The mechanics of condition monitoring and predictive maintenance could be summed up with two simple words: asset watching.
Those two words — and that simple philosophy — are what powers AssetWatch® and those essential manufacturing concepts make up the company’s services and expertise.
What AssetWatch can bring to the gearing industry is a multi-layered answer, according to AssetWatch CEO Brian Graham.
“In the ‘manufacturing-of-gears’ business, you are going to be faced with real challenges and issues around maintenance, reliability, and unplanned downtime,” he said. “We help the gear manufacturing industry in the context of instilling best-in-class reliability practices in their own facilities.”
Essentially, whether a company is making gears or using machines containing gears, the need to monitor that equipment to prevent unplanned shutdowns and consequential loss of revenue remains the same, according to Graham.
“Both impact the gear manufacturing business,” he said. “Our fundamental journey is to help predict failures across a wide range of the PF curve. There are ways of detecting when failure is going to occur. To take the extreme examples, there’s going to be ultrasonic detection you can utilize that you and I won’t be able to obviously hear, because it’s at ultrasonic wavelengths. On the other hand, when you start seeing a machine smoking, you know it’s going to fail, but it’s too late at that stage.”
Discovering potential failures before catastrophic events — being proactive as opposed to reactive — is at the core of what AssetWatch offers its customers, according to Graham.
“That’s really the journey and the mission that we are on,” he said. “And today, for both manufacturing as a whole and gear manufacturing, we utilize vibration and temperature as the tools and the methodologies to start detecting potential failures. Then, in essence, what we do is take these signals, which are signals we receive through our sensors, and they get converted through our algorithms and machine learning in the background into actionable insights that can be communicated back to reliability maintenance managers to help them get ahead and do planned vs. unplanned downtime maintenance.”
Through AssetWatch’s software, the company is able to generate a tremendous amount of data, according to Graham.
“This data can ultimately be used by the gear manufacturing industry to be more proactive in the context of, not only their own manufacturing processes, but also for their own clients,” he said. “I can see a situation in the future where we’ll see the same gearboxes coming up time and time again across multiple manufacturing facilities, potentially in different industries. And over time, there’s going to be a tremendous amount of insight embedded in that anonymized data that ultimately will be of value to a specific gear manufacturer. We are not there yet, and I’ll argue it’s going to take a while for a lot of companies to get there, but that’s inevitably the future.”
That future is one where AssetWatch is able to eliminate unplanned downtime in the industrial world, according to Graham.
“In order to achieve that vision, we are building out what we consider the leading proactive and predictive maintenance platform,” he said. “When you look at that, we are really helping the industry bring about best practice in the context of a proactive maintenance culture, and I will argue AssetWatch is leading the way. This applies not only to the gear industry, but to manufacturing as a whole. This is what we breathe and live every single day. This is what our company is focused on.”
It’s not just the technology that makes AssetWatch what it is, but it’s also the special relationship it shares with its customers, according to Graham.
“We are not a vendor to our customers; we are not looking for that vendor relationship; we are looking for a partnership,” he said.
Once that value proposition is understood by potential clients, Graham said the next step is to involve a condition monitoring engineer.
“That condition monitoring engineer ultimately analyzes all of the data that is coming from our customer’s assets that are being monitored and translates them into a series of very prescriptive, actionable maintenance recommendations,” he said. “That’s where we actually go in and say, ‘There’s a broken tooth on their gearbox; you need to go in, and you need to replace that, otherwise you’re up for imminent failure in the next week’ — or whatever the case may be. By having that condition monitoring engineer, we aim to become a part of their reliability team.”
Embracing Industry 4.0
With many gear manufacturing companies looking to embrace Industry 4.0, the services supplied by AssetWatch become even more essential for the future of the industry, according to Graham.
“Industry 4.0 has been on the radar for a long time now,” he said. “And I think the manufacturing industry as a whole has been very slow to embrace Industry 4.0. Having said that though, there are areas where Industry 4.0 has been embraced pretty rapidly. Robotics is a great example, but I think when you look at some of the other best practices, they have taken time to be embraced, and that goes into what we offer here. Our ability to utilize BLE (Bluetooth low energy) as an example to transmit data in a wireless environment — that has enabled a tremendous amount of capability. That’s the essence of how our equipment works. So, it’s the technology enablement, but we’re also seeing a huge change with people and, obviously, talent.”
