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Automation of fire equipment inspections using a PDA

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Over the past few years, automation has proven to be an important tool in the management of biomedical inspections, maintenance, and service activities. Automation enables effective equipment tracking, scheduling, service management, and management of parts and inventories. Benefits include improved productivity, reduced downtime, increased equipment life expectancy, compliance with regulations, and lower overall maintenance costs.
 
In the past, many automation solutions offered paper-based software, which produced paper work orders to perform field service. Once paper forms were returned to the office, they would be manually entered and integrated with the software product. The same concept applied to web-based solutions, which required paper work orders and computers to enter the data back onto the system.
 
In recent years, the role of handheld devices and PDAs (Personal Digital Assistant) has gradually increased from toys used by early adopters, to day-to-day tools deployed by organisations that want to improve staff’s productivity and minimize unnecessary administrative tasks.
 
Can a PDA (handheld device) automate fire equipment inspections and replace paper work orders?
 
Absolutely. Most handheld devices operate on either the Palm Operating System (PalmOne) or Pocket PC (Microsoft), and both platforms can easily handle fire equipment inspection and service software.
 
Handheld devices have to provide information that already exists on paper forms or on the desktop and at the same time improve one’s ability to access and utilise the data.  For example, if a user fills out a monthly inspection report providing specific information, the handheld device has to fulfil the same function. A handheld user can pick from a list of possible choices and/or write or type in information, according to the organisation’s requirements and preferences. Handheld devices make current, past, and future information accessible and easy to use. Handheld software should also be tailored towards biomedical field service personnel who need to perform their tasks using easy-to-use screens and functions. Furthermore, by simplifying navigation buttons and minimising keystrokes, field technicians can learn to operate PDA software in a short timeframe.
 
Handheld applications specifically designed for biomedical inspections, maintenance and service activities should deliver the following functionalities: List all information required by technicians, engineers, inspectors, and maintenance personnel to perform their tasks, including equipment list, task list, activities, parts, instructions, etc; Provide easy to use navigation, search capabilities and quick access to information; Allow technicians to enter as much information as needed; Automatically track labour and apply it to timesheets (if applicable); Enable technicians and inspectors to record recommendations and/or quickly create new corrective work orders; Provide additional value added features such as asset tracking and audit; and Produce reports or invoices as required using portable printers.
 
Handheld devices can include validations that allow or disallow data entry. Handheld devices can also provide the user with historical information pertaining to previous service orders or particular pieces of equipment. Furthermore, barcodes, timestamps and scanners attached to handheld devices enable quick identification of devices and equipment, identify points of entry and exit, improve efficiency, and minimise human errors.
 
Handheld applications should also be designed to minimise the amount of data entry and keystrokes required by incorporating a variety of techniques, starting from pick lists, through check boxes, to look-up lists and automatically generated results and shortcuts.  Minimising the amount of data entry that the end user has to perform is recommended to improve speed, accuracy, efficiency, ease of use and cost.
 
Finally, handheld software should be able to run on multiple hardware platforms, providing flexibility and utilisation of future technology without avoidable and costly software upgrades.
 
The Desktop / Database / Server
 
To maximise utilisation and return-on-investment, handheld 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 desktop or server database and back to the handheld seamlessly. The desktop/server application should provide a variety of operational and management functions including scheduling, tracking, management functions and reports, and analysis tools. The means of data transfer between handheld devices and the database can be through a standard cradle, wired modem, infrared, Bluetooth, Email, or wireless communications.
 
Benefits of combining software with PDAs to service and test Fire Protection Systems and Equipment  
 
Using handheld devices in conjunction with desktop/server software will automatically transfer data from the handheld to your database without the need for further data entry or data reformulation. In addition, the use of such technology will: Improve operational efficiencies; Minimize unnecessary administrative tasks and data entry; Increase productivity and profitability; Enable effective completion of tasks; Simplify repeatable tasks and provide staff with easy to use tools that focus on performing tasks; Incorporate mechanisms to focus on exceptions and ensure proper execution of tasks, including automatic listing of activities, reminders, alerts, escalation procedures, and easy access to information; Ensure that service is performed according to warranties, guidelines and regulations; and Improve controls and accountability leading to better quality of work.
 
How does a fire equipment service provider find the right solution?
By following three simple steps, described below, fire equipment inspectors/service providers can accelerate the selection process and ensure that their selection would fit their needs:
 
First, determine what the resultant of the solution is and make sure the current processes and information flow is understood. Next, evaluate features offered by different solution providers and compare them to your needs. Create a list of desired features so as to 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, both in terms of functionalities, ease of use, and price. Highlight the differences between the packages. Finally, determine the best value and fit; Include in evaluation important factors such as the ability to tailor a solution to needs and the cost of the solution.
 
How much should it Cost?
 
The evaluation process described above should include cost estimates for such solutions. However, the cost may be evaluated in terms of ROI (Return on Investment).  Try to calculate savings, in terms of minimising data entry efforts, speeding up information flow and information accuracy; and easy access to customer queries and audits, shortening the timeframe it takes to issue an invoice (if relevant), etc. Once on estimation of the savings (tangible and intangible benefits), the amount of money willing to spend on such system can be evaluated. ROI should be between six and 12 months.
 

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