WMU News

WMU leads nation with paperless work order system

Oct. 7, 2005

KALAMAZOO--Personal digital assistants were standard issue in the 1980s version of "Star Trek" and now they're basic equipment for most of Western Michigan University's maintenance services staff.

By adding PDAs to the traditional maintenance tools staffers carry, WMU is in the forefront of a high-tech revolution. Its use of the handheld wireless devices is not only improving accuracy, efficiency and customer satisfaction across campus, but also serving as a model for universities around the country.

"This system is a tremendous success story, and we're one of only three U.S. universities doing it," says Peter Strazdas, director of the WMU Physical Plant's maintenance services division. "Budgets are tight and taxpayers want us to be more efficient. Using technology to increase efficiency is all part of the new way of doing business. We're working smarter and accomplishing more for our customers."

Strazdas began phasing in PDAs early last year. The devices, called digital maintenance assistants or DMAs by WMU's Physical Plant workers, have been customized to mesh with the University's existing maintenance software and databases. As an additional technology boost, WMU also provided maintenance workers with its equivalent of Star Trek's infamous communicators-in this case, 800 MHz radios.

The maintenance services division collaborated with Tulane University to get its paperless initiative off the ground. The two forward-thinking schools support wireless computing campuswide as well as use the same maintenance software package.

"We both wanted to see how we could get DMA technology up and running, so we partnered to overcome the unique technical hurdles of customizing our maintenance software and working out the bugs," Strazdas says. "Here at WMU, we have some really sharp trades people who took to the new system quickly, and now we're sharing what we've learned with our peer institutions."

Sharing technology in today's budget-conscience climate is important, notes Strazdas, who serves as president of the Michigan chapter of the Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers.

"All of us in higher education know we need to do more with less," he says. "Our University has a large physical plant, and going to a paperless system is improving service while lowering costs. Sharing what we've learned is a huge winner for the state and taxpayers."

WMU's maintenance services division is responsible for academic and administrative buildings; apartments; residence halls; and the campus utility infrastructure, including high voltage electric, water, sanitary, storm, steam and condensate systems.

To keep the University functioning smoothly, the unit operates fully staffed maintenance shops at six main-campus locations. It handles more than 45,000 work orders each year and employs carpenters, plumbers, electricians, mechanics and other skilled trades people.

Three-quarters of the University's 100 skilled trades people will ultimately be trained to use DMAs. Currently, 53 staffers are using the devices and together, they've handled 10,000 work orders under the paperless system.

In the old days, work orders were written down, then mailed or delivered to the maintenance shops. Legibility and timeliness were sometimes an issue, and updating work schedules could be difficult.

That's all changed, thanks to the DMAs and an automated Bronco Fix-It Web site, through which repair requests from students and employees are channeled.

Work orders are downloaded to the DMAs each evening-in order of priority. Periodically during their shifts, staffers wirelessly hot sync the devices to WMU's main Physical Plant server and retrieve newly processed work orders and revised priority lists.

Information associated with each work order is tracked on the PDAs rather than being written down. It doesn't have to be transcribed later or typed into a computer-it's simply sent to the main server and combined with existing databases.

Strazdas says that simplifies doing billings, administrative reports, inventory tracking and customer satisfaction surveys, plus allows his trades people to work with real-time data as well as wrap up their daily "paperwork" in much less time than before.

He adds that benefits such as those partly accrue from the DMAs' ability to scan bar codes that are being attached to University equipment needing regular attention.

ID numbers on the bar codes link staffers to the Physical Plant server, which contains a wealth of information about individual pieces of equipment. Before beginning a repair, employees can call up equipment part numbers and service histories right on site, check out items WMU has in stock, and quickly determine whether a trip off campus will be required to pick up needed parts.

"We hit a home run with this initiative-our people in engineering, information technology and other areas worked together to get the stars in alignment so it would work," Strazdas says. "We're gaining some ground back from layoffs and budget cuts by putting smarter tools in our staff members' hands so they can get the job done for our campus customers."

Media contact: Jeanne Baron, (269) 387-8400, jeanne.baron@wmich.edu

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