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Automating inspections of lab instrumentation with mobile devices

Supplier: Techs4biz - Pervidi By: Naaman Shibi
13 September, 2012

Over the past few years, automation has proven to be an important tool in the management of Laboratory inspections, maintenance, and service activities

Over the past few years, automation has proven to be an important tool in the management of Laboratory inspections, maintenance, and service activities. It 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 their staff's productivity and minimise unnecessary administrative tasks.

Can a PDA (handheld device) automate laboratory equipment maintenance 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 Laboratory inspection and service 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 monthly inspection report providing specific information, the handheld device should fulfils 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 Laboratory 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 their PDA software in a very short timeframe.

Handheld applications specifically designed for Laboratory inspections, maintenance and service activities should deliver the following functionalities:

  • Lists 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.
  • Produce reports or invoices as required using portable printers

Handheld devices can include validations that allow or disallow data entry. They 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 Laboratory 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; 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 service is performed according to warranties, guidelines and regulations.

Improve controls and accountability leading to better quality of work.

How does a laboratory inspector or service provider find the right solution?

By following three simple steps, described below, Laboratory inspectors/service providers can accelerate the selection process and ensure that their selection would fit their needs:

1. 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 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 remembering and rescheduling preventative maintenance tasks, or eliminating unnecessary data entry.

At this point, you have gathered your requirements. Now try to answer the following:

Who will use the system? How computer proficient are the users? (Remember to separate field staff requirements from managers and supervisors).

What are your procedures for paperwork flow? Will the software improve this flow or make it worse?

2. 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, both 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? 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 alerts, and by automating repetitive tasks?
  • Does the package enable multiple activities such as laboratory preventative maintenance, repairs, inspections, work orders, etc?
  • Is the solution easy to use? Does it offer different levels to different users related to their responsibilities?
  • Does the package enable efficient execution of activities? For example, adding a service work order ‘in the field' should be quick, easy, and 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 and should alert users proactively. Service due dates should be automatically calculated based on maintenance schedules, etc.
  • Does it include management functions, reports, queries and exceptions? Can the solution help planning and can it highlight problem areas?

3. Finally, determine the best value and fit; Include in your evaluation important factors such as the ability to tailor a solution to your needs and the cost of the solution.

Once you have created your short list of potential CMMS packages, look at the following factors to choose 'the right solution for you':

Is the provider willing to tailor the solution to your needs if required?

Can you customise settings, such as field aliases and screens available to each user?

Will you be able to expand the use of the package without ‘hidden' module charges, costs and complexities?

Does the package include future software releases, so when new and improved features are added you will be receiving these upgrades without excessive additional charges?

And finally – is the solution within your budget?

Maintaining this focused approach is the best way to select a Laboratory service package that is right for your needs. By taking the time to systematically research and evaluate your options, you avoid regretting hasty decisions later.

Finally, how much should it cost?

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 minimising data entry efforts, speeding up information flow and information accuracy, Easy access to customer queries and audits, shortening the timeframe it takes to issue an invoice (if relevant), etc.

Once you have estimated your savings (tangible and intangible benefits), you can evaluate the amount of money you are willing to spend on such system. ROI should be between 6 and 12 months.