diagnostics, and provide technical support to customers over the Internet.
Gates and InSync worked together on the Sentry Services solutions for approximately three years. The lengthy development period was in part the result of engaging the customer base once Gates and InSync had developed an initial roadmap for the solution. “We had a big picture in mind of what the end solution would look like,” Shockley says. “But we engaged a lot of internal staff members, and then customers, so we could gather feedback and have a clear idea of what they wanted out of the solution.”
The initial stages of the project were focused on database development, while the final phase targeted how Gates’ hose-testing data would be used to predict hose life based on inputs from the sensor technology. “There was extensive work done in taking test results, lab results, and what we’d seen in specific customer sites, and comparing that to what our algorithms were showing us,” Shockley says. “That’s something that’s still ongoing. We are continuing to refine and expand those predictive capabilities.”
Improved Inspection, Asset-Management Processes
Gates began offering the solution to select customers in 2010, deploying a number of pilot sites to test it out. The company rolled out the Sentry Services solution on approximately 2,000 hose assemblies for a period of three to six months, depending on the customer. “We did a lot of piloting on both onshore and offshore oil rigs, because those are challenging environments to begin with,” Shockley says. “We wanted to make sure all of the equipment would hold up as expected in those environments, and we wanted to demonstrate the value of the solution to customers in that industry.”
One pilot customer has been live for six months, and has tagged and identified 500 hoses (both Gates and competitive products) at an on-shore oil rig. “In many cases, these hoses are replaced when they fail, or they get replaced when it’s time to refurbish the rig,” Shockley says. “There is not a lot of information collected about how the hoses are actually performing in specific applications.”
The pilot customer is using the Sentry Services solution to track which hoses are getting replaced the most frequently. “Using that data, they can analyze which ones are failing prematurely and identify the causes of those failures,” Shockley says. “Moving forward, we can work together to see if there is a better solution that we can provide to prevent those failures.”
Once these pilots have been in place over a longer period of time Gates will be able to measure the impact on hose failures. “One thing we have seen already, though, is that the hoses are getting inspected on a more regular basis because the process is automated,” Shockley says. “Through Sentry Services, we set up specific inspection regimes, which can vary from hose to hose depending on the customer. If we see that some hoses are in an application with more inherent risk, it can be set up so that they are inspected more frequently. We don’t have any specific values yet, but I can tell you that the hoses are being actively managed much better from day to day.”
Service Offering Provides New Revenue Stream
Sentry Services is available under a subscription model. Customers can purchase either the Sentry IQ monitoring solution or Sentry ID tracking solution, or a combination of the two. Gates then handles the entire sensor and RFID tag installation, provides access to the Sentry Services database application, and provides mobile RFID readers for the customers to use for asset management and inspection processes. Customers can also opt to have Gates’ staff (or the company’s distributors) conduct all of the hose inspections and manage the database as well.
Up to four pressure-temperature modules from Gems Sensors & Controls are installed in the hydraulic circuits of the assembly, and send data to a controller (called an ECU). Each transducer can monitor up to six hoses in a single hydraulic circuit. The system not only monitors pressure and temperature, but also tracks pressure spikes that can reduce the life of a hose assembly. The ECU collects pressure data at a 50Hz rate in order to accurately monitor the rapid fluctuations common in hydraulic systems.
The Texas Instruments RFID tags on the assemblies identify each hose, and provide access to information for operators and service technicians via Motorola MC75A mobile computers with built-in RFID readers. If a hose needs any maintenance, employees can scan the tag to review information from the database (which is either maintained by Gates or the customer). Technicians can also update or add information to the database using the mobile computer, and even take photos and add them to the record.
The tags (called TUFF tags) are high-frequency RFID tags with a rugged overmolding (designed and attached by Gates) that can protect them from the types of harsh environments in which the hoses are used. Because the tags are HF, the reader has to be placed fairly close to the tag. “We did that deliberately, because we wanted the inspectors to get close to the tag,” Shockley says. “We didn’t want them to accidentally read an adjacent tag on a different hose.” The tags are either attached directly to the hose assembly, or in some cases hung on the hoses using a lanyard. “We’ve done extensive testing to ensure that the tags can be read with the device on the hose assembly,” Shockley says.
The Motorola handheld RFID readers can communicate with the Sentry Services application and database through a variety of connectivity options, depending on the environment. “The mobile computer can access the database through a direct USB connection, Wi-Fi, or even on the AT&T GSM network,” Shockley says. “If you are in a remote area and can’t even get cellular coverage, then prior to heading out you can download everything you need onto the handheld, use it offline, and then sync the device once you’re in range again.”
The pilot projects resulted in some tweaks to the mobile computer solution. “When we envisioned Sentry ID, we thought of it from the beginning of the life of the hose, but we needed additional functionality in the mobile application so that the user could tag and identify existing equipment,” Shockley says. “We added functionality that would allow them to do that on site, even if it was somebody else’s hose assembly.”
The ECU, which was manufactured by Gates sister company Schrader Electronics, stores and monitors the data using proprietary life-prediction algorithms based on the SAE J1927 standard and Gates’ own test and simulation data. The solution uses the initial hose and application data, along with information on pressure spikes and temperature extremes, to dynamically calculate a potential failure time based on those inputs.