As the older generation is retiring, it’s bringing in a new influx of next generation engineers who are more willing to embrace new technologies, according to Graham.
“This confluence has really changed the adoption curve, and it’s accelerated the adoption of Industry 4.0 in general,” he said. “In addition to that, I don’t think the fundamentals around identifying issues have changed, whether it’s through vibration, or it’s through oil analysis or other infrared technologies. But what has changed now is, through this enablement, we’re getting so much more data that’s available, and it’s how you parse that data and how you analyze and utilize that data, which is really the essence of what we do.”
One of the more fascinating aspects of what AssetWatch can offer is its potential to, not just to get in front of potential failure, but to analyze and understand all types of excessive wear that might be affecting a gearbox going back to the first day it was installed, which could be used in future gearbox designs, according to Graham.
Time for a change
AssetWatch has only recently been known by that name. Since 2014, the company was called Nikola Labs, which was spun out of technology developed at The Ohio State University.
“That was the nexus of the company, and it was all around this concept of wireless power transfer, which is essentially the creation of radiofrequency energy and then harvesting that and converting it into low-voltage, DC power for the future of the Internet of Things,” he said. “That’s where it all started. And essentially that was from 2014 through 2018. That was the journey the company was on and doing a lot of great work in that space and building up the capabilities.”
The company soon discovered that FCC regulations and the reality of technology commercialization were going to prove to be too difficult to maintain, so it pivoted and entered the manufacturing space, according to Graham.
“We essentially took what we had learned with low power technologies, and we saw this huge market opportunity,” he said. “We did a market assessment, and we saw this huge opportunity to solve for predictive maintenance and condition monitoring needs for manufacturing industries, and we created our own proprietary sensor suite. We started rolling out a platform, and we went to market. We launched our first-generation product in 2019 and started getting fantastic traction and essentially have built the company to where it is today. Now, we are on our second-generation product providing condition monitoring capabilities and predictive maintenance for the space.”
At the end of 2022, Graham and his team realized that the company needed a rebrand.
“We started building out this platform, which we called AssetWatch, which is the essence of what we actually do — we watch our customers’ assets,” he said. “So, it was appropriate to then rebrand the whole company to AssetWatch. It’s a lot more relevant, and it really is the story in the journey of what we offer our customers today. It’s a new look and a new name, but our promise remains the same to the manufacturing space.”
Since then, AssetWatch has experienced some rapid growth, according to Graham.
“We’ve been very, very successful as a company,” he said. “In fact, we were actually ranked 280th last year on the Inc 5000 fastest growing private companies in the U.S. It’s a fantastic recognition.”
Another particular source of pride for Graham and his company is how AssetWatch creates real return on investment for its customers. For example, recently AssetWatch helped a plastics extrusion company save $1.2 million in one year by discovering minute tolerances in the gearbox of one of the machines run by the company.
“Essentially, what happened is we identified that there was a vibration going on, and we told them they need to go and have a look at the tolerances and have a look at the gearbox,” he said.
During a planned downtime, the company was able to open the gearbox and find some minor wear in a lower gear, according to Graham. By catching the wear, AssetWatch was able to preserve the gear set on a gearbox that had been installed in the 1960s and had never been opened. In addition, the early catch saved the company a potential 1,240-hour rebuild had the gearbox completely failed.
“Can you imagine a production line being down that long? That’s that value,” he said. “That’s the value that we see every day. We are very proud when we see saves like that happen for our customers.”
More opportunities on the horizon
Graham expects more companies to see the value in predictive maintenance opportunities as the industry moves out of the “early adopter phase.”
“We are seeing a lot of companies wanting to be on the front end of predictive maintenance and wanting to really drive down costs in the manufacturing line,” he said. “They’re squeezing out margins in many cases, and they see this as an opportunity to save costs. There’s going to be a late adoption and a groundswell around the technologies and the solutions that we provide. That’s going to happen across the board, and continuous monitoring is going to become the norm as opposed to run-to-fail or periodic monitoring. The data insights that are going to be generated are going to create a world of opportunity.”
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