Watching your assets for competitive edge

  • 19-Apr-2011 03:47 EDT
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Adrian Jennings, Vice President of Technology, Ubisense

The rail industry is entirely about motion: moving trains for the purpose of moving passengers. As we move about in our own lives, we can do so blindly to a certain extent, remembering our way around our homes in the dark without switching on the lights. But any unfamiliar environment, or even slight changes in a very familiar one, causes us to need to see where things are to move about efficiently and safely. Sensing location is critical to efficient motion, particularly when the unexpected occurs.

Location solutions are growing in popularity, especially among the transit community that is starting to embrace new technologies that provide a variety of efficiencies. For instance, GPS technology provides system-wide location of trains in real time, reducing accidents, delays, and costs while increasing track capacity and customer satisfaction. The new efficiencies in service that GPS brings are also being extended into maintenance operations using indoor location systems that can provide very accurate locomotive and rail car location through covered maintenance facilities.

Knowledge of the exact location of locomotives, or other off-highway equipment, inside a maintenance facility provides two main areas of value: monitoring processes to identify and eliminate inefficiencies, and monitoring actual progress against plan to react in real time to unexpected events. Today, most rail operators still record the location of locomotives on manually created markup sheets that are cumbersome to update and disseminate so the data is often in error or out-of-date.

At its core, an indoor location system can be thought of as a highly reliable, automatically created markup sheet that logs updates in real time. This results in substantially improved knowledge about maintenance operations through accurate, reliable, and timely information about the location of locomotives. Moreover, with the data in electronic form it is easily searchable and accessible from anywhere, allowing multiple users to use and analyze the data.

The first step in improving efficiency is to monitor existing workflow to identify potential areas of improvement. Without an indoor location system, it is very difficult to get a reliable view of exactly how things work: there is an assumption about what happens but no hard data to back up those assumptions.

Very often, when an indoor location system provides that hard data, maintenance staff and managers alike are surprised to find that things aren’t working the way they assumed: that there are obvious delays and inefficiencies that can be easily removed, but which up until now were just not apparent. That is the first value of an indoor location system: showing how processes actually work in a way that can help to remove inefficiencies by simple procedural changes.

Having helped to optimize processes and procedures, an indoor location system can monitor real-time activities and provide alerts when reality deviates from plan. For example, a locomotive going through a routine maintenance procedure is expected to be handed over to operations on a particular date and time, according to the plan.

However, problems found during maintenance might require further time spent in a repair shop. In this case the location system immediately and automatically alerts operations as soon as the locomotive spends longer in a maintenance bay than expected or is moved to an unplanned location. This reliable, timely information, not requiring any manual data entry or intervention, is critical to create contingency plans.

In another example, a simple repair might take longer than expected due to a parts shortage or other issue. In this case, with a maintenance bay occupied for longer than expected, other locomotives can be automatically rescheduled into other bays or processed rather than a backup resulting from the delay.

There are many ways in which the reality of operations can deviate from plan, even when that plan has been optimized using data gathered from an indoor location system. When the unexpected occurs, such a location system can ensure that workarounds are put in place quickly and that all relevant parties are alerted immediately for contingency planning. The result is a highly optimized maintenance and repair operation that minimizes locomotive downtime simultaneously, improving both service and the bottom line.

Adrian Jennings, Vice President of Technology, Ubisense, wrote this article for SAE Off-Highway Engineering.

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