According to Shockley, the solution is accurate to within 10 percent; although as the company works with customers they can approach accuracy within 5 percent over time. End users determine at which point in the hose’s remaining life they receive an alert (via email or text message) about maintenance or hose replacement. Users also receive warnings about out-of-specification conditions (such as extremely high temperatures), or sensor failures. Fault conditions are displayed on the ECU’s LED display, or technicians can connect the ECU to a laptop to download additional information. The ECU can also wirelessly transmit data and alerts. “Our customers can set the remaining life threshold wherever they want,” Shockley says. “If they set it at 30 percent remaining life, that’s when they get a notification. It all depends on their own risk analysis, and that can vary from hose to hose.”
Real-Time Asset Visibility Reshapes Operations
Gates has targeted the Sentry Services solution at customers in industries where downtime is especially costly, and a hose failure could create an environmental or safety risk. Examples include oil rigs, some agricultural applications, and hydraulic brake systems on large wind turbines. “We’ve seen the best reaction from markets where failures are expensive because of production shutdowns, or where there are safety and cleanup issues,” Shockley says.
The company has set a target of reducing customer downtime related to hose assemblies by 5% to 10%. In addition to predicting hose failures, customers are also able to use the system as an asset management tool, tracking the life of each hose assembly, managing inspection records, and determining when a hose should be replaced. Failure conditions are also recorded.
Customers using the solution gain better visibility over their hose inventory, even for non-Gates equipment. While the Gates failure algorithms don’t necessarily work with competitor’s hoses, customers can use the system to track their hose assets. “We can’t predict the life of the hose as accurately as we can for our own products, but we can monitor those hoses and estimate the product life based on SAE International standards,” Shockley says.
Customers also have the option of logging real-time pressure and temperature readings, which is data that can be of value in certain industries that need to monitor the performance of entire manufacturing systems. “It’s tailored to the customer,” Shockley says. “They can keep whatever data they want to about that hose, whatever is important for them to know. It’s extremely flexible, and has the capability for an infinite number of user-defined attributes.” Users can also establish different security levels for different users, so that data can only be changed by authorized employees. “The system is designed to provide a lot of read privileges for the data, but you can limit the write privileges very specifically,” Shockley says.
For Gates, Sentry Services provides an opportunity to derive recurring revenues from customers that traditionally treat hose products as a commodity buy. In addition to direct revenue from the Sentry Services offering, Gates hopes to increase contract sales and improve customer retention by moving from a strict product transaction to a service contract model. “Because they see these hoses as a commodity, the first thing they ask is ‘How much does it cost?’” Shockley says. “But the real question is, what does it cost when the hose fails? Our goal with Sentry Services is to be seen as a partner our customers can turn to whenever they have an issue with their hose applications.”
Customer service has also improved, since Gates can use the Sentry Services solution to partner with its customers on managing their hose assets. “This has really helped us understand our customer’s needs better, and therefore has helped us develop better products,” Shockley says. Gates has benefited from its customers’ improved asset tracking by gaining insight into failure causes. “One of the things we’ve done with some specific oil rig and drilling hoses are some special pilot projects where we can get data from the rigs that allows us to understand why hoses last as long as they do,” Shockley says. “One of the major problems with all hoses is that they never last as long as you’d like them to. We’re working closely with those customers to understand what’s happening to the hoses, and what we can do to improve the product and provide a better solution for them.”
With the help of InSync, Gates was able to develop a creative customer solution that enables a new way to engage with its customer base. In doing so, the company has the potential to move away from commodity-type sales and into more service-oriented relationships with its customers, while gathering never-before obtainable insight into the performance of its own products.
Cloud Solution Minimizes Deployment Time, Infrastructure Investment
When Gates Corp. decided to develop its own asset management and monitoring service for customers deploying the company’s industrial hoses, management quickly realized that building the necessary database application would be difficult to manage in-house. The company selected InSync as a partner, using the vendor’s iApp Builder to develop and run the M2M (machine-to- machine)-based asset management application.
Part of the appeal of InSync was that the final application could be hosted by the vendor, providing worldwide access to Gates’ customers without requiring Gates to incur the expense of hosting and managing the application on its own servers. “InSync had the best understanding of our goals, and by offering a solution which utilized a single server platform, was able to work within our guidelines of having unique individual identities for each hose,” says Barry Shockley, director of services and asset management at Gates. “InSync provided us with the database back end, but also helped us ensure the proper security measures were in place.” Since InSync fully hosts the Sentry Services application, Gates avoided infrastructure costs and was able to focus on its core competencies instead of using IT resources to build out an application, which they weren’t familiar with.
Gates also leveraged InSync’s iApp Mobile offering, which enables the company to distribute a mobile application to the handheld RFID readers, as well as run remote diagnostics and provide technical support to customers over the Internet. Development and subsequent deployment of the mobile side of the application can be performed across multiple, disparate devices and locations using iApp Builder’s mobile application toolset. By being able to provision and repair the mobile devices remotely, Gates streamlines the deployment of the solution to its customers. For more information on iApp Builder and other InSync offerings, visit www.insyncinfo.com.