Interestingly, threads about computer-based maintenance systems regularly continue to crop up on this forum from time to time. Those of you who have seen my earlier missives touching on this subject may wish to skip this post (?), but new-comers may like to hear some advice from someone who has been involved, on and off, with maintenance, stock control, inventory (etc.) systems since the good old days of dBASE on DOS platforms.

I have come to believe that systems should be highly configurable. For example, what do you do if your previous system used a twelve-character control No. (or whatever) and the new system only allows ten characters? Or, what if you like to search on manufacturer, model (or whatever) and the new system needs a control No. key-field (and you don’t like the idea of using “codes”). What if the new system doesn’t handle risk-based maintenance (but you want this), or uses PM frequencies when you prefer intervals (yes, there is a difference). What if the system does not handle spare parts stock control (oh, really?), or cannot forecast PM workloads? etc., etc., etc. ...

Surely systems of such flexibility are available? Well, perhaps they are (although I have yet to see one outside my own PC). No doubt the well-known actor in this field who is a sponsor of this forum will happily re-model their system in any way you want (but at what price?). What we must remember is that “biomed” is, in the great scheme of things, a small market sector. Economies of scale don’t apply, and we are left with expensive bespoke (and, sadly, often restrictive and disappointing) computer programs. They are supposed to help us work more efficiently, but in actual fact often force us to work in torturous ways dictated by the whims of the programmer (dare I cite “centi-hours” here?).

Do I have an axe to grind? Indeed yes. As a freelancer who has offered bespoke solutions myself, but never got a taste (from biomeds in the British NHS, that is). For some perverse reason, that I’ve never really understood, people seem to prefer to purchase expensive, but mediocre off-the-shelf “solutions” rather that engage someone to come along and solve the actual problems for them cheaply and efficiently. Probably a case similar to the “nobody was ever fired for buying IBM” syndrome, I suppose (also known, I believe, as CYA).

Meanwhile many biomed departments carry on quite happily with home-grown systems that have evolved, honed to perfection even, over the years. One point that some may fail to realize is that the best (if not all) of the “industry standard” systems (such as Medi-Mizer, for example) started out as the in-house program hacked out by some good old biomed somewhere (the United States, usually). There are, I would guess, hundreds of such home-grown programs still in daily use (or, perhaps, hidden in some dusty corner of hard-drives) around the world. I wish they could all be submitted into the public domain (I’d be glad to consider purchasing any such program, by the way).

All you really need is a relational database linked to a list of the equipment you service. The master list links to other datafiles such as jobs, manufacturer, model, parts, PM history, PM procedures, user etc. In this way you don't have to duplicate data entry, as the related-to datafiles act as look-up lists. This is fundamental stuff, but as with everything else, the basics need to be got right! User interfaces are cosmetic, leaving you to make it as pretty, clever, or as bare-boned as you like (and as time permits). It doesn’t actually matter whether you use Windows Vista, good old DOS or anything else in between, as long as you can run some decent database software. Personally, I like FoxPro (probably because I've spent thousands of hours with it), but I should imagine that good work can be done in Access also.

Lastly, why not do what Joe Emmerson has done (before he became excited by E-MAT, that is)? By simply using the tools that most of you are staring at right now (ie, Microsoft Access, Excel and Word) he developed his own system. Then it will be (and do) whatever you want it to be (and do). Joe’s system is tailored exactly to what he wants, and does all that he needs. How much did it cost? Well, you can ask Joe that one, but I guess it was just a hundred or so hours of his time. But you can start small. After all, what else (of any use) were you planning to do this weekend? You NHS guys are so lucky to have all this stuff at your finger tips.

So there it is:-

Home-grown is best (it will do what you actually want, and you can develop it as your department evolves). It is also the cheapest, and you retain control (an important point when you think about it).

Do it yourself (and if you can’t, bring in some-one who can). Freelance people such as myself are available for assisting in developing and maintaining equipment management systems (and a host of other one-off tasks besides).

Remember, you can do a lot yourself with the tools you have right now. In fact you can do much worse than start off with simple databases in Microsoft Excel! smile


If you don't inspect ... don't expect.