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The Evolution of CMMS Technology with Frank Lucas
Frank Lucas, Assistant Director, Work Management with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, discusses the variety of functions the university's CMMS provides.
Assistant Director, Work Management
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
When comparing the first computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) you specified for UNLV to the current system, how has the technology evolved to make departments more efficient?
Our first CMMS was a Microsoft Access-based system. UNLV was dramatically increasing in size and enrollment, which to us meant increases in the buildings and spaces we maintained, the amount of work being requested, and the number of transactions being processed. This growth was over-burdening a platform that wasn't designed to handle such a workload, which caused slowdowns and frequent system errors.
Our new system is much more scalable and able to handle the transaction load of a large metropolitan university. It also includes much more robust features and functions that tie into multiple areas of the CMMS.
Systems are more enterprise-oriented nowadays, and it has become easier to share information with other business applications. They are also more flexible and better equipped to adapt to change. Lately, we’re seeing an influx of CMMS systems that contain a CAFM – computer aided facilities management – element that incorporates electronic prints and drawings as dynamic graphic representations, rather than just lists of buildings and spaces. We're also seeing more Web-based CMMS solutions and the advantages they offer.
We have eight different work centers that use our CMMS. This is possible because of features that allow us to segregate our system to function like eight independent businesses. Such technology was unheard of just a few years ago. Not having to purchase additional CMMS a huge savings to the university, and it allows us to roll up common data elements across the entire campus.
The Web-request system of the CMMS is another feature we did not have before. We have realized a huge savings in the amount of time our staff spends on taking work-request phone calls because the customer is doing the work for us. Instead of doing data entry, our staff is now more focused on data accuracy and reliability. Customers can place requests anytime of the day or night, and they receive confirmations and periodic updates on the progress of their requests.
Our technicians also use this feature to request work they find themselves. A common occurrence on our night shift is to perform work before a work order can be created. Now they can create a Web request and use the request number to complete their time sheets and document their efforts. Our customers can also use this feature to query requested or completed work to look at accumulated costs and amounts that have been uploaded to our financial system. This allows them better control of their budgets and helps eliminate surprises, especially at the end of fiscal years when money becomes tight.
Our CMMS automatically routes work to their respective shops and trades, so we have saved money and time on printing costs and getting work to our technicians in a timely manner. Much of the information we are capturing in the CMMS has proven to be valuable to other departments on campus, and we are routinely asked for downloads and reports from our database.
All of these changes help make the CMMS technologies of today faster, more encompassing as a data repository, and provide maintenance departments with more options for managing their facilities portfolios.
What have you done to ensure technicians use the CMMS properly to provide maintenance and engineering departments with useful information?
What is most important about a CMMS is the data it contains, and the more accurate that data, the better the decisions we can make. We have developed a very centralized work-control operation, and its primary purpose is to record and classify data accurately using a set of guidelines we have developed.
Technicians are not administrators, nor do they want to be, so we have tried to relieve them from as much of the administrative burden as possible. Also, because we have nearly 250 technicians, grounds, and custodial workers on our staff, it is much easier to train a handful of work-control employees to code data correctly and consistently.
Warehouse and administrative personnel document parts and services onto work orders that are needed to complete the job. Technicians simply need to tell us how many hours they spent on a job and write a good description of what they did to resolve a maintenance issue or customer request. The work-control staff then determines how the data is classified and coded for future recall using the aforementioned guidelines.
For example, a routine maintenance work order for a “too-hot” call would end up being changed to a repair if the technician wrote a comment like “replaced compressor.” Had this change in classification not been made, end-of-month reports would be inaccurate, and we would be misinformed on how technician time is being spent and the type of work being done, which could affect decision-making.
Technicians are the ones that drive a maintenance organization because they are the ones doing the work out in the field, meeting with customers, and resolving issues. They know our facilities and equipment better than anyone else and are by far our best source of information. What they generally lack, however, is knowledge about the administrative end of the business.
