Automating Field Paperwork
8 Key Considerations Before You Pick a Technology
By Ted Gauld
Let’s start with the good news and the bad news, which is there are more reasons and ways to automate oil and gas related paperwork than ever before. Like you, millions of mobile energy workers are turning to mobile technologies to help deal with increasing pressure to do more with fewer resources, maintain uptime, respond quickly to issues and thoroughly document conditions and work status. Whether teams are servicing their own infrastructure or that of a customer, there is a strong focus on improving operational visibility so that issues can be identified and addressed before they become service, safety or compliance concerns.
It’s no surprise that most mobile energy workers still document inspection, service requests, work orders and time sheets by hand on paper forms. Writing on paper is simple and reliable for workers in a variety of environments and scenarios. Of course, in our increasingly connected and just-in-time world, a key challenge is getting data off paper in a timely way so the information can be quickly integrated into corporate systems and workflows.
Extracting data from paper is a familiar struggle. Completed forms are usually driven, shipped or scanned and emailed back to the main office where they wait for manual data entry. Other processes and decisions also wait. Of course, the more manual the process, the higher the risk that documents are misplaced. This can lead to delayed decisions, unnecessary rework and a variety of other risks, such as billing disputes or regulatory inspections. For example, the recent Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011 (H.R. 2845) doubles violation fines to $2 million. Even a loss rate of a 1/10th of 1 percent of documents can create serious risk when thousands of documents are collected in the field.
The growth of tablets, digital pens, hosted services and character recognition options with scanners has created more automation options (and higher expectations) than ever. As is often the case, the larger the number of potential options, the more difficult it can be to make a choice and to create an overall strategy.
Mobility plans are difficult to create for a variety of reasons including issues around devices, platform choices, workflow coordination across multiple teams, IT priorities, staffing and training decisions, support and maintenance budgets and much more.
Mobility projects can be complex with multiple points of potential failure. A recent survey estimated that mobile employees can lose 50 to 80 minutes of productivity on average when their devices fail, and this productivity loss can total up to 41 percent of that device’s total cost of ownership (TCO).
The goal here isn’t to paint an uninviting picture. It’s to let you know that you’re not alone, that many oil and gas industry leaders have preceded you in tackling mobile deployments, that every mobile solution will be different and to share best practices that will keep you on the right track for your team.
It’s time to look at some very specific aspects about your workflows and needs, which will have big impacts on your ultimate technology decisions. What follows are the eight key considerations for selecting technologies that meet your needs:
1. How do you use the data captured in your paperwork?
The process starts with understanding what you do with the data that is collected today, the urgency for getting the data back to the office and how the data is extracted and used.
Is the data part of an active workflow where critical processes, decisions, and next steps are delayed until the data gets in the right hands?
- How time-sensitive is the need?
- Does the paper languish in the field, trailer or a truck before it gets to the office? If so, are there issues with the paper languishing?
- Does the data need to be typed into a back-end system before decisions are made?
- Does someone simply need to see a copy of the form or signature before the next action is taken?
Are the paper files or image files archived?
- Once data is written on paper, is the ultimate destination a simple archive of documents that are seldom retrieved?
- Are there pains around retrieval for either paper in boxes or scanned PDF files? Perhaps there is no key word search or indexing capabilities, making it difficult to search and retrieve.
- Do you need to archive the original handwriting in addition to manually extracting some of the data for an active workflow? If so, do you need an audit trail linking image files of the handwritten documents to data from that file entered into a database?
If data needs to be instantly sent to other stakeholders to keep processes moving, then mobile computers or digital pens may be required. If you only need a copy of the form and there’s no rush, then scanning might be adequate. If you need data extracted from the form and an image file of the original handwriting, then a scanner with optical character recognition (OCR) or a digital pen might be the best approach.
2. Are mobile energy teams simply reporting from the field or are they interchanging data with the back office?
Are teams only sending data in one direction: from the field to the office?
