Handhelds Enhance Field Functions
EP Editorial Staff | February 12, 2020
Today’s handheld devices improve data collection and put decision-making power in technicians’ hands.
By Alessea Lane & Jose Verdugo, Emerson
Today’s handheld devices have advanced from simple data-gathering and field-communication tools to functioning as field “partners” that calibrate devices, detect machinery vibration, assist in analysis, and exchange data in real time with people and systems throughout an enterprise. The knowledge obtained from the data provides maintenance managers with the ability to improve their operations and implement proactive maintenance practices.
Advances in handheld collection, analysis, and transmission of device and machinery data enable field technicians to streamline the capture, reporting, and response to abnormal or hazardous conditions that pose risks to reliability, safety, machinery performance, and, ultimately, process performance. In addition, managers gain flexibility and ease in scheduling, coordination, and proactive maintenance.
Maintenance planning includes creating work processes that guide personnel through steps for each task. Work processes can be scheduled and distributed through handheld devices so that team members know when to accomplish tasks. With many new technologies, maintenance management can digitally modify and update schedules and tasks as needed.
Easily understood dashboards show field technicians up-to-date pre-defined routes, status, alerts, and action items personalized for each member of the maintenance team. Electronic recording of route data saves hours often lost in transcribing paper notes to electronic media and simplifies audit-trail generation. Because field personnel and management can view data immediately, they can easily identify and address root causes of recurring problems.
Handheld devices with wireless capability enable the transfer of field data to a server. In fact, many handheld devices provide an automatic synchronization option. This allows maintenance management to immediately use the gathered data, know when each task is accomplished—whether device commissioning or rotating equipment monitoring—and see any unusual events or uneven machinery performance detected during the shift. All data collected usually include the date, time, and user stamp when automatically synced.
If enabled by maintenance management, personnel can analyze data in the field and immediately share the knowledge with managers. In fact, with embedded analysis capabilities, handheld devices provide field personnel with tools to begin understanding, for example, what could be wrong with a rotating asset. Some handheld devices have moved beyond simple portable data collectors and are now functioning as rotating-equipment analyzers. Note that this requires that personnel have some moderate knowledge of machinery vibration to determine proper actions.
In all of these tasks, no time is lost in transcribing, no errors are introduced, and no transfers to folders or binders are required. For example, a maintenance worker on route might see a spill or a broken pipe. A handheld device can be used to create an action item that is automatically transmitted to a scheduler. In a conventional paper-and-pencil environment, that broken pipe might be noted in a margin on a route sheet to be seen and addressed later or easily overlooked.
Increased safety is also a benefit. A field technician can quickly respond to safety hazards because handheld field devices can provide up-to-date automated workflows that ensure complete, consistent, and repeatable actions and accurate response to potentially hazardous situations.
Organizations today can leverage handhelds to boost operational performance and support their progress toward digital transformation of operations by expanding digital intelligence throughout the workforce. Modern handheld devices fit naturally into the plan because they help augment workflows and processes, creating new efficiencies and competencies that affect cultural and behavioral change within a company.
Embedding expertise in handheld devices drives learning and positive behavior change, in addition to serving as a foundation for informed decisions. Handheld devices help create and empower a digital workforce, focused on high-value tasks, with actionable information that leads to improved decision making.
In an app-for-that environment with fit-for-purpose design, a handheld assists with traditionally time-consuming tasks that could produce inaccurately reported data. For example, handheld devices used by facilities that have level measurement transmitters can offer an app that configures and troubleshoots that measurement device, gathers data about that device, maintains a log, and uploads data to and from the asset-management system. All of this eases the tasks required to maintain and operate the level transmitter.
Simplify Field Work
Although many configuration tasks can be performed remotely, there will always be activities, primarily physical inspections, that require a person to be at a location. To respond easily and quickly to potential hazards, the process industries need handheld devices that offer truly intuitive operation. To meet this need, modern handhelds have evolved to be more like tablets, or “phablets,” with large, touch-driven interfaces and fewer buttons. They also must use resistive-touch technology so they can be operated while wearing protective gloves.
Efficiency goes up and costs come down if field personnel do not need to carry accessories or power. Unlike first-generation handhelds that required a separate DC power supply, multimeter, resistor, loop simulator, and other accessories to perform common tasks, modern industrial handheld communicators with HART and FOUNDATION Fieldbus connectivity provide their own power. That means technicians can configure devices before the control system or PLC is up or before power is run to the field. This allows a maintenance technician to work an entire day in the field without need for a power receptacle or to haul a bag of additional handheld devices.
Safety is also improved because tasks can be performed quickly, reducing time spent in potentially hazardous areas. Data-collection accuracy and transmission also reduce the number of instances in which a technician needs to return to the field to redo incorrectly performed tasks or to follow up on tasks that could not be completed without information from the control room.
Handheld communication devices have changed to serve a wider range of needs. Just as cell phones have evolved from simple communication tools, handheld instruments have grown to become multipurpose devices that provide maintenance managers and technicians apps and embedded knowledge to improve how they perform their responsibilities. EP
Selecting a Handheld
Consider these factors when selecting handheld devices:
Hazard rating: In North America, facilities normally require intrinsic safety, Class I, Div 1 for the United States or Zone 1 for international.
Survive the environment: A handheld must have the appropriate ingress protection (IP) so it’s protected against intrusion, dust, accidental contact, and water. Also look for drop testing or shock rating.
Last all day: So that personnel do not waste trips because of dead batteries, look for handhelds that can function for at least 8 hr.
Ergonomic factors: A battery adds weight, so consider a comfortable hand or back strap. Also consider the convenience of a handheld versus a laptop, where a chest harness could add inconvenience to the weight issue.
Field data analysis: In-field data analysis supports immediate action taken in the field, saves personnel trips, and helps management avoid machinery issues such as process shutdowns.
Alessea Lane, is a chemical engineer at Emerson, Knoxville, TN, focused on instrument and valve condition monitoring, sales enablement, and solutions. Jose Verdugo is a mechanical engineer at Emerson, with more than 12 years of experience with rotating machinery condition monitoring.