This article offers a look at streamlining operations between the field and the office by automatically synchronizing measurement data.
Even in an era of smart phones, tablets and wireless everything, many companies are still drowning in paperwork. The complex logistics and procedures required to gather operational data from the field, synchronize it with more data at the head office, and then determine management and operational needs can create mountains of paper forms and collection sheets.
Beyond simply creating clutter and being an environmental nuisance, relying on paper records for fieldwork exposes a company to additional potential hazards, including issues of data accuracy, data security, governmental reporting violations and more.
Consider the not uncommon challenges of a gas pipeline operator using paper records to manage field operations along a line: 1) perhaps the paper form becomes illegible, resulting in the numbers being incorrectly entered into the corporate system; 2) perhaps a form goes missing, resulting in the technician having to drive another 40 miles to retrieve the data again; 3) perhaps there is a miscommunication between the office and the field technician because each person is looking at a different representation of the data and interpreting it independently; or 4) perhaps there is a flood or fire at the head office, resulting in the loss of the paper forms.
Accuracy and efficiency are critical to the financial performance of the company, but they can be compromised when there is a heavy reliance on manual processes and physical paperwork.
The good news is that a centralized data collection and analysis system married to field automation applications can streamline data collection and greatly reduce the need for paperwork in the field as well as provide additional benefits. Essential components of a field data collection system include allowing for digital data entry and automatic synchronization with the gas measurement system as well as providing visualization of the data common to the field worker and to the corporate office.
These are critical to overcoming the risks associated with manual data collecting and physical storage and improve remote workforce efficiency. This article discusses the characteristics and functions to look for when considering a centralized system to optimize operational efficiency and accuracy.
One Version Of The Truth
The solution that meets a company’s requirements for pipeline measurement, collection, validation and reconciliation must truly be a comprehensive store of the results of all field operations: a work order management service that facilitates a plan of activities, a vehicle that improves communication between the field and the main office, and an asset management tool that can take inventory of equipment due for maintenance.
It must also be robust enough to optimize the data gathering process from work orders as well as the data submitted by operations technicians as a result of their work. It should allow field technicians to electronically report orifice meter tests and calibrations, orifice plate inspections, gas use/loss, meter status changes, equipment inventory, manual meter reading and more. When a solution can integrate huge amounts of data between the work order, gas measurement and the back office systems, it allows a company to handle all of the data processing, analysis and reporting electronically, thereby eliminating most of the need for paper forms.
It is a tall order for a solution to be all things to all team members, but even one that eliminates paperwork, allows operational techs to manage measurement work orders and collects data electronically is limited in value if it does not present that data uniformly across the entire enterprise. In other words, the system must provide one version of the truth to the entire team, whether they are in the field or in the office.
By using the same technology, core applications and core software for the measurement analyst in the office and the operations technician in the field, the solution will streamline many processes. For example, the field tech now has a more complete view of the operations, allowing him or her to make better decisions about the work and organize the day’s schedule more efficiently. On the corporate side, it eliminates the need for the measurement analyst to wait for a paper copy to be entered into the system before verifying that an equipment change has been made. One version of the truth among a company’s entire network can be a game-changer in the quest for greater operational efficiency and accuracy.
Efficiently Collect Data, Not Paper
An electronic field data collection tool can provide the technicians with an activity dashboard, allowing them to quickly view their work orders and efficiently plan their day, resulting in less truck time and significantly less paperwork. With optimized downstream data processing and improved metrics and reporting capabilities, staff can significantly reduce time spent searching for data among paper forms, performing manual data entry and copying, mailing or filing paperwork.
Validated data is automatically sent to the billing system for processing and invoicing. A robust measurement system may even support a “do-it-yourself” reporting mechanism for customers. Furthermore, the field technicians can spend their time on their work and not on managing a paper trail. The right system eliminates non value-added steps that distract from the critical work.
Confidently Use The Numbers
By designing the field and office systems to operate in concert, there are no more doubts about data accuracy or timeliness. One person can be held accountable for the data input. Once that data is captured, the measurement system takes over as a workforce automation system to analyze the data and complete the follow-up steps, including auto-closing work orders, storing the data, filtering data that needs to be reviewed, auto-delivering reports, flagging any problems and forwarding validated data to billing.
The reporting that is required by the myriad of local, state and federal government agencies can bog down an entire company. With an automated measurement system acting as the hub between the company’s asset management system, work-order management system and back-end office system, the data can be efficiently analyzed and reported. For example, instead of creating an additional team of individuals just to handle the complex reporting of emissions and financials to regulatory bodies, a company can instead rely on the automated and efficient “brainpower” of the measurement system to do it. There is no handwriting to interpret, no damaged or dirty paperwork, and the reports can be distributed electronically.
Efficiency In Action
A field measurement synchronization tool with the capabilities just described should be adaptable to the current operations of a company. Consider the following real-life example, in which a natural gas pipeline operator already had a partially automated data entry system for the field but still had huge inefficiencies that its new data management system needed to address.
The pipeline operator, responsible for delivering almost 15% of the natural gas used in the U.S., installed a field data collection system to optimize and streamline its operations data gathering process. The company had been using a work-order system with ruggedized laptops in the field. But although the field techs used a laptop rather than paper for data entry, they still had to pull out paper forms when arriving at a facility to determine its assets and the details of the order. This created an enormous amount of paperwork and cost the company many hours of labor time, including the manual entry of more than 5,000 work orders per month.
By incorporating a comprehensive data management solution, the field workers were able to use the same software as the measurement analysts at the corporate office, but with additional capabilities specific to completing the fieldwork as efficiently as possible. The shared set of information coming through the same interface to both the corporate office and the field allowed for better communication between all parties and one standardized version of the company’s operations.
This change brought huge improvements in efficiency and accuracy, as well as enormous reductions in paperwork. The field technicians were quick to adopt the technology and are enthusiastic supporters of a system that has nearly eliminated paperwork from the field. Rather than dealing with forms and managing financial data, they can focus on the core job roles of performing tests and maintenance and gathering measurements. Work-order forms that previously filled 58 boxes in the office have been reduced to six boxes. Furthermore, it could take up to two weeks for the data that was previously collected on paper forms to reach the gas measurement system. Now, field techs can synchronize from the road and the data is communicated to the measurement system in a matter of minutes.
The future of operational process improvement is automation and the ability to present one version of the truth to an entire workforce. A tool that achieves these capabilities will not only give a company a stronger set of data and resulting analyses, but will allow it to make better operational decisions based on a clearer and more timely representation of reality.