2021 was a transitional year for operations and maintenance (O&M) teams, as many of the changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic that began in 2020 became permanent—changes like equipping staff with the technology that eliminates the need to retrieve and return paperwork to a central office, and moving from centralized call centers to managing work requests in a decentralized environment staffed by remote workers.
I’ve witnessed this transition firsthand by working closely with O&M teams across a variety of industries, assisting in their efforts to improve efficiency while simultaneously adapting to the challenges of COVID-19. Here are the key trends I’m watching for 2022.
1. Continued Transition from On-Premise to Cloud-Based Software
O&M may be late to the SaaS party, but it’s still coming. Even IBM Maximo, the grandfather of O&M software, is moving to the cloud in 2022. Other than in some highly sensitive operating environments, nearly all of our customers are looking to get away from on-premise software. They don’t want to deal with upgrades and maintenance releases, want someone else to manage the underlying hardware and middleware, and want to have access to on-demand capacity to manage any processing spikes. And, of course, they want to reduce their costs.
For organizations newly investing in an EAM system, or adding mobile apps to a pre-existing EAM system, many will find that the subscription pricing now available for SaaS and the EAM mobile apps will transform the internal buying dynamic. Instead of presenting to a CapEx (capital expenditure) committee to compete for CapEx dollars against other projects, subscription pricing as typically handled as OpEx (operating expense).
The ramification of this is that O&M managers are often able to gain quick purchase approvals when the cost of the new subscription is offset by operational saving in the same budget year. Instead of competing for limited CapEx dollars, the operations team is often able to proceed forward by simply submitting a budget reflecting the net savings to the organization.
2. All O&M Staff Will Be Equipped with Mobile Devices—Not Just Field Technicians
In 2020 and 2021, we saw a huge rush to equip field techs with mobile devices to minimize the need to congregate in centralized dispatch centers to pick up and drop off paperwork orders. But now that companies have seen the benefits of mobile—work from anywhere, lower costs, better data quality and easy integration with legacy systems—they are looking to similarly equip all their staff.
We’re now seeing the increased adoption of apps allowing (non-technician) staff, and often non-employee community members, to initiate their own work requests—complete with marked-up photos, descriptions of the issue and exact location details—changing the role of what were call-center employees from capturing incoming request information to facilitating repair and resolution and letting the app provide the requestors with real-time updates on when the request was received, reviewed, assigned, scheduled and completed.
We’re seeing this same proliferation of mobile apps into other O&M areas, including vendor management and planning and scheduling. Historically, the mobile version of a desktop application offered reduced functionality. The new generation of mobile apps are no longer providing a trimmed-down version of the desktop app, but instead are taking a mobile-first approach that leverages the design principles of true “born-mobile” apps and fundamentally re-thinking the user experience.
Where this has occurred, it’s not unusual to see a room full of people sitting at their desks with desktop computers and large monitors available working on their mobile devices. Cutting the (desktop) cord with mobile devices has also moved more of the work management decision making to managers and supervisors in the field, where their intimate knowledge of the facility and the technician team’s skills and capabilities allows them to match the right people to a particular job, resulting in faster repairs, better first-fix rates and reduced downtime.
3. Tighter Oversight of Vendors and Contractors
A byproduct of the move to mobile for internal employees is the desire to equip field service vendors and outside contractors with apps that help the hiring organization more easily request services, negotiate dates and rates and define the scope of work. Once agreement is reached and the job booked, those same apps manage vendor check-in, verify that the expected technicians are, in fact, on the job, and capture all work details, including hours, parts consumed, measurements and readings, any messages exchanged between parties, and photographic evidence, along with any service notes.
Most importantly, these apps are able to push all the work details and accompanying attachments back in the EAM system of record, eliminating any re-keying or manipulation of data. In short, we’re seeing companies treat their vendors like they’re a part of their own team, but simultaneously not letting vendors have access to their in-house apps—eliminating security risks. An important byproduct of these vendors apps is the ability to track KPIs across the vendors, enabling informed discussions on responsiveness and performance metrics like time-to-respond and first-fix rates that lead to better outcomes for both parties.
4. More Artificial Intelligence-Fueled Tools for O&M
AI is maturing and we’re seeing it seep into O&M. Right now, AI’s use in O&M is nascent—things like voice assistants and applying predictive models have been available for some time. We expect that the next generation of AI, enabled by the rapid expansion of real-time monitoring devices, will start to come into its own in 2022.
Leading the way are the manufacturers of specialized equipment that are able to remotely monitor the equipment and intercede to prevent a fault or failure. By virtue of their ability to monitor hundreds of machines across their client base, they are better able train and tune their AI models, and in doing so are able to predict and prevent failures to a much greater extent than a customer trying to do so on their own. Following in their footsteps will be organizations that have hundreds of similar devices, such as valves or servo motors, where they are able to capture large amounts of data to feed their AI models and continually improve the efficacy of the models.
As AI’s ability to predict an impending fault improves, we’ll see the use of AI extended to not only predict the need for maintenance and/or repair, but also being used to requisition the replacement part, log the part into inventory, pay the vendor and even schedule the technician for the repair. Driven by a tight labor market, we expect see more and more AI being introduced 2022.
5. Huge Strides in Automated Planning and Scheduling
Planning and scheduling have always been a challenge for O&M leaders, with many still using whiteboards or spreadsheets. Desktop scheduling software has been available for 20-plus years, and while this class of software has extensive functionality, the packages are notoriously difficult to use, taking users months become competent and years to master.
In 2021, new mobile planning and scheduling tools have emerged that are significantly simple to use and can be mastered in weeks or months. With the advent of mobile planning and scheduling apps, users are able take most any action from any screen—eliminating the need to traverse long drop-down menus and/or back out of one function and start down another path.
With these new mobile apps, schedulers can easily create schedules for multiple people, subject to schedule constraints such as PTO or training, across multiple jobs spanning multiple sites and projects. These tools also allow for easy batch scheduling, eliminating the job by job, person by person monotony experienced when scheduling large of amounts of work such as preventative maintenance (PMs).
In 2022, you’ll begin to see automated scheduling of PMs, with prioritization, skill sets and experience required determined by pre-defined business rules that optimize for a variety of factors ranging from labor availability and overtime costs to downtime risk and customer impacts. With this optimization, you will also be able to project labor force needs, and pinpoint timing for new hires. These new apps are already changing the game, and I think by the end of 2022 most companies will have ditched those whiteboards and spreadsheets in favor of mobile scheduling apps.
About the Author:
Jin Jiang is the director of solution architecture at InterPro Solutions.