Software / Wireless

Apps make automation processes, equipment run better and more reliably

How Paul Studebaker’s experience with the Waze traffic app got him thinking about technology’s impact on the industry’s future.

By Paul Studebaker

Call me a grumpy old man. I like to remind today’s young whippersnappers how we used to get things done before the Internet and cell phones, with planning, communication, paper maps and phonebooks. I never bought a GPS or an iPod. I don’t use Bluetooth. I resented it when our IT folks took away my blackberry and handed me an iPhone. To me, every “app” looks like a contract with the devil—maybe I’ll like it, but what will it take from me in return?

But my commute on Chicago expressways is over some of the most congested roads in the United States, prone to standstills even when we’re not having extra delays due to accidents, construction, snow, rain or sunshine. (Yes, in Chicago, we have “sunshine delays” when there aren’t enough clouds to keep the glare on their dirty windshields from blinding commuters.)

So when I heard about Waze, an app that claims to adjust your route in real time for traffic conditions, I set aside my concerns about telling the devil where I am and downloaded it. And every now and then, when stopped in a jam, I’ll consult it to see if it has any useful advice. It usually doesn’t, because the surface roads are even worse.

The truth is, I felt like I needed a ride through the Indiana countryside to get back in touch with America.

But on the way back from a Vega event in Cincinnati, when Waze told me to get off the expressway to avoid an accident-induced standstill during rush hour in Indianapolis, I did what it said. Then I decided on my own to stay off the interstate and find my way home on some familiar U.S. and state highways. The truth is, I felt like I needed a ride through the Indiana countryside to get back in touch with America. It had been awhile (and it worked, but I had to leave the radio off).

For about 10 miles, Waze kept telling me to turn around and go back! Turn around and go back! But after that, it started telling me how to get home by going forward. And it wasn’t on the major highways I expected it to have me use. For the next 100 miles or so, Waze showed me some secondary and smaller routes that had curves, rivers, hills and canopies of trees that just aren’t part of what most people see as the typical Indiana landscape of fields, barns and small towns. I had fun and learned something.

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I also found out that if you need to be somewhere at a particular time and you’re running early, you can wander with impunity because the app keeps telling you how to get where you ultimately need to go and what time you’ll arrive. When it predicts the time you want to get there, start following its directions. Meanwhile, you won’t get lost and you won’t be late.

You hear all the time about the seductive power of all kinds of apps, from Pokémon GO and Words with Friends to Uber and Nest. Many seem designed to waste time or do useless things, but some turn out to be great ways to harness the power of the smartphone for good.

On page 54 of our August issue, you can find a short description of the new Fluke 3500 FC series. It’s a wireless, portable condition-monitoring system—the latest outgrowth of products using the Fluke Connect app—that’s designed to keep an eye on a piece of equipment or monitor power to prevent breakdowns, diagnose problems or pilot an application to see if permanent instrumentation is warranted. Adding wireless connectivity and an app to rugged, relatively inexpensive, portable yellow sensors makes sense right now, and opens doors to opportunities to discover ways to make processes and equipment run better, as well as more reliably.

I’m still proud that I don’t need a smartphone and a bunch of apps to manage my personal life. Unlike so many of today’s young whippersnappers, I can still find my way home by dead reckoning or using my paper atlas. But if I keep discovering new ways that apps let me have more fun and learn something, I expect I’ll have to continue renegotiating my deal with the devil.