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Reimagining maintenance through connected systems

Sept. 28, 2021

Once you know what to fix, how do you ensure that your maintenance team has ready access to the information it needs to execute the necessary repairs both quickly and effectively? In this episode, Control editor Keith Larson talks about Emerson’s efforts to help reimagine maintenance workflows through the use of connected systems with Brad Budde, vice president, digital customer experience for Emerson’s Automation Solutions business. 


Keith Larson: To date much of industry's digital transformation efforts have focused on building plants more quickly or making them run more optimally followed closely by predictive analytics to identify emergent hotspots before they derail production. But once you know what to fix, how do you ensure that your maintenance team has ready access to the information that it needs to execute the necessary repairs both quickly and effectively?

Hello, this is Keith Larson, editor of Control magazine and ControlGlobal.com and welcome to this Solution Spotlight episode of our Control Amplified podcast sponsored today by Emerson, a company that is working hard to provide the maintenance folks responsible for the upkeep of its process automation systems, instruments and software with the contextually relevant information they need to perform their best. And with me today to talk about the company's efforts is the guy who's responsible for many of them and he's helping to reimagine maintenance workflows through the use of connected systems. Welcome, Brad Budde, vice president of digital customer experience for Emerson's Automation Solutions business.

Welcome, Brad and as always, a real pleasure to chat with you today.

Brad Budde: Awesome to be here today. Thank you so much for having me. I'm really excited to talk more and learn more from each other about these maintenance processes and the people who can benefit from improvements.

Keith: Absolutely. Well, one of the last times we talked, you were just getting the MyEmerson initiative up and running on websites and it was just gathering momentum in the focus groups really more on the engineering side of things, as I interpreted it, making it faster and more intuitive for users to specify the right Emerson solution configurations. Can you talk a little bit about the motivations behind the larger MyEmerson effort and then how that inspired the new MyAssets aspect of the platform?

Brad: Yeah, I'd love to, Keith. You know, the initial impetus for us to build out MyEmerson in a broader digital customer experience was really a focus and understanding of the people that we do business with. And, you know, the core of it was that people's behaviors are changing because we have new digital tools as consumers are buying online more, accessing digital media more and that kind of thing, right. So, we know through that research that people bring those expectations into the office with them. And now office processes are changing dramatically with digital capabilities moving to the cloud and through web.

So, with that focus on the people, we rolled out MyEmerson and some digitalized engineering tools like configurators, better CAD drawing downloads and that all worked really well. It's grown really substantially as well, Keith. We've had over 100% growth on our online configurator use and I think that's because people are now in the midst of transitioning from PDFs over to digital tools. And that's kind of the next wave we're in.

So, it's always been our vision once we've figured out engineering tools to a degree to switch over and help figure it out for maintenance and connect those maintenance users more directly with the right content they need to be successful at their job and add some tools to their toolbox. And so, in this lens, we want to build out MyEmerson and a connected system to help close the work order loop, I think is the simplest definition of it. And, you know, that's a little bit like you pointed out in the intro, a little bit overlaps the OT architecture when you see and act...and need to act on making a decision on something in the plant. You cut a work order. So, we want to use MyAssets to help digitalize that workflow for products, software and lifecycle services.

And I kind of view it as, you know, like we often do in our personal lives, you know. Now we can schedule a service online and order food, right. You probably do these kind of things.

Keith: Sure. Yeah, and the digital approach certainly makes more sense then. Just within our personal lives, we don't really like carrying around a file folder of menus for our favorite restaurants, more likely to do it all online. And don't want drag a file cabinet of instrumentation specs out to the field either.

Brad: Remember when you used to show up to a hotel and they'd hand you that file folder full of menus? You don't do that right now. Now you go to your phone.

Keith: You can't even go to a restaurant. They've got the barcode there or the QR code on the table. So that's changing. Those work habits are changing, no doubt.

Brad: Exactly. QR codes is part of our story, too.

Keith: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Actually, I was going to ask you about that as well. I understand you've already shipped more than a million products each with a unique identifier QR code that really directs the user to customize the information about the specific product. What sort of information is at the end of that link? Obviously not side dishes and cocktails. How does it fit into the maintenance planner or technician's workflow practices?

Brad: Yeah, sometimes I wish it was cocktails. So here, you know...

Keith: It is Friday when we're taping this so yeah. I understand. Friday afternoon, of leaning in that direction. But go ahead.

Brad: We're both full of the weekend energy. So, you know, I'll start this one by sharing with you a customer experience I had. We were collaborating with a customer on a visit and they were maintenance folks pulling products out of boxes. And it was really interesting to watch when they got to the product documentation like user manual and that kind of stuff. They picked up that stack of paper, and they just put it all on a pile and then go through box after box, and the pile would grow and grow. And I'll tell you, they never went back to that pile.

Keith: Yeah.

Brad: And then later on, they had to do work with these things, right. And so, they were stuck. They didn't know what procedures to follow for each of the different products that they had to workbench. And so, those examples were the experience we had to identify the need for a better way to connect the product to the digital documentation.

