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Techs4Biz on inspections and surveys using hand-held devices/PDAs

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Inspections and surveys using hand-held devices/PDAs.

Automation has become an important aspect of performing inspections and complying with codes and regulations, but many organisations still perform paper-based inspections and surveys, subsequently entering data manually into a computer. Can hand-held devices automate inspections and site surveys? In recent years, the role of hand-held 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 minimise unnecessary administrative tasks.

Most PDAs operate on either the Palm Operating System (PalmOne) or Windows Mobile (Microsoft), and both platforms can easily include inspection software. Hand-held 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 an inspection report providing specific information, the hand-held device should fulfil the same function.

A user can pick from a list of possible choices and/or write or type in information, according to the organisation’s requirements and preferences. Hand-held devices make current, past, and future information accessible and easy to use, and their software should also be tailored towards inspectors, who need to perform their tasks using easy-to-use screens and functions. Furthermore, by simplifying navigation buttons and minimising keystrokes, field staff can learn to operate their PDA software in a short timeframe.

Hand-held applications specifically designed for inspections should deliver the following:
List all information required by inspectors to perform their tasks including questionnaires, possible results/outcomes, acceptable threshold values (for collecting field data), etc. PDAs can be used for completing pre-defined inspection checklists for specific equipment.
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 or invoices as required using portable printers. Hand-held devices can also include validations that allow or disallow data entry.

Hand-held applications can provide users with historical information pertaining to previous inspections or particular pieces of equipment. Furthermore, bar codes, time stamps and scanners attached to these devices enable quick identification of devices and equipment, identify points of entry and exit, improve efficiency, and minimise human errors. Finally, the 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
Hand-held applications should not be stand-alone. Hand-held applications 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 hand-held 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 these devices and the database can be through a standard cradle, Bluetooth, or wireless connectivity.  

Combining software with PDAs for automating inspections
Using hand-held devices in conjunction with desktop/server software will automatically transfer data from the device to user database without the need for further data entry or manual data reformulation; improve operational efficiencies; minimise 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; and improve controls and accountability, leading to better quality of work.  

How does an inspector find the right solution?
Inspectors can accelerate selection processes and ensure that their selection fits their needs. 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 that can improve. 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, minimise unnecessary administrative tasks such as rescheduling inspections, or performing unnecessary data entry.

When you have gathered your requirements, try to answer the following:
Who will use the system? How computer proficient is 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?

Next, evaluate features offered by different solution providers and compare them to your needs. Create a list of desired features so you 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 functions, ease of use, and price.

The differences between company packages can be highlighted in the following areas:
How comprehensive is their solution and their PDA software? 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 minimise 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?
Finally, determine the value and fit. Include in evaluation important factors such as the ability to tailor a solution to your needs and the cost of the solution. Once you have created the 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?

Return on investment (ROI)

The evaluation process should include cost estimates for such solutions. Organisations may also wish to evaluate the cost 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, easy access to customer queries and audits, etc. Once you have estimated and quantified your tangible and intangible benefits and savings, you can determine the amount of money you are willing to spend on such a system. Ideally, your return on your investment occurs within 9 to 12 months.  

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