To overcome this, we conduct periodic CMMS training where we drive these points home, as well as demonstrate how the information we collect is used. Of course, being shown these things in a classroom is one thing, seeing it happen in a daily work setting is quite another, so we take steps to make sure they see the system in action whenever possible.
One way we do this is through our promotion guidelines. Technicians must have a good working knowledge of the CMMS before they can even be considered for a supervisory position. Another way is by forcing them to use the CMMS to verify claims and opinions. Anytime a technician comes to us saying something like, “That air conditioning unit needs to be replaced,” they must gather work-history information from the CMMS that helps support their claim.
Every month, various benchmark and performance graphs are produced and posted where everyone can see them. Quite often I see techs discussing these with supervisory personnel, as well as amongst themselves. Technicians also know the CMMS is used to insure compliance with regulatory issues, resolve customer disputes, and verify operational performance.
Finally, information from the CMMS is compiled each year and published as part of an annual facilities management report that is used by our vice president for various purposes throughout the year. The information in this report tells our story and becomes a source of pride for everyone in the department. So using the CMMS properly becomes an easy sell when technicians see how much is riding on the information it contains and that their input counts, especially in the face of cutbacks and a difficult economy.
How often do you upgrade or enhance your CMMS to accommodate evolving technologies or facility changes?
We certainly keep up with all the maintenance releases our CMMS provider sends out, which can happen multiple times per year depending on how often a problem is detected. About once a year, our provider will release a new version of the application that contains new or improved features and functions, and sometimes even an entirely new module.
Then there are those things we do ourselves to increase functionality on an as-needed basis. For example, our university recently purchased and implemented a new procurement application. Currently, we are doing double entry when creating purchase orders, once in the new system and again in the CMMS. It is necessary to recreate purchase orders in the CMMS so when items are received, they can be automatically added to our warehouse inventory and on-hand quantities can be adjusted accordingly. So we will be looking to develop an interface whereby the procurement system exports information to the CMMS electronically.
We made a decision several years ago to make our CMMS the central repository of all information pertinent to facilities management. To that end, we have developed a number of mini-applications, front ends, and data-manipulation routines designed to either push information to the CMMS or pull information from it.
Our CMMS also contains some flexibility that helps us account for things that arise between new releases. Most every screen in our system has a series of user-defined fields for this purpose that allow us to change the field label to suit our needs, add information, and pull information out using a custom report. The key to using these fields successfully is to document what the field is used for and train personnel on its use.
Such items then become suggestions for improvements that we send to our CMMS provider. Should a future release address these issues, we will change our operating processes accordingly.
Does UNLV equip technicians with mobile devices, such as PDAs or smart phones, to access the university's CMMS?
We have just started to do this in our warehouse operation. Hand-helds are being developed that will allow personnel to receive materials, add them to the inventory, check out materials, post them to work orders, and perform inventory audits. We are also looking at equipping our off-shift technicians with mini-laptops so they not only have access to work requests, but also the entire CMMS database. These employees are constantly moving about the campus during their shift, so having all of this information available to them in the field will be a huge time saver.
Such technology can be extremely beneficial to an organization, but care must be taken before jumping on the hand-held bandwagon. First is the cost. Depending on how many technicians you plan to outfit with hand-helds, costs can run into six figures very easily for an organization our size by the time hardware, software, licensing, and administrative expenditures are considered.
You can generate and recycle a lot of paper for that kind of money. Also, technology changes rapidly in the hand-held world. When it is time to purchase new units, chances are you will not be able to get the same type and model that you started with, which can lead to compatibility issues with the CMMS and training issues with end users.
So it is important to insure your interface between hand-helds and the CMMS is not proprietary and is written in a generic enough programming language to be compatible with anything you purchase in the future.
