With more than 400 ready-mixed trucks on the street at any given time, St. Marys Canada Building Materials (CBM) relies heavily on real-time data transmitted
With more than 400 ready-mixed trucks on the street at any given time, St. Marys Canada Building Materials (CBM) relies heavily on real-time data transmitted from those vehicles to its fleet management software to meet customers’ construction schedules. Any prolonged disruption in the data stream can force a switch to manual vehicle tracking that is both less efficient and less accurate.
In 2007, the company began using Los Angeles-based Network Automation’s AutoMate Professional business process automation platform to help maintain the data flow by monitoring the Windows Event Log for error conditions. When errors are found, designated personnel are alerted by e-mail, a strategy Û accomplished with no coding Û that has shortened outages, saved headaches for dispatchers and plant managers, and helped the company fulfill its main mission to ensure that product arrives when workers are ready to pour.
St. Marys CBM, a division of St. Marys Cement Inc., which is owned by Brazil’s Votorantim, serves the Ontario market from plants distributed over a 475-mile radius, including 10 facilities in the Toronto area, 17 covering western Ontario, and seven supplying the eastern portion of the province. On-time delivery is essential to ensure that the product maintains the proper consistency as well as to avoid causing construction delays.
The company uses Command Alkon’s Commandconcrete software to track vehicle location and deploy trucks to the right place at the right time. If the network goes down or a virtual serial-device driver or receiver at a given plant fails, dispatchers lose automatic visibility into truck locations. Timely knowledge of a communications breakdown or malfunction in the vehicle radio transmitter is needed to minimize outage duration. We wouldn’t know about a problem until the plant or regional manager called us about it, and by that time he would be very angry, says Eric Epstein, a CBM production systems analyst.
Epstein wrote a custom application that records a variety of communications-related problems to the Windows Event Log to flag problems in near-real time, but manually checking the log on six different servers on a continuous basis was not a practical alternative. He needed a way to automatically monitor the activity and trigger an e-mail when certain problems occurred. Writing a DOS batch file for that purpose would have been difficult, a process requiring several days and additional third-party tools that would have to be configured and maintained.
Another St. Marys department had begun using AutoMate a year earlier to transfer files between the company’s production and accounting systems. From that team, Epstein discovered that automation routines could be built using preprogrammed tasks and drag-and-drop workflow assembly, triggered by time or event, and executed with the same tool Û all without the time or expense of writing batch files or custom scripts.
The library of functionality available in AutoMate is significantly more comprehensive than what’s available in a traditional DOS file, and I could do what I needed to do 10 times faster, Epstein notes.
With the same AutoMate license that had already been purchased and used by St. Marys’ IT team, Epstein spent only 20 minutes compiling his own automation sequences using the software’s Event Log trigger and preprogrammed send e-mail command. He simply dropped the instructions into the AutoMate task-building window, setting the stage for AutoMate to continuously poll the Windows event viewer on all six servers for predefined error entries and e-mail CBM’s production systems team whenever those conditions arise.
The entire system is visually based and set up in plain English, explains Joe Kosco, marketing manager for Network Automation. This mix of in-house applications and packaged automation uses the logic of IT with business practices to build a design interface that can be used by people who don’t know code. This level of continuous monitoring of multiple servers is something that human beings simply can’t do.
Today, AutoMate detects network, serial driver and receiver malfunctions that interrupt data flow to the company’s Commandconcrete software. It also finds message delays indicating radio transmitter trouble and duplicate vehicle identification numbers caused by moving radio transmitters between vehicles that confuse the vehicle tracking system. In some cases, the system can rectify the problem as well as notify. Often, it just requires a serial link reboot on the vehicle, Kosco observes.
St. Marys CBM reaps the benefits of AutoMate on a daily basis. Every day, we get an e-mail triggered by AutoMate that something has gone wrong, Epstein reports. Usually it’s minor, but every minute we shave off an outage in our vehicle-tracking system can make a difference in keeping our operations running smoothly.
AutoMate’s ability to help uncover and communicate vehicle-tracking problems almost as soon as they develop has also prevented small IT problems from escalating into large ones. The system has accelerated troubleshooting by eliminating the need to look through log files, increased dispatcher confidence in CBM’s fleet-management software by functioning as a kind of fail-safe system against communication interruptions, and has given plant managers one more defense against truck delays that can damage customer relationships.
The chief advantage has been replacing the task of writing and maintaining batch files with 20 minutes of dragging a few commands into a window. Time savings is the number one benefit, Kosco affirms. It works with any software and uses standard protocols to gather data. It could not be simpler. Û Network Automation, 888/786-4796; www.networkautomation.com