Mobile technology has been a big hit in the consumer market, with buyers grabbing PDAs and cell phones off the shelves. Now Canadian businesses are looking at wireless communication to determine how it can make them more productive, more competitive and more cost effective.
“No one should invest in a technology unless it [makes them] more efficient, more competitive and saves money,” said Luc Tremblay, principal sales consultant for wireless and mobile solutions with Oracle Corp. in Montreal.
Those criteria have not been lost on Canada’s mining industry. Faced with depleting ore resources and increasing energy and labour costs, Canadian mines such as INCO Ltd. have been embracing wireless technology to help them remain competitive by cutting costs and boosting productivity.
“Wireless technology gives us the ability to operate equipment under the ground in a harsh environment,” said Eric Hinton, technology prospector with INCO, based at the firm’s research mine in Copper Cliff, Ont.
Ten years ago, INCO in conjunction with Automated Mining Systems in Aurora, Ont., began experimenting with existing cable technology to automate underground equipment. Diamond drills, jumbo drills, long hole drills and large equipment such as scoop trams and trucks are often operated safely without the risk of injury to workers from above ground, far from the mine shafts.
Currently, production equipment and vehicles are equipped with microphones and programmable logic control (PLC) units that feed information into a wireless communication link that is pushed onto a broadband cable system. That is in turn connected to the ceiling of the drift (mine tunnel) and from their signals are distributed to a feeder antenna that transmits through radio frequency (RF) to another broadband system on the surface. The information is then fed to a control centre.
Hinton said the automated equipment is now in three working mines, the North, Stobie and Creighton mines, and “we’re considering a rollout of this technology to one of our major mines.”
Oracle’s Tremblay has been involved with wireless products for seven years and said that many of Canada’s backbone and traditional industries such as construction, mining and utilities share the same needs when it comes to applications of wireless technology to their operations.
Companies in the “traditional” industries are constantly maintaining and monitoring their assets and equipment, and the need to keep track of these assets can be greatly enhanced by the introduction of wireless technology.
LET YOUR FLEET SET SAIL
Pickering, Ont.-based AirIQ has developed a wireless fleet management product called AirIQ OnBoard. The technology, called telematics, uses a computer inside a vehicle equipped with a cellular and global positioning satellite (GPS) to connect the signals to the company’s operations centre in Pickering. Fleet managers can then view the locations and map coordinates of their fleet with software provided by AirIQ.
For fleet managers with construction companies who have vehicles such as backhoes, dump trucks, bulldozers and cranes scattered on various job sites it’s a case of often “needing to know right now where a vehicle is,” said Mark Lukowski, senior vice-president of sales and marketing with AirIQ.
“With our product a user can get on the Internet and browse to their site and find their vehicle right away,” Lukowski said.
Companies in the construction, mining and utilities industries are constantly requiring and monitoring data, often from remote or difficult locations and wireless allows them to quickly communicate and transfer information and data needed, said Paul Zonneveld, KPMG senior manager of information risk management, specializing in wireless technology, in Calgary.
Finding, receiving and monitoring data around the clock keeps utilities in business and the flow of information needs to be reliable and available at all times, Zonneveld said.
“Wireless allows utilities to provide access to systems from anywhere,” Zonneveld said. “Wireless provides what you need to know in real-time information,” he said.
This includes oil and gas workers checking on the pipelines, process control stations and wells. It allows technical staff to evaluate equipment and its status. The process is called supervisory central and data acquisition (SCADA), Zonneveld explains.
“It’s not just for when there’s a disaster,” he said referring to the troubles experienced by Hydro Quebec during the ice storm of a few years ago,. “It’s for ordering and processing.”
Another benefit of wireless technology is that it eliminates the errors from filling out paper forms once the remote worker returned to the office, said Oracle’s Tremblay. With a remote device the information can be entered immediately and simultaneously. “The main benefit is that you’re connected all the time and you’re working with live data.”
One potential downside of this technology is it is broadcast based, and that leads to problems with control of confidential information and the speed of such broadcasts. For example, electronic eavesdropping can lead to confidential information becoming intercepted.
STILL NEED PAPER
Some have pointed to this all-electronic form of communication as the begging of the end of paper documents.
Not so, points out Andrew Kiss with Lexmark Canada Inc. in Richmond Hill, Ont.
Lexmark is actively working with the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), an industry consortium attempting to develop and promote a wireless standard, to further develop wireless printing.
“Where we see it going is that you can be at a remote site, get the information via your cell phone or PDA and then print it out,” Kiss said.
Kiss said Lexmark joined the Bluetooth SIG as the company’s earlier experience with wireless printers based on infrared technology demonstrated certain challenges.
Bluetooth, named for a 10th century Viking Jarl Harald Bluetooth, is an open standard for short-range transmission of digital voice and data between mobile and desktop devices. The standard supports point-to-point and multipoint applications and provides up to 720 Kbps data transfer with a range of 10 to 100 metres.
More importantly, Kiss said, Bluetooth is not a line-of-sight technology as is infrared. In order for an infrared device to print out information it had to have an unobstructed path so that its beam out could make contact with the printer to send and receive information.
The challenges of a line-of-sight technology are something that cannot be ignored for remote workers. For example, points out INCO’s Eric Hinton, communications signals do not penetrate the hundreds of feet of rock down to a mine tunnel and the various types of ore play havoc with signals causing static and other interference.
The other problem with the earlier infrared technology is that it was not a standard used by all vendors, something the Bluetooth SIG is pushing for, and therefore not all devices could communicate with each other, Kiss said.
However; according to a recent study by industry analysts IDC Canada, Canadian organizations are eager to embrace wireless technology and have plans to include wireless as part of their business plan.
They also expressed to IDC they’re tired of waiting for the vendors to develop standards. And indeed, Bluetooth has its competitors.
In the case of INCO, the system they developed with Automated Mining Systems is patented technology that was adapted from older technology and developed on their own, Hinton said.
“We recognized there was a need for us to carry voice, video and data, and all we’ve done is take known [cable] technology and applied it to our own operations.”
“Mining technology is looked upon as such a low technology field and we’re taking the advantages that we can. Now we’re leading in this technology and we have visitors coming to us from around the world.”
Of course not every organization has the deep pockets of INCO. Oracle’s Tremblay said his company has two computing products: the 8i Lite for mobile computing, a lightweight database that fits onto a PDA or handheld; and the 9i Wireless Application Edition, a technical platform that enables an organization to go wireless. The 9i allows an organization to build a wireless portal, centralize the different corporate applications, transform content so its “device” is accessible and personalize the configurations.
Aside from the technical challenges, there is the issue of change management – how a company introduces new technology into the workplace, Tremblay said. Traditional or blue collar industries such as mining and construction have not been viewed as high tech industries. He cautions that any introduction of technology aimed to make a business more competitive, productive and cost effective must be managed carefully.
“You better make sure your application is very intuitive and easy to use so not only will the corporation benefit, but [the workers] will benefit.”