Automating using mobile devices

While automation has become an important aspect of performing inspections servicing and repairs, many organisations still perform ‘paper-based’ inspections, work order and repairs, and subsequently scan the paperwork or manually enter the data into a database or spreadsheet. 

Many people ask me if a tablet or iPad can be used to digitise and automate the recording of inspections, servicing and repairs. In short, the clear answer is:Yes. 

Most tablets operate on Android (Google) or iOS (Apple) operating systems and are very similar in terms of functionalities such as battery life, imaging capabilities and durability. 

A paperless system on tablets should provide information that already exists on paper forms or Excel spreadsheets, and at the same time improve the technician’s ability to access and utilise the data. 

For example, if a HVAC technician fills out a report providing specific information on a Water Cooled Unit Inspection, the paperless solution application on the tablet should fulfil the same function. 

The technician should be able to pick from a list of possible choices, using speech to text to add comments or type in information required using the device’s keyboard. 

Paperless inspection and servicing software on a mobile device makes current, past, and future information accessible and easy to use, and can deliver the following functionalities:

  • List all information required by technicians to perform their tasks including questionnaires, parts, possible results/outcomes, acceptable threshold values (for collecting field data), etc.
  • Enable technicians to record recommendations and/or create new corrective tasks.
  • Produce reports, certificates or invoices as required in the field.
  • Send the information to the customer and/or the office in real time.
  • Use barcodes or RFID if required to identify the equipment.
  • Use the camera to take pictures of defects and ability to annotate the picture in the field.
  • Easy access to manuals and instruction on the tablet. Paperless inspection systems on mobile devices can also include validations that allow or disallow data entry, plus they can provide the user with historical information pertaining to previous work on particular pieces of equipment.

Paperless application can also utilise the device’s features such as the camera, GPS, RFID and barcode reader, and the clock (for automatic date and time stamp) enabling quick identification of equipment, identify points of entry and exit, improve efficiency, and minimise human errors. 

The database (backend) 

To maximise utilisation and ROI, paperless applications should not be stand-alone. They should be designed from the outset to collect information, display and manipulate information, and transfer information to and from a database seamlessly. 

The database application should provide a variety of operational and management functions including scheduling, tracking, corrective actions, client access, trend and forecasts, management functions, reports, and analysis tools. 

By using tablets in conjunction with server software, the system can automatically transfer data from the tablet to the database without the need for further data entry or ‘manual’ data reformulation. 

As well as simplifying repeatable tasks and providing staff with easy to use tools that focus on performing tasks, the system can incorporate mechanisms that focus on exceptions and ensure proper execution of tasks, including automatic listing of activities, reminders, alerts, escalation procedures, and easy access to information, ensuring that inspections, servicing and repairs are performed according to guidelines, codes and regulations. 

Finding the right system 

First, users should determine what they want the system to do, and make sure they understand their current processes and information flow. 

They should list things that work well within their current process and things that they would like to improve, with a focus on the process and NOT on the software or computers. 

Users should prioritise potential improvement areas and describe a short scenario where improvements can achieve their objectives. For example, minimising unnecessary administrative tasks such as rescheduling inspections, or performing unnecessary data entry by office staff. 

Users should then answer the following questions: Who will use the system? How computer proficient are the users? What are the procedures for paperwork flow? Will the software improve this flow or make it worse? 

Next users should evaluate features offered by different paperless system providers and compare them to their needs. They should create a list of desired features so they can compare ‘apples to apples’ without getting confused (or blindsided) by the different vendor presentations. 

When reviewing brochures offered by vendors or when speaking with sales people, it is sometimes difficult to clearly identify the differences between the packages. However, certain packages offer significantly better value than their competitors in terms of functionalities, ease of use, and price. 

The differences between packages can be highlighted in the following areas:

  • How comprehensive is their system and is it easy-to-learn and easy-to-use?
  • How easily does the tablet integrate with the desktop/server component, and does the package enable multiple activities such as inspections, repairs etc.?
  • Does the package enable efficient execution of activities? For example, adding a new inspection ‘in the field’ should be quick, easy, and should require minimal effort.
  • Does the solution minimise unnecessary administrative tasks such as reminders and repetitive activities? For example, alerts, automatic quotes, escalation procedures and other exceptions should be automated. Inspection due dates should be automatically calculated based on pre-set schedules, etc.
  • Does it include management functions, reports, KPIs, queries and exceptions?
  • Can the solution help planning and can it highlight problem areas?

Finally, users should determine the best value and fit, and include in their evaluation factors such as the ability to tailor a solution to their needs and the cost of the solution. 

Maintaining a focused approach is the best way to select a paperless inspection package that is right for a company’s needs, and by researching and evaluating options users can avoid regretting hasty decisions later. 

[Naaman Shibi is a paperless inspection technology expert with Pervidi.]

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