Technological advances have made CMMS software more affordable and easier to use, but maintenance goals haven’t changed. Avoid problems when you can. When you can’t, fix them efficiently.

Old-time CMMS

So, the ‘why’ of maintenance departments hasn’t changed, but the ‘how’ certainly has. It’s incredible how far the industry has come in the last 50 years. Let’s look at a quick history.

On-premises CMMS with punch cards

First and second generation systems depended on giant, on-premises mainframes, and the main development during this period was the move from punch cards to paper forms. At the end of each shift, maintenance department techs would hand in their completed paperwork to data entry clerks, who would then key everything into the onsite computer. Because the systems were so expensive, both to set up and maintain, only large, asset-intensive organizations could afford them.

On-premises CMMS with terminals 

In the 1980s, with the introduction of minicomputers, prices dropped enough for even some medium-size companies to implement CMMS systems. It’s worth clicking the link to get an idea of what ‘minicomputer’ means in this context. You might be thinking of something very different. A mainframes takes up an entire room. A mini could take up a walk-in closet. At this stage, everything was still on-premises but there was a bit less paper. Technicians could access terminals located throughout the facilities once they’d closed out a work order to punch in basic information.

By the 1990s, more and more CMMS platforms were available, but they were still limited compared to today. For example, they lacked work order history and cost tracking. Basically, the CMMS platforms of the time were able to collect information, but they weren’t very good at doing anything with it.

Cloud-based CMMS with mobile devices 

Older systems lived on company servers, which made them expensive to implement and maintain. You had to invest in the hardware and then maintain an IT department to keep it up and running. It took a lot of time and money for even the simplest update or patch because everything had to be coordinated by the vendor and your company’s IT department. 

Once providers moved to the cloud, things really started to change. Instead of purchasing servers and then staffing an IT department to babysit them, companies of all sizes could quickly sign up for a subscription-based service, and if they were unhappy with the software, they could fairly easily walk away. Not only were a lot of smaller companies now able to try out CMMS platforms, but also companies from outside manufacturing were. In the past, CMMS had only really made sense for large manufacturing organizations. But when prices came down, interest went up across many different industries, including:

  • Non-profit
  • Municipal
  • Health care
  • Sports and recreation
  • Education

The second big change was related to accessibility. In the past, technicians were chained to their CMMS. First, it was with punch cards. Then with paper forms or spreadsheets. With cloud-based systems, they were not longer chained; they were connected. From any Internet-connected desktop or mobile device, they could access data-rich work orders.

Today’s CMMS

We can see there have been a lot of changes in how systems are delivered, but what about in terms of CMMS features? Have there also been a lot of changes?

Let’s answer that by looking at two of the most important modules, preventive maintenance, and work order management. When Hippo talks with people interested in starting to use or switching to a new CMMS, these two always rank as very important.

cmms features_screenshot

Back when Hippo had many fewer customers, we conducted a survey, and preventive maintenance and work order management were the two modules people considered most important.

Then, more recently, and now with over a thousand respondents, we’ve done the survey again. The results are about the same.

cmms features_preventivemaintenance top

So, it makes sense to look at the features related to these two modules. They’re the ones most maintenance departments care about most.

Preventive maintenance

It’s easy to understand why maintenance departments want a CMMS features that allow them to make the switch from reactive to preventive maintenance. In maintenance, just like in the rest of life, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. And on top of all the money the company saves by reducing downtime and overtime hours, preventive maintenance just makes for a less stressful day. Instead of the old model of running to failure then trying to get the line back up with the operators looking at the clock and management looking at the bottom line, technicians can schedule work ahead of time, then go home at five o’clock.

Once you’ve built the work orders, you can add them to your preventive maintenance calendar. The CMMS will automatically send out reminders.

Work order management

Modern CMMS streamline work orders by centralizing them. Everything, from submitting tickets to tracking work orders and using collected data for reporting, can be done from the CMMS. For example, an operator notices the press is sticking every once in a while and there’s a new sound they’ve never heard before. Using the CMMS, they submit a ticket, which alerts the maintenance department supervisor. After looking at the ticket, they decide the operator might be onto something. So, they build a data-rich work order, prioritize it, and assign it to a technician. Once the work order has been closed out, the supervisor is alerted, closing the loop. In some cases, an email will be sent to the operator, so they know their concerns have been addressed. They might get one when the ticket is first accepted and then another one when it’s closed out.

The information collected through the closed-out work order can then be used by the reporting module, helping the supervisor quickly and easily create reports. Tracking costs and other KPIs give them the big-picture view they need to really understand their department’s performance. In industries with a lot of oversight from the government, these reports are crucial for proving compliance.

For the system to work, you need work orders with a lot of information packed into them. Let’s quickly look at that next.

Data-rich work orders 

Long gone are the days of work orders being a few basic instructions scribbled down on a Xeroxed form. Ever wonder why old-time technicians tend to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the facility? It’s because at one point it was a requirement. When work orders contained so little information, techs needed to carry a lot around in working memory, which is 1) very impressive, and 2) a big problem for the organization when the tech retires and takes all that knowledge with them.

There’s actually a great urban legend that illustrates this problem. In one of the many versions, a manager is having trouble at one of his factories and calls back a recently retired technician to help. The technician walks around a couple of the machines, pulls out a small piece of chalk, and marks an X on one of the pipes. Later, he sends the manager a bill for $5,000. When the manager demands an itemized version, he sends back “Cost of chalk: $1. Knowing where to mark X: $4,999.”

