A Canadian electric company is putting the power it generates to good use: running an array of wireless nets intended to make it more competitive.

TransAlta, in Calgary, generates and wholesales electricity using gas, coal and hydro plants in North America and Australia. It also mines the coal it burns and does energy trading. To support these activities, it's turning to a surprising range of wireless technologies:

  • Field maintenance equipment is tagged with RFID labels, which trigger a mobile application to call up repair histories and maintenance guides.
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  • Wi-Fi 802.11b wireless sensors are bolted onto pumps, generators, motors and the like, for monitoring.
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  • Short-range Bluetooth radios let workers with handhelds easily use numerous portable peripherals, such as bar code scanners and RFID readers.
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  • WLANs mounted on huge Caterpillar dump trucks and bulldozers at the mines.

TransAlta slashed the time lag in paper-based maintenance inspecting and reporting, from as long as two work days to about 30 minutes, with a mobile project deployed a year ago, according to Paul Kurchina, TransAlta's program director for IT, who described the company's wireless activity at a recent wireless and mobile summit organised by Gartner Group in the US.

Overcoming user doubts with
Kurchina wanted to link field maintenance workers directly to TransAlta's SAP ERP suite, and Oracle databases, through a wireless handheld device and mobile field service software. Exploiting the WLAN connection, the application software could bring up the repair history of a pump or motor, prompt the technician to punch in or scan data, and then guide the technician through a maintenance or troubleshooting workflow.

When he outlined the plan to a group of highly skeptical field repair technicians at one plant, one of the men raised a hand and asked, "How will this be any different from any other failed IT project that's never worked for us?"

"I didn't tell him, 'trust me,'" said Kurchina. "Because I was sure he'd heard that before, too." Instead Kurchina outlined what became an essential element in the project's success: working closely with the field service technicians at every step in the design of the system. The IT group relied on the technicians to identify what data they needed from the servers, the sequence of steps that would be reflected in the client application and in the screen displays, and the hardware requirements for the handheld computer and peripherals.

"It had to be their tool, just like a familiar hammer on their belt," Kurchina said.

Research what others have done
Kurchina and his team researched what other industries were doing, ranging from oil and gas companies to hospitals. All have lots of expensive equipment assets that need a more efficient, and more cost-effective maintenance model. Wireless nets and mobile applications can do that, according to Kurchina. "Do your research up front," Kurchina says. "The chances are something like what you want to do has already been done, just in another industry."

TransAlta eventually selected SAT Corporation as the software supplier, partly for it's IntelaTrac mobile workflow software and partly for its experience in working closely with customers to actually deploy the system. The company opted for a handheld computer from Symbol, with both 802.11b and Bluetooth radio interfaces, and an RFID reader.

"Bluetooth lets us use all these other capabilities [in peripheral devices], without bulking up the handheld itself," Kurchina said.

RFID tag starts work orders
Now when a technician reads the RFID tag on a pump, the unique identifier triggers a sequence of steps, including step by step guidance as needed. Based on the tag, IntellaTrac delves into back-end servers for information such as the pump's maintenance history. Simple work orders are filled in automatically with server-based data, and updated by the technician's input.

"We're leveraging all kinds of data in our back-end SAP system and our real-time databases," Kurchina said.

He wouldn't say how much the system cost to deploy, but did say that it paid for itself in less than four months. Job times for routine tasks were cut in half, for both experienced and less experienced workers.

Review your apps regularly
One additional key step he urged on his listeners was to review the mobile application at regular intervals after it was deployed, and not simply turn it over to the help desk support team. Kurchina's practice is to run reviews one, three and six months after the application goes live to learn whether it's still working optimally, where it's not, and what additional tweaks and changes have to be made.

Temperature sensors trigger emails
TransAlta is just starting to deploy 802.11b sensors, which are WLAN radios married to a sensor that monitors vibration, temperature, and other variables. When temperature rises above a certain point, for example, the sensor can trigger an e-mail message sent to a user's RIM Blackberry device. The sensors are not cheap, but they've now fallen to under $1,000, Kurchina said.

The vehicle mounted WLAN at the coal mine is based on products developed by Modular Mining. Sensors on these massive vehicles collect data on loads, temperature and other variables. The data is collected centrally over WLAN, and used in part to schedule and route the big trucks to prevent backups and bottlenecks.

The Calgary headquarters and three generating plants and several warehouses currently have WLANs.

It's about applications
"If you look around, a lot of the people here are IT infrastructure people," Kurchina said. "But the [wireless] infrastructure is almost boring to me now. The really interesting thing is, 'Okay, now that I've got this network, what can I actually do with it?' It's about applications."