MRO Magazine

Tradespeople and The New Digital World of Maintenance


Photo: pichitstocker / Adobe Stock

Working with CertainTeed Gypsum and implementing new digital technologies within the maintenance departments has made me realize how vitally important it is for tradespeople to adapt to the new technologies. It has also made me realize that a digital revolution is upon us.

Right now, and moving forward, tradespeople will need a range of digital skills to keep pace with the future of work. Experts say that improving digital skills will be the most important factor in adapting Canada’s skilled tradespeople to new innovative technologies. The question is, are maintenance departments ready for it?

When looking at the maintenance workforce, there is currently a generational difference between young and older workers. Younger tradespeople have the benefit of growing up in a society full of technology. In the past few years, advances in the digital world has made it easy for younger tradespeople to accept and use technologies in their daily maintenance routines. However, some of our more senior tradespeople have fallen behind as they struggle to understand and use new advanced digital tools.

In 10 to 20 years, the current older maintenance employees will retire and their new young replacements will already be adapted to technology, and trade schools will have them prepared for the digital world of maintenance. In the meantime, maintenance departments have the obligation to help the senior tradespeople use the new digital technology and programs.

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As an example of how fast technology is moving for maintenance people, here are some of the maintenance technologies CertainTeed Gypsum has introduced to the maintenance departments in North America. Below is a short list of the key applications that have rolled out in the past two years, and that directly affect tradespeople and their ability to function in the new digital world.

• A new CMMS system with completely changed work order processes.
• Work order mobility for trades to process their work orders using a tablet application. Paper work orders are now obsolete.
• Tablets integrated with HMI and other manufacturing processes and equipment controls.
• Complete digitization of equipment resources and documentation.
• Laser alignment and chain tension applications.
• Remote equipment sensor software for vibration and temperature.

The majority of the younger generation of tradespeople have devoured the new technology. The middle to older generation can and do struggle to adapt, and if they are not helped to overcome their skills, knowledge and attitudes towards the new tools they will often revert back to the old way of doing things and ignore the new digital systems. However, there are ways we can help them.

Bob Purcell, recently retired from Rockwell Automation, after being their Allen Bradley PLC and Control Logic Systems trainer for 30 years.

Purcell started out his career as industrial electrician and controls tradesperson, and before he went to work with Rockwell, he went back to college and received his teaching license. We often get into discussions about how technology designers of maintenance applications need to look at the usability of the product from a maintenance perspective. Instead of looking at a new technology from a management point of view about the report, KPIs and analysis that the new program can provide, people like him look at it from a tradesperson’s angle of what this new technological tool can do for me.

Secondly, his experience with training tradespeople indicates that the success of a new digital tool depends on the simplicity and ease of use. New maintenance tools can come from a variety of sources. Sometimes the product is purchased off the shelf and other times they are designed in-house by engineers. He firmly believes that the decision makers need to take every user’s perspective into consideration when deciding on a new purchase or design.

Experts say that improving digital skills will be the most important factor in adapting Canada’s skilled tradespeople to new innovative technologies.

Purcell also noticed when Control Logic Systems were designed and programmed in a way that the maintenance person could understand and use it to troubleshoot equipment, the tradesperson becomes convinced that the program is useful and they depend upon it to help them solve problems. The program becomes the engine to run the equipment or process as well as a tool to fix it. As an example, in early versions of PLC, the computer that the program was loaded on was very limited and there was no enough memory space to add the complete description of the inputs and outputs on the ladder logic design.

However, in advanced computers and Control Logic Systems there are massive amounts of memory, and descriptions of inputs and outputs can be given exact to what the tradesperson sees on the equipment. Instead of the input/output device being named -[ ]- X1 ,for example, it can now be named -[ ]- Left Conveyor Photocell. If the logics program takes the time to properly describe the elements of the program, it becomes a tremendous troubleshooting tool for the tradesperson.

The changes in technology that Purcell and other people like us have witnessed tells us that any tool purchased or developed for people of maintenance needs to be simple and easy to use. Of course, it also needs to have the capability to deliver the analysis that management requires, but if the application is difficult to use, then tradespeople will not use it, and, at the end, the new technology will be useless for every level of the maintenance department.

Technology is here to stay and will advance faster than we think. We need to consider and involve all the stakeholders when planning new systems and the introduction of digital technology. If different levels of people are going to use the technology, then it needs to be developed from the ground up and not the top down because the people who use it the most will be the same people who make it sink or swim.

If it helps the tradesperson do their job and it adds value to their role as a maintenance person, then it is highly likely they will use it.

If these key points are taken into consideration by the decision makers when technological tools are purchased or developed, then the end result will be the tradespeople buying into the new technology and they will want to learn how to use it in their everyday maintenance activities, and everyone wins. MRO
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Peter Phillips is the owner of Trailwalk Holdings Ltd., a Nova Scotia-based maintenance consulting and training company. Peter has over 40 years of industrial maintenance experience. He travels throughout North America working with maintenance departments and speaking at conferences. Reach him at 902-798-3601 or peter@trailwalk.ca.