Magazine Article | August 21, 2008

Remote Monitoring: Maximize Your Assets

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Asset optimization becomes a real possibility when enterprises know the location and condition of their assets all the time.

Integrated Solutions, September 2008

Companies leverage technology and build systems and controls to monitor the assets that are an integral part of the their day-to-day operations. These assets are used every day. Their location is known. If they're not functioning properly, they are quickly repaired. And, if these assets are damaged beyond repair, they are certainly replaced. These are the 'easy' assets to manage. People interact with these assets on an almost constant basis. Think vehicles, machining equipment, heavy tools.

Now, think about the assets within your enterprise that have little or no interaction with people. Think about assets that are located in far-flung locations that rarely receive visitation. Think about assets that are located in inconvenient and out-of-the-way physical locations throughout enterprise facilities. These assets — from air conditioning units to pipelines to scattered inventory — are a major management challenge. And, the challenge of managing these assets raises two serious problems for large enterprises. The first is strictly from an operational standpoint. If you don't know the location or condition of an asset, how can you properly optimize its usage? The second problem arises as enterprises attempt to conform to the rules governing Sarbanes-Oxley financial reporting. To properly account for the depreciation of an asset, for instance, a company must know the condition of that asset.

At this point, technology advancements, regulatory requirements, and bottom-line business drivers have all converged to give life to a sizable market for remote monitoring of assets. "It's really about extending your ability to hear, see, and touch assets that are located far from your location," adds Larry Blue, CEO of Hi-G-Tek. "You leverage all forms of wireless connectivity [e.g. satellite, cellular, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee] to communication data about a particular asset back to the enterprise." There's nothing subtle about the term 'remote monitoring' in that it pretty much describes the application and the benefit in two words.
Of course, remotely monitoring assets looks very different depending on the assets that are being monitored. In particular, assets can broadly be placed in two classifications — fixed or mobile. Fixed assets are always in the same location. Mobile assets, however, may move sporadically or be in a constant state of movement from one location to another. "Much of the data gathered regarding fixed assets is similar to the data gathered from mobile assets. The exception is location data. With mobile assets, location data is the differentiation," explains Jeff Newman, chief strategy officer at Enfora. "Location data is critical for mobile assets. Knowing the condition of a mobile asset is really irrelevant if you don't know the location of that asset."

In addition to the mobility of an asset, remote monitoring applications can also be classified by the type of data that is being monitored and transmitted. Again, there are two basic classifications that can be considered. The first is alarms and events. The second is the consistent, periodic transmission of data.

For alarms and events, data about an asset is not transmitted unless an event happens that is outside of the normal operating conditions for that asset. The most obvious example of this type of remote monitoring communication might be a home security system. Under normal conditions, the security system doesn't transmit any alerts or notifications. However, once a window is broken or a door opened without unarming an alarm, the system sends an alert to concerned parties. Moving from home protection to enterprise supply chains, these types of alerts can be important in cold chain applications. When perishable goods are shipped, they must be kept in carefully monitored environmental conditions (in both warehouses and refrigerated vehicles). With remote monitoring, an alert can be sent if temperatures fluctuate, for instance. And, instead of receiving tainted goods, a company can take action to divert the goods to a warehouse or retail store — in short, get them out of their failing environment. "Oil and gas is another market where conditions need to be monitored, and transmitting data is crucial to the security of the product," says Blue. Theft of refined fuels, for example, is a significant problem. And, with the price of energy continuing to escalate, monitoring this asset will have great importance. "You need to know if a truck shipping refined fuel stops for a period of time or diverts from its scheduled route. In some cases [in foreign countries], drivers were filling up a few of their cars or fuel tanks and thinking that no one would know the difference. However, GPS technology allows you to monitor that asset's location. And, sensors within the shipping vehicle can alert you if a tank has been opened or if fuel flowed from the vehicle prematurely," states Blue.

For remote monitoring applications that require a regular flow of data from an asset to a removed location, the oil and gas industry again offers up some useful examples. Fuel flowing through a pipeline needs to be regularly monitored for such things as overall volume flow and pressure. Additionally, maintenance on the pipeline needs to be coordinated with overall usage of that asset. Sensors on the pipeline transmit data wirelessly to distant locations. In turn, this data is used to verify compliance to regulations, and it also is used to schedule maintenance and detect problems with the asset. "The data you're receiving about the asset is not an alert or alarm. It's data that refers directly to the status of that asset. By receiving periodic transmissions of data, you can essentially monitor the status of a given asset. This data is used to make all kinds of business decisions — from scheduling maintenance to planning downtime to replacing parts," says Newman.

Several technology advancements are making remote monitoring applications possible. Traditional cellular wireless coverage has improved dramatically over the past few years. Additionally, other wireless connectivity options are being leveraged. And, the miniaturization of GPS chipsets have made it possible to build location functionality into some very small assets (at a minimum of cost).

Outside of the technology, several business drivers are bringing remote monitoring to the fore. Sarbanes-Oxley compliance and the methods for properly depreciating assets, for instance, are challenges for large companies. "If you have tens of millions of dollars in assets scattered around the globe, how can you account for all of the assets? How can you know where those assets are located and their condition?" asks Newman. "With-out this type of technology, it's very, very difficult."

Asset optimization is another reason that enterprises are considering remote monitoring applications. "The rising cost of energy really changes the way a lot of companies think and how they run their businesses," says Blue. "Any asset involved in transportation needs to be optimized in its usage." For example, shipping container, vehicles, and pallets all have extra significance as assets because of the cost of energy. Misplace a pallet or container and trucks need to idle in the yard as the assets are located. Also, route optimization and scheduling has become a more critical application. The opportunity to cut back on energy costs is significant.

Theft and asset shrinkage round out the current drivers of market adoption for remote monitoring. As energy costs soar and the economy continues to stagnate, theft becomes more of an issue. Copper and other metals used on construction sites, for instance, become vulnerable to theft. And, for the companies that insure these goods, remotely monitoring these assets makes sense. If these assets move outside of a geofence, an alert is sounded.
Every company wants to optimize its asset utilization — from fixed and mobile assets to human assets. Now, a combination of technology, economic conditions, and business drivers have given rise to remote monitoring solutions. Companies of any size can leverage these solutions, depending on the assets being monitored.