History in a box

Tracking the maintenance of 2,000 pieces of HVAC equipment spanning 2 million square feet at three separate locations is a tall order.

Couple the size of such an undertaking with an antiquated paper recordkeeping system and you’ve got trouble.

That was exactly the situation Cuyahoga County Community College faced a few years ago when it turned to The Brewer-Garrett Co. of Middleburg Heights to solve its paperwork nightmare. That’s when the mechanical engineering firm implemented technology most people associate with their local grocery store to streamline the college’s unwieldy equipment maintenance procedures.

“They had 2,000 pieces of equipment with six guys responsible for maintaining it,” says Greg McDonald, Brewer-Garrett’s sales manger. “That’s quite a big task. So we developed a program where they could have the assurance the work was being done.”

The solution was to attach bar codes to each piece of equipment and provide technicians with hand-held computerized readers to digitally document every maintenance job completed. Brewer-Garrett CEO Louis Joseph boasts that the system gives customers unparalleled maintenance specifics and more service for their dollar.

“The real key is it’s now not too much, not too little, but exactly the right amount of maintenance,” he says. “Everything we do is driven toward the customer. We want to give them the biggest bang for their buck. We want to build long-term relationships for our company, and this is a great way to do that.”

Eliminate the paper trap

Development of Brewer Garrett’s bar code reader system was spurred by customers who suggested the company devise a computerized alternative to paper equipment maintenance records.

“Our customers were asking us for it over the past couple of years,” recalls Joseph, who explains his company solicits customers for product ideas. “We ask our customers, ‘What do you want, what is your wish list?’ They were telling us that this bar code system was the next thing we needed to do.”

Joseph assembled a team to investigate how best to meet that challenge by researching available technology and looking at what other companies had done. Ultimately, bar code readers were chosen as the best option.

Technicians simply swipe the bar code, inspect the equipment, then punch the results into the hand-held scanner — creating a digital record of the work. That data is then downloaded into a central computer that stores records for all 2,000 pieces of equipment.

“The technician is doing the same work he was doing two years ago,” says McDonald. “But this tool allows him to manage what he’s working with and provide the customers with another value added benefit. The information was always available, it just was in a form they couldn’t use.”

History at the push of a button

The linchpin of the bar code system’s success, however, is not imbedded in the bar code readers handed out to service technicians. It is the computer program accompanying the hand-held devices that is the true heart of the process.

The raw data collected by technicians on the hand-held bar code readers is entered into fields like any standard database, making it easy to find information and generate a variety of reports concerning a piece of equipment’s maintenance history.

“The chief engineer can pull it up at any time and see, OK, this is what work has been done during the month of August,” explains McDonald. “Specifically, he can see the boiler has had a couple of problems. He can then punch in the bar code into the computer and out comes everything that has happened to that piece of equipment since we started the program.”

It took the better part of a year to work all the bugs out of the software and have it ready for customer use, but the final product has turned what was once a hit-and-miss process into a finely crafted procedure.

“With 2,000 pieces of equipment, it’s virtually impossible to sort through all that information by hand and find a way to provide it in a succinct, clear manner that means something to the customer,” says McDonald. “This system has been able to do that.”

Converting experience into kilobytes

One of the most interesting facets of the system is the ability of technicians to catch equipment failures before they ever happen. This is possible because the bar code readers are programmed with standard equipment readings to compare against the new figures entered during each inspection.

If a motor is operating at a lower than expected level, the hand-held readers warn the technician that a problem is likely just around the corner. The ability to program this intelligence into the new system came from years of industry experience.

“Based on our 40 years in the business, knowing what systems need to be maintained and what parameters they should run under, we programmed that knowledge into our bar code readers,” says McDonald. “So when a guy enters the readings and sees there’s a problem, it’s because we know when something gets to this level, it’s about to fail.”

After a red flag is raised, the decision is made whether to repair or replace the piece of equipment based on its condition and history. This pre-emptive feature, McDonald says, eliminates many of the emergencies that would occur in the days of paper records.

“I’d rather replace that motor on a scheduled basis than go in on a Friday afternoon when there are kids in class, they are uncomfortable and now you have an emergency,” says McDonald. “So the whole goal of the program is to try to be proactive and predict those things before they happen.”

The success of the system at Cuyahoga County Community College in the past two years has drawn interest from other Brewer-Garrett clients, according to Joseph. “Many of our customers are asking about the prospect of doing this,” he says. “Let there be no doubt that in a click of a finger, there could be a lot of other facilities on board.”

How to reach: Brewer-Garrett Co., (440) 243-3535

Jim Vickers ([email protected]) is an associate editor at SBN.

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