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Software improves flow of information to workers in the field
By John D. Oravecz
Published: Monday, March 24, 2014, 11:56 p.m.
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Jonathan Berman thinks he's found a way to get employees to perform as well as their company's best workers.
He is CEO of Kextil LLC and is an example of how an entrepreneur with an idea can work to build a company — in this case, one that is developing an automated knowledge-sharing system.
Kextil's proprietary software tackles a problem that several big-name manufacturers told Berman, a former management consultant, has not been addressed. The issue is how to improve the flow of information between field service workers and their supervisors.
Downtown-based Kextil's system is focusing on technicians who service oil and gas drilling equipment and complex hardware for the health care and other industries. In addition to Kextil's software, the system uses existing speech-recognition software and wearable computers to collect data.
“It's hard to get everyone performing as well as the best 10 percent of the workforce,” Berman said. The reason is their tools don't give them access to information they need, he said. And their tools don't make it easy for them to report detailed information about what they did on the job.
He believes Kextil can solve those problems and there's a potential $15 billion to $30 billion market worldwide. Forbes said last year there are 5.4 million field service techs in the United States, fixing things ranging from furnaces to jet engines.
Alex Rudnicky, Kextil's co-chief technology officer, said Kextil uses speech “because there are many situations when the hands and eyes are busy, and you can't stop to write something down. People typically create a report afterward or at the end of the day.”
“The issue is reports are often incomplete and may not be of much use,” said Rudnicky, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who specializes in speech recognition and human computer interaction.
“Kextil can be a game changer in the field-service world,” said Ed McMurray, director of field service operations for Tokyo Electron America in Austin, Texas, which makes semiconductor production equipment.
Tokyo Electric is one of six companies paying Kextil in trials to evaluate how its system works.
“We are continually looking to improve the quality of information we capture from field events,” McMurray said. And Kextil is alone in addressing those needs, he said.
Another customer is Pason Systems USA of Golden, Colo., which this month trained workers to use Kextil's software on its equipment at a site in Wexford. The company makes rugged touchscreen computer display systems that automate and monitor the operation of drilling rigs. Its equipment is used on 350 rigs in the United States, Canada and offshore. A spokesman could not be reached.
Berman, 46, a Churchill native, said CEOs he worked with often asked, “How do I lift up the performance of workers in the field?” From medical device makers to advanced manufacturers, “it was the same problem,” he said.
“There's a lot of money in these businesses, so I said this looks too good to pass up,” Berman said. “It was an opportunity to start a company.”
In 2010, Berman used his own money, an amount he refused to disclose, to develop an initial version of Kextil's software and start the company. Potential customers liked the concept, he said. That enabled him to raise $310,000 from investors, including family and friends, for a second version.
“That led to our first piece of good fortune in late 2012, when we secured our first piece of revenue generating work with Siemens,” he said. “Our target market is large global companies.” A Siemens spokesman declined to comment.
Berman raised $150,000 from Innovation Works, a Hazelwood-based agency that invests in tech startups, and more from investors. “Our story is getting stronger, and we have paying customers,” he said.
Berman operates the company with four other executives. He said he plans to hire about a half-dozen employees by the end of the year.
Kextil's product addresses two key problems for field-service companies. One is the information flow between a mobile technician and his company.
An example is the 1,000 highly paid technicians who work for one of his customers, a large manufacturer of CAT scan equipment that he refused to identify. The techs do preventive maintenance and fix broken machines. They wear a headpiece with a microphone to document what they do while they work with tools on the sophisticated machines.
“The documentation part is difficult,” Berman said. As they work, techs try to make mental notes, and later type up reports on their work. They can't take notes because “they need their hands and eyes to do their work.” As a result, companies say the quality of the reports is superficial, Berman said.
Rudnicky said Kextil's system allows humans and computers to interact. The technician speaks while working and the system records data. It can supply the tech with information, such as a maintenance procedure or even a portion of it, instead of having to look it up in a manual.
“It makes people more accurate and productive in their work,” Rudnicky said.
Another piece is knowledge building — delivering best practices to the field.
“We've learned there is a big opportunity to help shape service content,” Berman said. Information and procedures from field personnel can be mined for best practices, then delivered to others in the field.
Speech recognition is a critical component because “the system must understand what the person says, and come back with a question if it doesn't make sense,” Rudnicky says.
It can collect information about best practices and communicate it to others. “If somebody notices something odd, they can make a voice note, and that information can filter up and make the whole organization more effective.”
Kextil's goal this year is to make its first commercial sale, Berman said. He intends to license Kextil software to companies that will use their own programmers to integrate Kextil into their systems.
John D. Oravecz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.