And so, QR codes helped us solve that. And what we enabled then, when you scan a QR code on the product or on the box, is access to that specific product manual and then when you're doing the maintenance work, quick start setup, powering up or you need a wiring diagram. That's the kind of content we want to put directly in the hands of people on the maintenance bench and even out in the field because then, you know, they don't have to go searching for it. It should solve not only the speed of getting that work done but the quality.

Keith: So, are the QR codes actually on the instruments themselves so that the technician can kind of encounter the documentation when they get out in the field?

Brad: Yeah. Right on the product and right on the box. And, you know, we get asked often. It's kind of an interesting question. Well, how long will the QR code last in these harsh industrial environments? And not forever, certainly. So, we get that. But I think solving it at least for the unboxing and the early installation commissioning phase of that asset's life is a good first step.

Keith: Yeah. Well, that'll at least get them started and now you can start a new business on replacement QR stickers or QR codes laser etched or however works best in those harsh conditions.

Brad: And it's funny you say that. That's, like, innovating the adjacent possible concept because I've actually heard that from customers. They're like, "Hey, can you do this for all of our products?"

Keith: Oh, yeah.

Brad: Yeah. The answer to that is, you know, for now, no, not yet, but it's really, I love this innovation model where you release something and then you listen to people react to it and you come up with, you know, the next idea down the line. So, it's going to keep moving.

Keith: All right. I'll hold on to that idea in case this publishing gig doesn't work out. Maybe I can...

Brad: I doubt it. You're a pro, man.

Keith: Well, thanks. I appreciate it. It kind of brings up another thought that MyAssets concept makes a lot of sense when you're talking about physical hardware where you can actually put a QR code on it. But obviously Emerson is in the software business, too. Does the same kind of concept transfer over to the realm of software license management, cybersecurity patches and firmware updates, that sort of thing?

Brad: Yeah. Very much so. Although initially, this wasn't intuitive for all of us internally. You know, we actually had to put an initiative in place to call software as an asset or name software as an asset so that we could keep track of it and then treat it just like any physical product that shipped out of our building. And, you know, in many cases we were actually being required to do that by governments and different agencies. So, it's proven useful. But also, because so much of the physical product and the connected systems have software now that you can't avoid thinking that way.

Keith: Right.

Brad: So, our next step here is to ensure that we can align the capability across our entire portfolio, and I'm thinking about the tech stack from instruments up to systems and software up to analytics, software applications and that kind of thing because we have to be able to access through or for any of those. At the top of the stack, we even sell Guardian support for control systems. We already have a business model around some of that, but we don't think necessarily we need to have a paid service for everything in that stack. So, this is where MyEmerson and MyAssets again comes into play because for the really quick transactional stuff like that bench time maintenance I was talking about we want to enable it quickly on a mobile device or on different electrical setup tools.

Maybe an easier way to think about it is like a mobile phone. In our modern expectations we have a physical mobile device which has an operating system which has been loaded with a bunch of apps. And so, we want to give that entire ecosystem, enable users to be able to take the right next step and make clear choices on their management of it whether it's that physical product or the software products at each of the layers. And then, you know, the added benefit is keeping things modern and baking in cybersecurity when we do that. So, we do plan to roll out MySoftware in a bigger way to enable all that full level in the coming months.

Keith: Yeah. That makes sense because there are some nuances to dealing with a piece of software that aren't quite the same as the physical device, so that makes sense it would be somewhat of a different solution but in the same family. Cousins, as it were.

Brad: Right, right, right. Cousins that have different expectations for their lifecycle, yeah. Software might have a quarterly expectation for an update but a physical product might have a decade. So, we need to table that different flexibility in it.

Keith: Although instruments, more and more, there's firmware to update and things like that in the physical products. So, it certainly is converging. That's for sure.

Brad: Yeah, exactly right. And, you know, maybe one of the dirty little secrets we're trying to solve is eliminating fulfilling software through CDs and DVDs.

Keith: Oh, yeah.

Brad: You see it everywhere in industrial environments and manufacturers are being forced to get away from it because, you know, computer makers don't ship with that as a default anymore.

Keith: Well, if I can update the firmware in my Tesla over the air while it's parked overnight, then there should be some industrial—not that I have a Tesla, I'm afraid—but there should be some industrial analog to that same process.

Brad: Yeah. I think that's right. Do you have a CD player in your computer?

Keith: No. I did actually break down and buy an external DVD read-write thing a few years ago just because I wanted to recover some old movies that we had around the house. But no. I mean, all my music is streamed now and really no need for that kind of mechanism. How about you? Do you have one laying around the house somewhere?

Brad: Nope. No. Well, except for the Xbox but everywhere else, they're out of the house. And, you know, again, tying out personal behaviors and expectations to the office or to the industry. This is another one of those trends that's on us right now that we have to react to.

Keith: Yeah, yeah. No doubt. Well, that brings up another, speaking of changing paradigms, you know, obviously, if you're talking maintenance, we got to be talking about computerized maintenance management systems as well or CMMS. Those were standup applications entirely separate from the engineering side of engineering systems of record where most of the instrument specifications resided historically. And now many of those platforms are moving to the cloud. I guess the question is how do we go beyond these kind of siloed virtual file cabinets to more persistent engineering maintenance views for a better term of these assets based on a single underlying data model? Does that make sense?

