Short circuits and tall orders: Tech trouble at the steel mill

The IT crew hunts for a solution -- and another and another -- when network problems hit a computer on a towering crane

Maybe it's the sense of mounting frustration that makes certain tech repairs so memorable. It's hard to forget the pressure of working on a problem that should be fixed quickly, but the solution slips from your grasp longer than expected. One attempt after another fails, until -- finally -- the pieces fall into place. A few years ago, my tech team racked our collective brain to solve such a puzzle.

At the time I worked at a steel mill. We deployed four cranes that had computers with touchscreens and custom applications running on them to allow the operators to identify which piece of molten steel they were moving. Our systems had to track every segment of steel going down the line and were dependent on the operators in two locations to positively identify each piece.

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These cranes -- and their accompanying computers -- were in motion much of the time and exposed to extreme temperatures, shock and vibrations, electromagnetic interference, and metallic dust. Regular maintenance was required to keep the systems working properly. However, any maintenance had to be scheduled for when the crane was parked and not in use because the equipment had to be carried up several flights of stairs and across a catwalk to reach the crane.

On some occasions, emergency repairs or observation had to be performed while the operator was using it, though there wasn't much space inside these moving cranes for two people to work in.

One day, we started having problems with the network connection in a particular crane. The computer's network connectivity would be lost for a short time, restored, then lost again -- repeatedly -- until at some point there was no longer any connection.

This specific overhead crane contained a car battery for power, which was kept charged via an electrical contact with a rail that ran adjacent to the crane. Equipment in the crane was then powered via a DC-to-AC converter. For network connectivity, the computer had a CAT-5 cable connected to a wireless device inside the crane.

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