- Are they simple inspection reports, issues flagged, completed work orders, time sheets or activity logs?
Or does the team also need to interact with back-end systems in real time from the field?
- Are they doing real-time inventory checks for the availability of service parts? Are they doing real-time scheduling for follow-up service calls?
If teams need real-time access to back-end systems from the field, then more complicated tablet, laptop and handheld solutions might be required.
3. What types and quantities of data are you collecting?
Some energy teams use simple forms. Others record mountains of data on forms while in the field.
- Do your teams complete simple forms with just a few fields? Or are the forms complex with multiple pages and potentially conditional logic or branching?
- Are they capturing free text on forms or mostly entering numbers or using check boxes?
- Are sketches required on the form?
- Is there a space for free-hand/unstructured notes being captured for later reporting on the form?
- Are the forms pre-populated with data such as customer names, addresses or service information?
- Do pictures need to be taken to add to the form?
- Are signatures captured for verification?
- Are there issues with incomplete or incorrect data being entered into forms in the field? Are you trying to force teams to enter specific fields, data and/or fix validation issues while they are in the field in real time?
- Are you trying to force teams to enter specific fields, data and/or fix validation issues while they are in the field in real time?
Very simple forms or those requiring integrated photos might be easily captured with a handheld. Other forms with more writing could be automated with custom tablets apps or using paper with digital pens or scanners. More complex forms with conditional logic or branching might be best suited for custom laptop or tablet applications.
4. How many different forms and processes are you (or will you be) automating?
Some energy teams have a single process and form that has been used for years that won’t change. Other teams have a variety of forms that change frequently.
- Do you have a single form and process that won’t change?
- Is there more than one form or process?
- Do the forms need to be edited and changed often due to new jobs or as new processes evolve?
- Can multiple forms potentially be streamlined to one?
- How frequently will the forms change or new ones get created?
- Do your teams need to create or update forms that you will start using the same day? Week?
For static forms, it may make sense to develop or hardcode one-off forms with an external developer. If you have multiple forms or forms that change frequently, then investing in a mobile platform that can be used for developing, deploying, and changing multiple forms may make sense. If there are a large number of forms and operational teams need to be empowered to create their own forms, then a standards-based platform with form design tools like Microsoft Excel, for non-technical staff, might be the best approach.
5. How mobile are the data collectors?
There’s a wide range of mobile energy scenarios that can have a big impact on the type of technology that you choose.
- Are the data collectors at or around desks in worksite trailers with good network coverage and power supply for docking devices?
- Are they constantly on the go with varying network coverage and ad hoc access to power?
- Are they primarily in the field on foot and away from power with intermittent network coverage?
- Are they doing a lot of ad hoc data capture where boot-up time, reconnecting to spotty networks or navigating complex applications may get in the way of the data capture tasks?
If there is reliable access to power and networks, it’s much easier to deploy devices like tablets, which can be used to access browser-based applications for data collectors with minimal extra development. Teams without reliable network access will require either offline tablet or computer solutions, which tend to be more expensive to build, or look toward paper-based solutions like digital pens and scanners. When considering building an online/offline app, there are new, do-it-yourself mobile form tools that make it easy for teams to create form apps that can be filled out using tablets or printed for use with digital pens, without having to pay an expensive vendor or wait for an over-burdened IT team. It’s important to explore solutions that are easy to develop, update and manage. Some teams on their feet constantly will want light weight devices with long battery life. Teams collecting data in sporadic bursts like inspectors will also want fast-starting devices or paper with digital pens or scanners for quick, ad hoc data capture.
6. What type of physical environment is data collected in?
You should consider the likelihood that a device will be dropped, damaged and become unusable. Some teams will choose a device type based on the trade-off between how many cheap consumer devices need to break to justify buying an expensive rugged device. You also need to consider the opportunity cost of downtime since a broken tablet may mean that field work stops.
- If devices drop, will they break?
- Is it a bright environment with glare that will be extremely difficult for tablets and handhelds?