Like anything else, hand-held technology is only as good as the processes they are meant to emulate. Many organizations implement hand-helds before taking the time to document manual workflow processes, sometimes even as a substitute for this step. The reality is if it does not work on paper, it more than likely will not work in an electronic environment.
I caution those considering a hand-held program to take the time to document their business processes as though computers and hand-helds did not exist. Your hand-held implementation will be much more successful and should the technology fail, you will still have something to fall back on.
Finally, hand-helds are not a substitute for managerial oversight. I cannot tell you how many maintenance managers I have spoken to that boasted about their hand-held operation but failed to institute any sort of oversight or surveillance program for it. Labor may be saved by having technicians enter their own labor hours and close work orders in the field, but management must develop reports and reviews for checking the accuracy and completeness of their entries.
For example, a technician could enter six hours for a one-hour job and close a work order having not properly documented the repair they just made or the tag number of the piece of equipment they worked on. Managers can never assume their technicians will never make a mistake or will be as well-versed on the administrative end of things as they are. Checks and balances need to be in-place for a hand-held system to have credibility.
Why would you go to such lengths to save time and effort on one end of the process only to give it all back on the other end? It is the information being collected in the field that drives a maintenance organization and shapes departmental performance standards and benchmarks. So oversight processes that include periodic review, correction and feedback activities are essential to help insure the data is always telling an accurate story.
What is the next level of technology or functionality managers should be aware of when specifying CMMS systems?
New programming languages are emerging all the time that allow CMMS to do things never before possible. Some of the more progressive CMMS companies are moving in this direction, and it can be a big advantage to an end user. Even older, highly successful CMMS companies are taking a hard look at their systems and determining if a programming overhaul is in order.
Since no CMMS company can totally anticipate the needs of any organization, the ability to customize a screen or develop an interface-friendly ancillary application cannot be underscored enough. Newer CMMS are allowing users to change field labels, drag and drop fields to customize a screen display, and even change the look of work orders and other forms.
More sophisticated, custom report writers are being added to CMMS systems, virtually eliminating the need to purchase third-party report generators. They're also allowing information to be exported in virtually any format. Some systems now offer dashboard functions that monitor and constantly update counts, costs, and key performance indicators specified by the user. Such functions can reside on a PC desktop and provide managers with a quick way to see current summary-level data at a glance.
Security is another area where changes are taking place. Virtually all systems on the market can grant down user rights to the lowest level. This is the functionality that used to only be reserved for the higher priced, totally customizable systems. Many CMMS now employ the use of LDAP – lightweight directory access protocol – to enhance security and permissions within their systems.
Three-way matching functions for purchase-order invoice reconciliations are also starting to be very commonplace. Web-based systems continue to evolve by employing cutting-edge programming languages and techniques that improve compatibility and reliability over different browsers, on Macs and PCs alike, and to mobile units.
Although client-server systems have their own advantages, Web-based functionality is getting the attention of all CMMS companies and has led to some rather innovative thinking. One CMMS company will soon be offering a traditional client-server application that will also be accessible via a Web browser. So, in essence, you will have the best of both worlds.
Deployment of CMMS systems is also becoming easier and more efficient with the use of smart and ultra-thin clients that can be distributed to multiple users from a single source and require dramatically less time and client memory. CMMS vendors are also considering new module development in response to various industry challenges.
The ability to document green activities, calculate carbon footprints and document compliance with sustainability regulations is one such area. This also encompasses functions to document recycling efforts.
Another area is facility assessments. These have traditionally been done separately in other specialized applications with little to no consideration for how work done in one system affects data stored in another. So the ability to have CMMS and facility condition assessment functions talking to each other in the same system is very desirable.
Another area generating a lot of attention is how custodial work is documented. Again, this traditionally occurs in specialized applications, but a few vendors are now offering custodial modules that function as part of their CMMS solutions. There is a lot happening out in the CMMS world, and managers really need to do their homework before investing precious resources in a system they will be relying on for many years.