Brad: Yeah. I don't know if it'll be a single data model but it'll be something. You did something there that was super funny for me that I see is, you know, you take your old mental model of something and you just apply it to the new environment. File cabinet. Digitalize. Right? And when in fact it's not, you know in the cloud. 

Keith: I mean, Dropbox is literally a drop box, right. Digital but just a drop box. Yeah.

Brad: Right, right. And so, we come out of COVID and people had to work from home and they could no longer access paper that was in a file cabinet somewhere. That was a real problem. It slowed people down and it led to poor quality of decisions in some examples that we were told about. So yeah. Real problem to solve there again and knowing that we can't rely on paper, then what we think, this is visionary right now. What we think will happen with that CMMS environment. You know, first of all, they're all moving into the cloud. All of the top six CMMS vendors have at least one cloud offering now which could be on-prem or in the public cloud, and at least one of them actually has shifted entirely to cloud, which I think is really interesting to put tension on that migration.

Keith: Yeah.

Brad: So, I take away from that one key thing. I believe CMMS has positioned itself in the IT side of the IT/OT conversation.

Keith: That's a good way to put it.

Brad: And then what that means, Keith, I think is since it's in IT, we can connect to it in different ways. Perhaps a bit more quickly and seamlessly through APIs. And what I think that means with that kind of distributed ecosystem of potential connections is that a manufacturer like us could connect to our customer's CMMS system for just maintenance documents like we were talking about earlier, those pieces of paper that have been converted to digital. And you could plumb that stuff in, so somebody who's building a maintenance work order could just through a few clicks, put that work order together specific to the asset that they need to have maintenance done on, and make sure again that they have the right information for the technician to do the work, they have accurate information. And then the maintenance worker can go out and get it done the first time.

So that's kind of the vision, you know. We did a little research to see what maintenance departments care most about, and it was a third-party research. And the number one objective of the maintenance department as a whole is to complete planned work on time. And what was interesting to me is not necessarily be faster at it but just be more reliable at saying, "We're going to get this task done by this time." Because all of the other parties that are involved, you know. Then if they can trust the schedule, then other things will go more smoothly as well.

Keith: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense and you mentioned the APIs. I mean, obviously, if you can have a linkage between that work order and then they can find out how quickly you can ship that replacement part and when it's going to be available to install, that adds more determinism to their schedule as well.

Brad: Yeah, exactly. So, now supply chain information can get tightened up. That's really important right now. You know, one of our biggest challenges in Emerson is supply chain right now, and we actively manage it and we're on top of it but it's dynamic and there are external forces that are impacting us, right. So, if you could, we could, this is absolutely a real possibility today, feed lead times for part numbers up to a cloud CMMS and that maintenance planner would immediately know. They don't have to make a phone call, send emails, all that kind of stuff. It's eliminated.

Keith: Makes a lot of sense.

Brad: Kind of feels like the future but, you know, the underlying capabilities are all essentially there. So, I think the next steps in the industry are really to figure out how to build partnerships and work on this ecosystem of APIs that can help make our, you know, talking to a CMMS vendor or a shared customer more successful.

Keith: Well, fascinating possibilities. And it sounds like you've got your vision and your work cut out for you at least for a little while. You're not going to have to go into that QR code business any time soon, it sounds like.

Brad: Oh, well, you know, I'll tell you, this job is super cool because we do get to talk with customers and solve their problems using what I view as modern technology. And that's so fulfilling, you know. So yeah, there's a lot of work to do but at the same time, it's very rewarding tackling these things.

Keith: Well, it sounds like my job as well. I get to talk to fascinating people that are leading industry forward such as yourself. So, it's good that we're both in a good spot.

Brad: Well, I appreciate the intention you put into forward thinking trends because that kind of thinking. The more broadly we can all share it together, I think, helps us all move forward and that, you know, that's important to stay relevant and effective as an industry.

Keith: Yeah. Absolutely. Well, I have to say thanks so much, Brad. It is always, it's a real pleasure to chat with you. And for those of you out there listening, thanks for tuning in. Thanks also to Emerson for sponsoring this episode and just to repeat, my guest today has been Brad Budde, vice president of digital customer experience for automation solutions. Thanks so much, Brad. Really appreciate your taking the time.

Brad: Appreciate you having me, Keith. Cheers and thanks to everyone for listening today.

Keith: I'm Keith Larson and you've been listening to a Control Amplified podcast. Thanks for joining us, and if you've enjoyed this episode, you can subscribe at the iTunes Store or at Google Podcast or wherever you find your favorite podcasts. Plus, you can find the full archive of past episodes at controlglobal.com. Signing off until next time.

For more, tune into Control Amplified: The Process Automation Podcast.

About the Author

Control Amplified: | Control Amplified: The Process Automation Podcast

The Control Amplified Podcast offers in-depth interviews and discussions with industry experts about important topics in the process control and automation field, and goes beyond Control's print and online coverage to explore underlying issues affecting users, system integrators, suppliers and others in these industries.

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