Ever drive down a highway and suddenly the “Service Engine Soon” icon on your dash lights up?  If you are like me, the first thing you think is “oh, crap” and the next is “hope it is not important since I’m late and in the middle of nowhere”.  Now, instead of driving the family car, imagine you are driving an 18-wheeler hauling a load of fresh vegetables and the distribution center expects you in 2 hours. You know how hard it will be to hit that assigned time.  Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) now has a solution that helps the driver solve the problem and gain peace-of-mind at a critical time.

In 2013, DTNA created a solution called Virtual Technician.  While this system is built on a number of emerging technologies like telematics, mobility, central mission control, and big data it is certainly possible to launch a much scaled down version for a different application with much less effort and investment. However, let’s understand what the DTNA solution can do before exploring simpler customer challenges.

Simply put, DTNA’s new engines continuously monitor their performance, just like modern aircraft jet engines.  And like the jet engines, these truck engines continuously transmit status and operational data to a central data collection location (the Customer Support Center), where is stored until needed.  When a fault is identified, a service technician is notified and she examines recent data to identify what is going on. She reads the fault codes and looks at the stored operational data to determine the severity of the problem, which could be as simple as a loose filler cap and as complex as an overheated bearing. The technician communicates with the driver, and possibly the fleet maintenance on-duty person, to decide what steps to take.  If the situation is critical, the service technician can work with a nearby authorized repair shop to schedule the repair, make sure they have any needed parts, and possibly dispatch another tractor to pick-up and deliver the load.  Pretty cool!!!

But what about those of us working with smaller and less complex equipment?  Let me describe an idea I tried to sell to my company over 20 years ago but was never accepted – I was two decades to early.

A 20-year old suggestion that still makes sense

One of the products my team supported was an analytical instrument used to verify the composition of solid and liquid materials.  Some of the instrument’s applications were cement, oil, paint, and clay.  Each sample was put in a small plastic cup, which a single use item to prevent cross-contamination.  I wanted to implement two separate modules:

  1. Consumable supply management
  2. Proactive remote predictive maintenance

Consumable supply management

My plan consisted of having the instrument store the quantity of cups on-hand in the lab then count each test and automatically create a shipping order for a predetermined number of cups when the on-hand inventory hit a reorder point. We would make sure our customer never ran out of supplies and lock out competitors who shipped on receipt of a purchase order.  Should have been simple but….

Proactive remote predictive maintenance

Our product had internal sensors and ran background diagnostics.  I wanted to transmit periodic sensor readings to a central support location and monthly have a support technician plot out the data for each instrument under a support plan.  He would examine the data, determine if any proactive service was needed, and schedule it with the customer or, if no service was required, he would prepare a report showing the data and his observations, sign it, and send to the instrument user.

In both cases we would have delivered peace-of-mind that their instrument was working properly, an appropriate level of consumables were on-hand, and there was no reason to be concerned about meeting production goals.

This would have been a win/win outcome – we would sell more consumables and support plans and the customer’s operation could continue on schedule.  All we needed is the will to do something differently. But, as I said, I was two decades to early.

There is no excuse for any company to not implement valuable solutions for your customers – technology is no longer the excuse.  All you need is the will!