A modern CMMS work order contains everything techs need to work efficiently and close out quickly. Accessible from the work order, and this is a partial list, are:

  • Interactive floor maps
  • Digital schematics and O&M manuals
  • Asset maintenance and repair histories
  • Customizable step-by-step instructions

And because all the information is securely backed up in the CMMS, departments never have to worry about losing institutional memory and know-how.

Mobile maintenance apps

When CMMS first moved to the cloud, you could access it either at your desktop or through a responsive mobile version. Basically, the CMMS could detect that you were on a mobile device, and it would switch to a smaller layout to accommodate the smaller screen. 

But now, CMMS providers offer mobile maintenance apps that live right on your smart device. And because they tie directly into the device’s software and hardware, the apps are more stable, faster, and offer more features. 

Push notifications 

With older mobile versions, technicians can quickly and easily access their assigned on-demand and preventive maintenance work orders. But they need to log in and check for new ones. For the maintenance managers, that can cause delays between when they assign work and when techs know about it. 

But with mobile apps, maintenance managers can use push notifications. Now, as soon as they assign a new work order, the tech’s phone chimes or vibrates and displays a message across the screen. When a critical asset has gone down, maintenance managers need to reach out and connect with their team in as close to real time as possible.  

Bar code scanning 

For on-demand work orders, it’s easy for techs to see which asset needs repairs. It’s the one that idle, spraying liquids, or smoking. But for PMs, when it’s just inspections or maintenance tasks, it can be much harder to find the right asset. And that’s especially true when you have a series of identical assets and equipment all in a row. For example, there might be a row of HVAC units on the roof or a collection of pumps in the basement. 

But using a mobile device’s built-in camera, techs can quickly scan bar codes to confirm they have the right asset. All they do is scan the label to access comprehensive data on the asset, including serial numbers, images, and associated work orders. 

Direct image uploads 

Techs can also use the camera to quickly take and then upload images to the open work order, opening up a strong line of communication between themselves and the rest of the team. 

Techs can use the pictures to show what they’re doing. For example, a tech is working on a large asset where the internal components are stacked one on top of the other. As they pull out pieces to work on the ones below, they can take a picture to document each step, creating a reliable, searchable record of their work. When they’ve put everything back together, they can upload one more picture to request a remote visual inspection. The maintenance manager or another member of the department can double-check the work without wasting time going to the asset. 

Techs can also use the pictures when they don’t exactly know what to do. Instead of wasting time running around the facilities looking for help, they can upload an image of the asset to the work order and ask for advice. In fact, they can also add both task and work order comments using the app. Instead of a picture, they can type in their comments. Techs that are slow thumb typists can use the smartphone’s text-to-speech function.  

Offline sync 

Mobile Web versions are good, but you can only really use them when you’re online, and that creates limitations for technicians. As soon as they’re out of range, they lose access to the CMMS. And it’s not uncommon for technicians to work where Internet access is limited or impossible. Even in the most high-tech building, Internet access can be spotty down in the second basement beside the boilers. 

Mobile maintenance apps, however, still work offline. Because they’re storing some of their data directly on the mobile device’s hard drive, techs can still access it when they’re offline. Even more importantly, they can still enter information into the app offline. 

The adage about data is true: Garbage in, garbage out. That means if you want reliable data, you need to help techs enter data when it’s still fresh in their minds. With older systems, techs have to wait until they’re back in range before they can update the CMMS. But with an app, they’re entering data in real time. The app then keeps the data safe and secure until it can reconnect with the CMMS database. 

Tomorrow’s CMMS: preventive and predictive 

Predictive maintenance will likely have a place in many future maintenance departments. At the same time, its inherent limitations mean it will likely not be universally adopted. There are a lot of situations where it just won’t make economic sense.

But first, a quick explanation. Predictive maintenance leverages the Internet of Things, where everything is monitoring itself and everything is connected. So, your fridge knows when you’re running low on milk and tells the navigation system in your car, which then reminds you to get milk when you’re close to the grocery store. Or, the fridge just automatically orders you more milk.

In an industrial setting, assets are fitted with sensors to alert the maintenance staff of potential problems. And that’s crucial to understand here. The technology does not report problems that have already occurred. Instead, it’s using data to predict the chances of there being a problem.

For example, if an asset is vibrating too much, the oil is the wrong color, or everything is getting too hot, the CMMS sends out an alert. So, you might not check the pumps once a month for signs of wear and tear. Instead, you wait until the CMMS notices that 1) they’re vibrating a bit too much, and 2) the last time they were checked was six months ago. By collecting data from interconnected sources (the sensors and the pumps’ work order history), the CMMS decides what to do.

But what if those pumps are not really expensive and have a low criticality? If they stop working, it’s more of a pain in the neck and less a major problem. Remember, the sensors are expensive and can be tricky to set up, so you might have to bring in a third-party vendor. In that case, you’re better off staying with PMs. And for a lot of assets, this will be the case: the cost of setting up predictive maintenance will be too high when weighed against the expected benefits.

Next steps

Looking at the past, present, and future of maintenance is more than an interesting lesson in history, more than a fun guessing game about the future. It’s a way to better understand your own current maintenance operations. Where would you place your department on the timeline? Are you back in the 90s? Has your department reached the new millennium yet? Maybe you’re on the cutting edge.

Once you discover where you are, it’s time to think about where you want to be and how you can get there. For departments that feel they’re behind and want to get caught up, a modern CMMS software is a great start.


About The Author

Jonathan Davis

Jonathan has been covering asset management, maintenance software, and SaaS solutions since joining Hippo CMMS. Prior to that, he wrote for textbooks and video games.
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