Smart Machines & Factories
Digitising inspection rounds improves efficiency
Published:  18 June, 2019

Nicholas Meyer, product manager, handheld communicators at Emerson Automation Solutions, explains why the writing is on the wall for traditional pen and paper-based data collection.

Operator or maintenance inspection rounds form a key part of a plant’s reliability and safety culture, as they identify abnormal and unsafe conditions that can impact production or put workers in danger. Performed at regular scheduled intervals, inspection rounds involve personnel conducting checks and collecting information from process control instrumentation in the field, as well as taking note of any critical issues they observe. The recorded data is used to optimise maintenance scheduling and ensure a rapid response to any issues requiring urgent attention.

Even in an era of increasing industrial digitisation and digital transformation, many companies are still taking a traditional approach to inspection rounds by employing a pen and paper-based method of data collection. This involves inspection teams going into the field with clipboards holding paper forms and maintenance log checklists, and manually writing down the data they are required to record, along with any further notes they deem necessary. At the end of an inspection route, the forms and lists are signed and dated by both the operator and their supervisor, and the data can then be manually inputted onto a digital spreadsheet or database before the paperwork is filed away.

Although it is still widely used, the process of recording data with a pen and paper is inefficient. It is time-consuming and prone to errors in both transcription and inputting, especially when written information is difficult to read. There is the potential for paperwork to be misplaced and therefore not available when required for audit purposes. Also, operators might skip inspection points and thereby miss certain defects, or duplicate data by recording issues that have already been reported.

Electronic data capture

To overcome the inefficiencies of the traditional clipboard approach, companies are increasingly adopting methods that enable operator or maintenance personnel to electronically capture data in digital logs and checklists during their rounds. These digital solutions consist of mobile applications used in conjunction with ruggedized and intrinsically safe handheld devices to facilitate data collection in the field, and PC-based applications for route configuration, scheduling, and the reporting of key performance indicators.

To maintain data integrity, automatic synchronisation technology in the latest handheld devices enables all data entered into a route to be automatically synchronised with the asset database, when there is a Wi-Fi connection. This means that if the route is taking place over multiple days, users can track its progress and data can be shared with other handheld devices that are configured with the system, so that work isn’t duplicated. A technician can see if a route has already been started by another user, and can then start collecting data from a different part of the route, without overriding the other operator’s entries. Even if a technician is servicing an instrument far from the asset database server or in a Wi-Fi dead zone, changes are cached locally on the handheld device and uploaded as soon as it automatically connects with the system, either wirelessly or via USB cable connection.

Benefits of going digital

By enabling electronic data capture and automating the process of reporting safety and performance issues, mobile apps for handheld devices provide a range of benefits. For personnel, it is much more convenient to take a handheld device into the field rather than having to carry piles of paperwork and spare pens. In addition, digital solutions enable them to perform their inspection rounds more quickly, as routes can be easily configured and scheduled on a computer and then loaded onto their handheld device. Scheduling routes in this way provides flexibility, as data can be gathered on a specific date, multiple times per day, or anything in between.

To add structure to inspection rounds and create enforced repeatability, the latest mobile apps - such as AMS Inspection Rounds from Emerson - provide automated workflows. This shows personnel the specific steps that they need to follow in the field, ensuring consistency across different users and shifts. Easy-to-use, clear dashboards display routes, statuses, alerts and items requiring action. This enables critical safety issues to be highlighted and work orders to be created, and helps management prioritise their issue resolution activities.

In addition to accurately and reliably recording the data required for their logs and checklists, operators can also digitally note any abnormal or hazardous conditions discovered in the field during their routes, such as unusual equipment noise, spills, smells, or safety hazards. All data inputs are user-, date-, and time-stamped as they occur, ensuring accurate record-keeping and regulatory compliance. Users can also access historical data, to help them identify and eliminate the root causes of recurring problems. Upon completion of a route, reports can be exported to digital spreadsheets when required, for easy data storage.

Mobile apps improve data accuracy by eliminating transcription errors, and once the information is digitised, it becomes much easier to share with the plant’s other automation systems. It is vital for management to have early awareness of any abnormal situations and concerns within the plant, so they can expeditiously decide what remedial action to take. By automatically integrating key data collected in the field with other plant systems, mobile apps facilitate faster decision-making. Ensuring that issues are detected, reported and resolved earlier can lead to significant improvements in plant reliability, safety and performance.

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