Package delivery companies and large retailers were among the first to use handheld devices to track items, which were usually identified with bar codes. But bar codes are a fairly limited solution because they don’t store any information—they only provide a way to reference an item by ID number. Some IT leaders are selecting tracking solutions for physical assets that allow more information to be collected and stored on chips that are attached to each item.

Barrick Goldstrike Mines found an asset tracking solution that uses steel-clad chips attached to individual items. The Nevada-based division of Barrick Gold Corporation, a global mining company, has invested millions of dollars in equipment for the mining operation, including more than 500 motors and 1,000 other pieces of equipment. Technicians at the plant service about 50 pieces of equipment each week, and some of the pieces that must be replaced or rebuilt are still under warranty. Collecting on valid claims for equipment that malfunctions while still under warranty has helped Barrick save an estimated $100,000 because the company’s maintenance department has detailed information on each piece of equipment, including its purchase date and service record.

Choosing a new solution
Barrick chose CS2 INC to integrate several components to build an improved process for tracking maintenance and warranty information. CS2 INC was founded in 1982 as a factory automation and logistics consulting firm. One of its products, The Digital Technician suite, brings together several technologies to replace traditional, paper-based methods of tracking equipment:

Michael Collins, president of CS2, explained the decision-making process that went into choosing and integrating the components for The Digital Technician. He said that CS2 chose iButtons instead of bar codes because they have read/write capabilities and are more durable. The tiny RAM devices, made by Dallas Semiconductor, cost about $10. The iButtons have stainless steel housings that can be glued or screwed onto equipment.

Collins said that CS2 chose Palm devices because they were less expensive and easier to use than other handheld devices the company had deployed.

“We used to use different handheld computers such as Telxon, but those became to be too expensive and too hard to use,” Collins said.

For example, the Telxon PTC-710 cost more, could only display four 16-character lines at a time, and was based on the less-user-friendly MS-DOS.

To transfer data between the Palm devices and the iButtons, CS2 chose the iConnection from Scanning Devices, Inc., which is shown connected to a Palm device in Figure A. Scanning Devices also coded The Digital Technician software according to CS2’s architecture.

Figure A
The iConnection interface connects the PDA and iButton device.

An unlimited number of PCs can use the database software for $4,800. Applications programs—such as for warranty tracking, lubrication inspection, or PC asset management—are $3,600 each. Collins said that CS2 is currently using Palm m100 devices, which come equipped with the adapter, cable, and software for $400.

Goldstrike’s payoff
Lisa Callender, warranty administrator for Barrick Goldstrike, found this new solution for keeping track of service and warranty information for the company. The storage capability of the iButtons was a big factor in her decision to go with the CS2 system, as was their durability; Barrick Goldstrike even uses them on motors that vibrate chemical solutions.

Another factor in her decision was the price of the handheld devices used in The Digital Technician system. The company could buy about 3.5 Palms—including the CS2 software—for the price of one Dolphin, the bar code system it had previously used in its equipment-tracking program. Finally, she found that the simplicity of the Palm interface required little user training, even though most staff members were not highly computer literate. In fact, staff members now are so comfortable with the Palm interface that they use other Palm applications, in addition to the warranty application.

When a Barrick technician initially enters an asset in the system, he uses the Palm to store information on the iButton about the date installed, the work order, an asset number, the rebuild vendor, and any special notes about the piece of equipment. Having this data stored on the iButton saves the tech from having to track down repair histories and warranty information based only on the bar-coded reference number. So far, Barrick has put about 400 pieces of equipment into the tracking system and expects to have a total of 1,500 in the system by the end of the year.

When a piece comes in for repair, the technician touches the iButton to the reader on the Palm. The Palm then displays the data for the piece of equipment—up to 32 fields of data with 16 characters each, as shown in Figure B. The technician can easily see if the piece is under warranty and can update the information stored on the iButton to explain what he did to deal with the malfunction.

Figure B
The Digital Assistant warranty application

At the end of the day, a technician synchronizes his Palms to his PCs via a HotSync and downloads new or updated information. A departmental manager created a file in WordPad that copies the updated files from the PCs to the network, and a macro pulls all of the data into one Excel file. The manager can then analyze the maintenance information and can sort by installation date, by component ID, or even by employee name to help in performance reviews.

Although having quick access to model information makes it easier to locate parts for broken equipment, Callender says that the biggest payoff has come from ensuring that all warranty benefits are collected.

“Barrick Goldstrike achieved payback in the first month the Palm/iButton solution was used,” Callender said.

She said that the company has saved more than $100,000 since initial deployment began in January 2002.

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