- Do your teams wear thick gloves for safety or warmth, which may make it difficult to hold anything other than a pen?
- Is there much rain/moisture?
- Is their dirt, mud or dust?
- Does the nature of the work environment make devices tempting targets for theft?
Different device types have different levels of inherent durability. Tablets and handhelds with protective cases and durable digital pens can be dropped on most surfaces while laptops often break. Many teams have been caught by surprise about tablets and handhelds being difficult to use in bright sunlight. A pipeline inspection team, for example, ran into such bad sun glare issues with iPads that they resorted to placing them into empty pipe sections in order to do data entry while in the field. Rain and mist can also make it very difficult to view and interact with screens. For wet scenarios, there is Rite in the Rain waterproof copier paper, which can be used with scanners or digital pens along with commercial waterproof ink. Some mobile deployments can include multiple devices, as the right device depends on the role of the data collector and the environment that they collect data in.
7. Does your team face potential distraction issues?
The downside of workers being able to do a wide range of activities on today’s devices is that many of those activities may not include work. Tools are intended to increase productivity, not get in the way of work. The impact of potential distractions depends on the nature of the work and your team.
- Is there a risk that giving mobile workers more robust devices, with Internet access and app marketplaces, may lead to distractions and productivity issues?
- Could this also create safety and liability issues?
Laptops and mobile device solutions using Windows or BlackBerry operating systems have a range of options to lock-down apps to keep workers on task. Newer handhelds and non-Windows tablets typically don’t provide much in the way of options to lock down devices. Of course, with paper and scanner or digital pens, teams focus on the task of writing observations and activities on paper without added distraction.
8. What kind of IT support will you have for the project?
IT teams are leaner than ever with a growing set of demands, which can make it difficult to deploy and manage complex solutions completely in house. At the same time, there are more turnkey hosted services and standards-based solutions that operational teams can work with to deploy solutions in IT-friendly ways without creating an internal IT dependency.
- Will internal IT be involved in implementing or supporting the project?
- If not playing an active role, will IT be involved in vetting your outsourced application vendors and consultants?
- If IT is only involved in integrating the data into you back-end systems, then is your vendor delivering data in an IT-friendly and standards-based way?
- If the vendor offers a software development tools or a Software Development Kit (SDK) to their customers, would your IT team be able to work with it, modifying as your team’s data needs change?
- If you are deploying new devices to the field, will your internal IT support the hardware in the way that they currently support staff computers and hardware?
IT is involved in most projects to some degree, even if most of the projects are outsourced. Projects that give IT familiar options, such as standards-based devices, form design tools, application servers and data types, are most apt to get their blessing and support. Complex or proprietary applications requiring new training and coding are apt to be frowned upon. This includes proprietary servers, non-standards based form design tools and even complex OCR programming for scanners.
As mentioned earlier, no one solution is perfect for every scenario. In some cases, teams may want an approach that leverages common elements like Excel as a design tool or a server structure that can receive data from multiple devices. At this point, you’re likely leaning toward one or two solutions. Online resources such as Field Technologies Online and other web resources can provide information about vendors.
List up potential vendors and get ready with questions based on the specific considerations mentioned above that relate to your workflows. One size does not fit all. Remember that by going through this process you have armed yourself well for that initial vendor call.
And one more caution as you head out: Since automating service and inspection paperwork can offer a broad range of benefits, it can be easy to start a project, expand the scope and lose track of the primary problem that you were trying to solve.
To make your deployment a success, it’s critical that you focus on the one or two most important benefits. If projects are trying to do too much at once, the risk of failure increases as compromises and/or complexity water down the primary benefits.
All new projects include a range of costs — technology, workflow changes, training and support. If your solution doesn’t truly solve a key problem, then the benefits might not overcome those costs or might get lost among the workflow changes.
Ted Gauld is vice president of mobile energy solutions at Adapx, a software developer for data capture systems, such as Capturx. Gauld is a field-service veteran with more than a decade of mobile solution building experience.
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