The Age of Smart Instruments

Users can benefit from consistency in alarm values, calibration frequency, and calibration gas across the entire company.

Imagine a world where everything in your home and workplace is automated to the point that you are never caught off guard with unforeseen, costly repairs. Imagine never having to call the emergency number for the electrician or pay exorbitant fees for a weekend visit from the refrigerator repairman. Imagine the equipment is smart enough to sense a problem coming, correct the problem, or notify the technician who can fix the problem. Imagine never having downtime at the plant because of unplanned maintenance on life-critical equipment or having to pay increased labor rates for service technicians. Better yet, imagine that the maintenance is predicted, planned, and accomplished without your involvement or disruption of your workflow.

Thankfully, the age of smart instruments is upon us. More and more devices have on-board "smart systems" that self-diagnose or communicate in real time to a diagnostic computer via the Internet. Everything from refrigerators to photocopiers to gas detection instruments has microprocessor-driven features that allow less human intervention for timed events or predictive failure prevention. By identifying and reporting problems promptly, smart instruments can minimize downtime and increase overall reliability.

Add to that the option for "smart services," where the smart equipment notifies the repair and maintenance service and the work is done before you can utter the words "emergency repair." Smart instruments plus smart services equal more productive time for you and cost savings for your company.

Depending on the hazardous nature of your business or industrial processes, gas detection can be a measurable part of your maintenance program. Gas detectors have come a long way from potentiometer-based to microprocessor-driven instruments. Although the equipment has become more robust, versatile, and advanced, the requirements for calibration and maintenance remain. Fortunately, gas monitoring instruments have become smarter over the years, and routine maintenance issues can be automated. Docking the instruments overnight into depot stations that calibrate, charge, and run a system check on them ensures the equipment will be ready to go in the morning.

Automated maintenance systems include technology that also provides a means for diagnosing potential problems with your gas monitor, such as low or marginal sensor life, date of the last calibration, and the number of days until the next calibration is due. These systems are designed to automatically maintain the instruments by function or "bump" testing, calibrating, downloading hygiene data, recordkeeping, and charging the instruments automatically, with no need for end user intervention.

But the intelligence doesn't stop there. Some docking systems are able to be networked for overseeing an entire fleet of instruments. Utilizing two-way LAN or WAN connectivity to link up to 100 stand-alone instrument docking modules from remote locations anywhere in your facility or around the world provides a complete view of an entire fleet--allowing for a total, centralized, instrument management program. The system automatically detects and flags critical check-points, such as which instruments are due (or past due) for calibration. It also detects when new equipment is added to the network, based on the unique serial number of the instrument or docking module. One of the most important benefits of networking the instruments and docking systems is remote monitoring and diagnostics.

With the ability to view and manage an instrument fleet over a LAN or WAN, the responsible manager can locally or remotely:

* Track instruments by serial number, location, and user
* View and manage instrument parameters including calibration and hygiene settings, users, security code, etc.
* View and manage all instruments for calibration due, last calibration, next calibration
* Configure calibration gas settings and view gas bottle status (expiration, pressure)
* View component level statistics (sensors, battery packs)
* View instrument diagnostics
* View sensor response history and degradation
* Proactively purchase and replace failing sensors
* View flagged or malfunctioning instrumentation
* Print instrument or fleet reports

Patented technology takes the system a step further, by incorporating a two-way data port between gas monitors and docking devices, which can download information from and upload information to the instruments. Not only is this a real asset for viewing and maintaining instrument records on a global basis, but it also allows users to centrally configure the instrument settings. Each instrument can be standardized with the same parameters to guarantee consistency in alarm values, calibration frequency, and calibration gas across the entire company. The two-way communication also allows the docking unit software to acknowledge a calibration due date by initiating calibration upon docking or override the instrument setting for "bump" test schedule.

Using Instrument Network Services
With a smart instrument at the core of the system, visibility into a network of these devices becomes a powerful management tool. The beauty of consolidated data is centralized control from one vantage point. Add the power of the largest data network, the Internet, and there is an opportunity for remote management above and beyond corporate networking capability--the option for "smart services" becomes a reality.

Bi-directional communication between the docking devices and a remote service center provides the ability to send software updates, requests for diagnostics, or alerts to the users, instruments, or docking devices through the control center. It's one thing to engage in a repair or maintenance contract with scheduled service intervals, but it becomes extremely efficient and cost reductive when the service provider is privy to data that will allow preemptive scheduling of maintenance and parts replacement on an as-needed basis.

The obvious advantage of using a third party to oversee the health and maintenance of the gas monitoring fleet is that you don't have to. Additional advantages of using the manufacturer of the smart instruments as the service provider include immediate attention to software modifications, supply chain management, and direct access to approved replacement parts.

A new set of gas monitoring "smart" instrument network services provides an alternative way of managing gas monitoring. Using the Internet, instrument data is collected and analyzed to ensure the equipment is in optimal working condition. Through patented technology and remote 24-hour monitoring, the status of the gas monitors, calibration gas condition, sensor performance, and instrument calibration is reported over the Internet and is available as a service on a subscription basis. Notification of component or instrument failure, low or expired calibration gas, and calibration documentation is provided in a custom status report delivered weekly via e-mail.

If customers wish to take it one step further, the service can include data warehousing of instrument readings, automatic initiation of repair parts delivery, or the dispatch of instrument repairs/replacements. A full-service solution is available to customers who want to outsource their gas monitoring maintenance program and receive on-site service visits for seamless repair work. Any or all pieces and parts of the all-encompassing gas monitoring program can be bundled as a monthly service fee to alleviate the internal burden and turn it over to the experts who can provide that core competency.

Under a four-year contract, customers can benefit from a consolidated monthly usage fee covering any or all of the following services:

* Lease of single or multi-gas instruments in any combination
* Installation and setup of docking devices and server, including testing of system
* Training on instrumentation and system subsequent to installation
* 24/7 monitoring of instrument fleet via the Internet
* Weekly system status report showing instrument and component status and details
* Automatic notification of instrument or docking device malfunction
* Automatic initiation of any service action required
* On-site repair service where mobile service coverage is available
* Automated instrument exchange if preferred over on-site repair service
* Automated parts delivery if self-service is preferred
* Replacement/repair parts, freight, labor, and travel expenses included, depending on selected service
* Automated calibration gas replenishment when cylinders are empty
* Asset tracking of instruments by serial number
* Secure off-site storage of all data

Looking Ahead to Failure Prediction
This new way of managing a gas detection program modifies the current business model by providing a "smart," service-based solution. Under this new paradigm, the supply, calibration, maintenance, repair, and recordkeeping of an entire gas detection fleet can be managed remotely by the experts, leaving the management of your core business to you.

As the world becomes more automated, these types of systems will become more powerful. They will be able to actively predict failures before they occur and respond to problems automatically by sending out replacement parts or replacement instruments before field failure occurs. A system such as this eliminates instrument downtime and greatly reduces the cost of instrument maintenance.

While a world of ubiquitous smart sensing devices is still futuristic, intelligent gas detectors and associated smart services are here today. Use these smart instruments and services to minimize your involvement in routine maintenance and monitoring--and limit your involvement to true emergencies.

Now, if only the car repairman would show up in my driveway and perform preventive maintenance on my car in the middle of the night while I'm sleeping. . . .

This article appeared in the May 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the May 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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