Automation has become an important aspect of performing inspections and complying with codes and regulations (e.g. Australian Standards 4349.1-1995). However, many organisations still perform ‘paper-based’ inspections and surveys, and subsequently entering the data manually into a computer.
Handheld device automate inspections and site surveys:
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 productivity tools deployed by organisations that want to improve their staff’s productivity and minimize unnecessary administrative tasks. Most PDAs operate on the Windows Mobile (Microsoft), and will easily include pre-purchase building- inspection software.
Handheld devices should 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 pre-purchase building inspection report providing specific information such as a checklist of the state of the plumbing and accompanying foundation systems, the handheld device should fulfill the same function. A handheld user/inspector can pick from a list of possible choices and/or write or type in information, according to the pre-purchase building inspection business requirements and preferences.
Handheld devices make current, past, and future information accessible and easy to use. Handheld software should also be tailored towards pre-purchase building inspectors who need to perform their tasks using easy-to-use screens and functions. Furthermore, by simplifying navigation buttons and minimizing keystrokes, field staff can learn to operate their PDA software in a short timeframe.
Handheld applications specifically designed for pre-purchase building inspections should deliver the following functionalities:
- List all information required by inspectors to perform their tasks including questionnaires, possible results/outcomes, acceptable threshold values (for collecting field data), etc.
- Provide easy to use navigation capabilities and quick access to information.
- Allow inspectors to enter as much (or as little) information as needed.
- Enable inspectors to record recommendations and/or quickly create new corrective tasks.
- Produce reports as required using portable printers.
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 minimize human errors. AS 4349.1-1995 checklists and templates should also be available on the handheld device to allow an inspector to create new inspections or surveys ‘on the fly’ while out in the field.
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.
To maximize 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, bluetooth, or wireless connectivity.
Benefits of combining software with PDAs for automating pre-purchase building inspections:
- 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 ‘manual’ data reformulation.
- 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 inspections are performed according to guidelines, codes and regulations.
- Improve controls and accountability, leading to better quality of work.
By following three simple steps, described below, inspectors can accelerate the selection process and ensure that their selection fits their needs:
First, determine what you want the solution to do for you. Make sure you understand your current processes and information flow. Try to answer the following questions:
- List things that work well within your current process and things and that can be improved. Focus on the process and NOT on software or computers.
- Prioritise potential improvement areas.
- Describe a short scenario where improvements can achieve your objectives. For example, minimize unnecessary administrative tasks such as rescheduling inspections, or performing unnecessary data entry.
- Who will use the system? How computer proficients are the users? (Remember to separate field staff requirements from requirements of managers and supervisors).
- What are your procedures for paperwork flow? Will the software improve this flow or make it worse?
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 the packages can be highlighted in the following areas:
- How comprehensive is their solution and their PDA software? Also, is it easy-to-learn and easy-to-use?
- How easily does the PDA integrate with the desktop/server component?
- Does the package enable efficient planning of work activities by using schedulers and by automating repetitive tasks?
- Does the package enable multiple activities such as inspections, surveys, questionnaires, etc.?
- Is the solution easy to use? Does it offer different login IDs to different users?
- 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 minimize unnecessary administrative tasks such as reminders and repetitive activities? For example, alerts, 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, queries and exceptions? Can the solution help planning and can it highlight problem areas?
Once you have created your short list of potential packages, look at the following factors to choose ‘the right solution for you’:
- Is the provider willing to tailor the solution to your needs?
- Can you customise settings, such as field aliases and screens available for each user?
- Will you be able to expand the use of the package without ‘hidden’ charges, costs and complexities?
- Does the package include future software releases?
- And finally – is the solution within your budget?
The evaluation process described above should include cost estimates for such solutions. However, you may also wish to evaluate the cost in terms of ROI (Return On Investment). Try to calculate your savings, in terms of minimizing data entry efforts, speeding up information flow and information accuracy, easy access to customer queries and audits, etc.
Once you have estimated your tangible and intangible benefits and savings, you can determine the amount of money you are willing to spend on such system. Ideally, your return on your investment occurs within 6 to 12 months.
Maintaining this focused approach is the best way to select an inspection package that is right for your needs. By researching and evaluating your options you can avoid regretting hasty decisions later.
Naaman Shibi has over 15 years of experience in the Information Technology industry, with a focus on automating inspection and service activities for a variety of organisations.
Techs4Biz Corporation develops and provides technology solutions for improving work-related activities and processes, combining software with handheld devices. Techs4Biz has offices in Canada, the U.S. and Australia.