Whooosh! College tracks maintenance via bar codes

March 30, 2000
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CLEVELAND, OH — How do you track service on thousands of pieces of equipment? You can fill file cabinet after file cabinet with paperwork — or you can apply technology. Cuyahoga Community College, here, chose bar code technology.

The college has more than 2,000 pieces of mechanical equipment housed in more than 2 million sq ft of buildings spread over three campuses and a district administration building.

According to George Dalton, manager, plant operations, at the college, a preventive maintenance program was in place that was all on paper. With this program, “Every piece of equipment was another piece of paper,” Dalton noted. As the paperwork was carried out to each unit and service was done, the paper would naturally get dirty and wrinkled. Oil stains did not enhance readability.

One of Dalton’s staff saw an article on bar coding for fire extinguishers and thought this approach might be applied to tracking maintenance on the school’s equipment. Dalton talked to contractor Brewer-Garrett Co., Middleburg Heights, OH, about developing such a bar code system.

“We wanted a program where both the contractor and us were involved in the system,” said Dalton.

Hot and code

Bar codes were devised for each unit that were tied to the school’s numbering system. The bar code system that was put together consists of a micro wand for scanning, a home base for data transfer between the wand and computer, a PC system, and printer. Six wands are used altogether at the college, two at each campus.

Brewer-Garrett has two full-time service technicians in offices at each of the campuses, so there is a wand available for every tech. Alan Fulkerson, service manager for Brewer-Garrett, explained that the contractor has a guaranteed performance contract with the college whereby the firm maintains, services, and repairs every piece of mechanical equipment, “everything from drinking fountains to chillers. We take care of all of it.”

The contractor developed a maintenance manager software program that has the various required maintenance tasks assigned to it. “By bar coding, you can track everything and you have all your tasking right on the wand,” said Fulkerson.

To do his rounds, the service tech will go up and scan the bar code label on that piece of equipment and the wand’s display will show what the unit is — a boiler, for example. The wand then asks a series of questions on the display that the tech must answer. It will ask whether this is PM (preventive maintenance) or a repair. If PM, it will ask what month, because maintenance is different depending on the time of year.

For a boiler, the wand will ask the tech to enter such things as pressure settings, combustion readings, and more. It will also tell the tech what tasks to perform, such as “clean the tubes.” All entries made on the wand are date-stamped so there is a record of when the service was done.

Each tech also carries a set of bar code cards on which to enter repairs. The tech scans the appropriate code, then enters what was done (such as “replaced pump coupler”).

With the college’s old method, said Dalton, “There was no way to keep track if a unit was serviced or not.” Now, with the information entered into the wand, both the school and the techs know what equipment was serviced and when.

If a tech can’t remember whether he already took care of a piece of equipment, he can use the system to check.

Once a service tech completes his route, he returns to the office and plugs his wand into the home base to enter the accumulated data into the college’s computer system. At the PC, the tech can also download different routes and question sets into the wand, depending on which equipment needs to be checked next.

Question and answer

Brewer-Garrett wrote all the question sets for the wands. “Once you build the question sets,” Fulkerson noted, “you can store them in a library.” The questions can then be reused with new or similar types of equipment that are added to the facilities.

As situations have come up, Dalton has suggested new information he would like added to the system. For example, one time when the crew had to spend some time finding a part for a unit, Dalton asked if the part number could be added. For new equipment, he thought it would be helpful to add the date of installation.

To track what has been done, a history report can be viewed on screen and/or printed that “will tell us everything that’s ever been done with that piece of equipment,” said Fulkerson. “That comes in handy when it’s going through a lot of belts, or it’s going through bearings.”

Getting a complete rundown on a piece of equipment can aid in diagnosing the problem. Dalton recounted that checking the history had helped in determining a problem with some couplings.

If the workload should require another tech, Fulkerson said that additional labor will be assigned temporarily. There can be “literally thousands of filters that we’re changing,” he pointed out, and another set of hands may be needed to keep up.

Staying on track

Being able to track maintenance records is the main value of this system to the college, said Fulkerson. “It’s all there at a glance.”

Since installing the system, Dalton noted that smaller pieces of equipment are maintained much more regularly. They aren’t overlooked while maintaining the major equipment. Also, he said, “The backlog of things we have to do is less.”

The service techs also like the system because paper is eliminated. “The guys aren’t big on paperwork,” Fulkerson remarked.

Dalton did admit that at first the techs were hesitant about this new technology. Some had never worked with computers before. But once they started using it, they provided a lot of input to improve the program.

To further enhance the system, Brewer-Garrett would like to tie in scheduling so that the system tells you when to do maintenance.

Summing up his feelings about bar code tracking, Dalton said, “We are much better off with this system than with the stack of paper.”

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