Technology is such a valuable asset

Developments in technology are aiding companies to keep track of physical assets and put them to more efficient use, writes Chris Johnston

Catching a train, boarding an aircraft or filling up the car with petrol are everyday activities we take for granted. Yet behind the scenes, a great deal of activity goes into ensuring railways remain as safe as possible, planes are maintained to the highest standard, and the complex process of refining oil and delivering it to petrol stations is unimpeded.

For organisations that have a significant number of physical assets – ranging from the biggest transport and infrastructure groups, and those with considerable property holdings, through to smaller outfits such as local councils – managing those assets as effectively as possible is essential for maintaining services and obtaining the best value for money.

Companies in highly regulated fields, such as utilities or those where safety is paramount, are more typical users of enterprise management software, but even organisations, such as television broadcasters, use it to keep track of the location and condition of assets, including cameras, satellite trucks and generators.

Implementing this software is far from cheap, with the costs running into the tens of millions depending on the size of the organisation. Knowing the true purpose of such a system is vital if it is to achieve its purpose, according to David Smallbone, head of asset management for AMCL, a consultancy set up in 1997 that has helped to create the Institute for Asset Management. “You’ve got to know what it is you want to collect, and then how to get that information out of your infrastructure and into the system,” he explains.

Affordable handheld devices, such as smartphones and tablet computers, are playing a major role in helping companies to gather the information needed. “The advent of cheaper, more glamorous technology, such as iPads and iPhones, and getting them into the hands of those on the frontline means they start using them to email a picture of a problem back to headquarters, for example,” says Mr Smallbone.

“People need to understand the value of a task to want to do it. If you’ve gone out there in treacherous conditions and fixed a railway or a pump, the idea of then having to fill out lots of forms is not particularly appealing. You have to engineer that cultural change and get people acting as data champions,” he adds.

Technology is helping Network Rail to revolutionise the way it gathers information about maintenance work on the 22,000 miles of track, 30,000 bridges and 2,500 stations it is responsible for. Patrick Bossert, director of asset information, says that 1,100 iPhones were given to track workers as part of its £325-million asset information strategy called ORBIS. Although Network Rail has used handheld devices in the past, personal ownership has proved to be the key in getting staff on side. “The level of engagement as a result of this has sparked more than 500 suggestions for mobile applications,” he says.

Network Rail hopes that ORBIS will revolutionise the way it collects, stores and uses information about its assets, and aims to save £50 million a year by 2019.

Stuart Querns, practice lead for HCL’s global enterprise asset management, likens the development of user-friendly apps for smartphones and tablets to a swan gliding across a pond with the power of the software hidden underneath the water.

HCL has provided asset management systems for clients such as airlines that wanted to make their maintenance processes more efficient in a bid to minimise the time a plane is on the ground. Such systems have helped to manage the complex audit trail for such maintenance and unify previously separate systems. Having a single, unified asset management system reduces costs for a company and makes upgrades simpler. Mr Querns says: “It means that they have one source of the truth when it comes to the assets they own.”

Affordable handheld devices, such as smartphones and tablet computers, are playing a major role in helping companies to gather the information needed

Given the cost of implementing an asset management system, the nature of a company’s business will influence their decisions. A train operating company is more likely to be willing to invest at the start of a franchise, but much less likely toward the end of that period when it wants to “sweat” assets to maximise profits.

Similarly, a water company will often seek to spend on technology at the start of a price control period to increase its return on investment. However, they may be more likely to consider longer-term opportunities than a train company knowing that they will still be in place for the next control period.

Thames Water, Britain’s largest water company catering for 14 million households and businesses in London and the South East, has partnered with IBM as part of its plan to upgrade deteriorating infrastructure over the next 25 years, while keeping within price controls set by the regulator. It has decided to do so two years before the next five-year regulatory period in a bid to find the safest and most innovative solutions.

IBM’s Jon Bentley says that the partnership would help Thames Water to make smarter decisions on its asset management and capital works programmes, and deliver better customer service. One approach will be to analyse a range of social media channels, including Twitter and blogs, to identify trends and usage behaviour.

The recession has helped consultancies such as AMCL because it has made companies think about the most cost-effective ways to deploy both resources and staff. According to Mr Smallbone: “Necessity is the mother of invention – do I really want my guys out there checking this piece of kit every four weeks or is there a piece of kit that allows me to check it every eight weeks?”

However, Leonard Hayes, technical director for AMT-SYBEX, another software company set up in 1990 that focuses on utilities and infrastructure, points out that implementing an enterprise asset management system is no quick fix. “Typically it will take between twelve months and two years, and the main challenges will often be about business change and data quality rather than the software itself,” he says.

Customers also want to know whether a system has a proven track record in their industry and if staff fully understand the company’s needs, he says. AMT-SYBEX started off implementing and consulting on enterprise software, but has evolved into developing its own Affinity Suite of products. It is used by almost half of Britain’s big electricity, water and transport infrastructure groups, and integrates well with software from the big global software groups such as SAP and Oracle.