By Brian Albright, Field Technologies magazine
More companies with traditional field service operations are taking advantage of the remote service capabilities M2M (machine-to-machine) technology provides.
Enterprise assets are becoming more connected. Lower wireless costs and the advent of cloud-based asset management and maintenance solutions have made it possible for even smaller companies to use remote connectivity and M2M technology to improve asset performance and offer new types of customer services.
According to “The Real-Time Service Enterprise: Leveraging Remote Connectivity to Drive Service Performance,” a research report published in 2010 by Aberdeen Group, 80% of survey respondents had some sort of link to serviceable assets in the field. This is significant growth for what used to be a niche application utilized for high-value assets like medical devices.
"Early adopters saw the benefit of having real-time
information coming directly from the products that they
support and service," says Dan Murphy, senior director
of marketing at Axeda. "Even more importantly, more
advanced Internet-enabled remote service solutions gave
these companies the ability to act on that information
and send remote updates and fixes that helped them
provide faster issue resolution and improved product
availability for their customers. Once a handful of companies
started to provide this higher level of service to their
customers, there was competitive pressure for the others
to quickly follow suit."
According to the report, the primary drivers for
remote asset connectivity are customer demand for
improved service, reducing costs, increased productivity/
efficiency, and the need for increased service
revenues. Improved wide-area wireless network performance
and the falling cost of wireless data service
(as well as the hardware modules needed to enable
connectivity) are further driving growth in this sector.
"Historically, wide-area connectivity has been driven
by transportation: connected vehicles provide cost
savings and increased productivity for enterprises,"
says John Hurlbert, vice president of product management
for M2M at Novatel Wireless. "Over the past
three years, data pricing has dropped. As the cost of
devices and airtime has declined, other segments,
such as security, have benefited by being able to connect
millions of wireless endpoints."
Remote Servicer Offers
Fewer Truck Rolls, More Revenue
For organizations using remote management/M2M technologies,
the benefits typically come through faster service
response times and issue resolution, improved usage
and utilization tracking, the ability to perform remote
maintenance and software updates, and a decrease in
staff time spent on the road tending to assets. Aberdeen
found that best-in-class companies that leveraged connectivity
resolved issues on first visits 75% of the time,
compared to 66% for organizations that did not.
According to Murphy, typical benefits among Axeda's
customer base have included a 70% reduction in issue
resolution time, a 20% increase in product availability,
and a 15% increase in contract renewal rates, with
remote resolution eliminating thousands of truck rolls.
Since each truck roll can cost thousands of dollars
(depending on the industry), resolving problems without
dispatching a technician can lead to big cost savings.
Proactive maintenance is another benefit. "You can
improve the performance and reduce the downtime of
remote assets by identifying when servicing is required
before failure occurs," says Wayne Stargardt, vice president
of service planning and delivery at Numerex. "Oil
and gas production equipment, wastewater reclamation
systems, and portable generators are examples of assets that can benefit from predictive maintenance."
Once remote management technology is in place, companies
often find they can create new value-added service
offerings, increasing their revenues in the process. That
includes proactive service contracts, improved product
uptime guarantees, and automatic consumable resupply
with just-in-time delivery. In addition, companies glean
valuable information from real-time monitoring that can
improve future product development.
Usage-based billing is another offering that has gained
popularity. "Financially savvy companies are looking to
their suppliers to sell machines based on use or output
rather than as capital equipment," says Murphy. "This
requires an accurate, auditable mechanism to track
operation provided by a direct connection between the
service provider and the device. Advanced remote management
solutions can provide the platform to manage
and measure this usage."
How To Handle A Flood Of Asset Data
One of the chief challenges of implementing an M2M
solution is managing the potential flood of product
data generated by connecting hundreds (or thousands)
of assets to the enterprise. But managed correctly, that
information can improve customer service and generate
important insights into asset performance in the field.
"The primary objective should focus on solving key
business problems by determining a projected ROI for
the solution and enabling it with connected devices,"
says Stargardt. "Connecting devices may provide additional
data; however, there should be a solid plan for
converting the data into useful information, then into
business actions that produce measurable results."
There are advanced connected product management
platforms available that have been developed specifically
to handle the complex requirements unique to these
solutions, including managing multiple types of connections
and assets, processing large amounts of unstructured
data, and providing enterprise-grade scalability and
security. Selecting a solution and properly structuring
the use of the application within the company's existing
infrastructure will impact the utility of the data.
"I would caution companies against signing lengthy
consulting contracts that can cost thousands and take
months before they even get to the pilot stage," says
Fred Yentz, CEO of ILS Technology. "I would also warn
against creating an information silo for their monitoring
solution — having to manually move that data into business
systems is a recipe for extended customer service
delays and potential errors."
Complicated M2M Integrations
Can Create Challenges
The complexity of that integration often keeps companies
from deploying the technology altogether. "Even
getting enough information to successfully source the
bits and pieces of the solution often requires a six-month
learning curve," Yentz says. "Add to that 6 to 18 months
of development time just to prove your business case,
and you can see why some might be reluctant to dive in."
But with costs falling and cloud-based systems eliminating
some of the deployment headaches, it's easier to
implement these systems now. "Lower device and connectivity
costs change the risk and opportunity cost factors,"
Hurlbert says. "The growing number and level of
integrated platforms and solutions is reducing the implementation
time, cost, and overall risk of M2M deployments
in general. The biggest shift will occur when it is
seen as a risk not to implement connected solutions."
M2M Solutions Must Be Scalable
According to the vendors interviewed for this story, one
of the key mistakes companies make during deployment
is that they don't understand the challenges of scale
involved in monitoring 10 devices compared to monitoring
1,000 devices. For companies relying on cellular networks,
there are also cost and management challenges.
"Cellular systems behave very differently from Wi-Fi
and ZigBee-based wireless systems," Stargardt says. "It
requires a higher level of engineering to design a costeffective
solution with pay-per-usage communications
like cellular. Companies tend to underestimate the difficulty
in managing remotely deployed devices that cannot
be easily accessed."
As mentioned above, a trap to avoid is creating an
M2M information silo within the company. "When
M2M solutions are developed to address a specific
need within a company, they can sometimes
be treated as departmental issues," Yentz says. "This
enables the relevant department to monitor, track,
and even interact with the assets in their domain, but
limits oversight and integration with existing business
processes. This can result in a disconnect between
the department and support functions like payroll,
trouble ticketing, billing, and more."
Prepare for growth. Determine what quantities and
frequencies of data will be transmitted, how file transfers
will be managed, and how many users will be on the system
at peak times. "Things that don't seem like a big deal
at 100 connected devices can become show stoppers
when you hit 10 or 100 times that amount," Murphy says.
"Dealing with a handful of systems in a lab environment
is manageable, but as you move out into the real world
and the number of connected systems grows, there are
architecture bottlenecks that pop up."
Find ways to leverage asset connectivity to improve
business processes and service capabilities. "Most enterprises
start with obtaining their previous data through
some other data collection mechanism," Hurlbert says.
"As a result, they only gain cost savings rather than maximizing
the capabilities and adding value to the total solution.
Evaluating and changing business processes allows
enterprises to realize the full potential of a connected