Avoid duplication of effort, use technology, increase profit…

QSNews, Friday 13th January 2006 carried, amongst others, a very interesting article in their Comment section: Nobody wants my quantities, by Robert Klaschka of architects and designers Markland Klaschka.

In his article, Robert laments about how Business Information Modelling hasn’t seen the uptake that he feels it deserves. He is particularly annoyed with the amount of repetition that revolves around moving data from its paper source to a useful electronic medium:

legions of architects who find refuge transposing from CAD to spreadsheet there are also battalions of surveyors out there wielding scale rulers

I recall part of a quotation from somebody whose name I cannot remember, it went along the line of this: “you should never have to type in a piece of data more than once” – except the author went to the extreme and cited even the smallest examples as candidates for cut’n’paste (or re-use via whatever means is available). I was young when I read this quote, but even then I knew there was some truth in the quote, when applied in the correct scenarios. Robert’s scenario above is one that I consider appropriate. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of data being re-entered, being transposed from a paper notebook to a spreadsheet, spreadsheets checked against CAD drawings, even the paper notebooks being checked and checked again. There has to be a better way. There is: make use of information technology, apply it, invest in it, listen to what folks have to say about the successes of information technology. It can save you time, money, make you more efficient, introduce staffing economies and ultimately increase your profit.

Asset Valuation – The Appliance of Science
Given that Radio Frequency ID (RFID) technology is now so economic, there are many firms using RFID tags to simply the data collection during an asset valuation. Performing an asset valuation manually, say for an oil field spanning the entire length and breadth of a country that is 90% desert, can be very costly. It could be even more costly if you have to use senior engineers who know what their are looking for in the way of flare stacks, columns, storage tanks, etc. And it gets worse if different engineers use subtly different terminology to describe the same item. Just think how much time/effort could be saved if RFID tags were attached to various asset items…no longer would we need the senior and expensive engineer jumping in his Dodge for a trip over the desert (we drove Dodge RAMs in the Sahara desert in Libya, other all-terrain vehicles are available).

I plan to write more about the use of RFIDs in future blog posts. In the meantime, there’s a good write up about RFID applications here.

our Dodge
[August 1990: an empty shack in the middle of the Sahara, our Dodge and Jim the driver: far right of the shot – we followed the “tyre route” for a couple of hours, then followed the dunes for a while after the tyres had disappeared, Jim knew where he was going!]

Of course, RFIDs aren’t just useful for desert-based surveys, they’re very useful in more traditional survey environments, such as schools. Since 2003 I’ve been working on and off on a survey application that is used here in the UK. It’s not rocket science, but it works well enough for the client to use our services over and over again. It’s a regular Win32 desktop application written using Delphi 6. We’ve often thought about re-basing the application on a PocketPC device…then we could send the surveyors into the schools armed with a Dell Axim (or similar, other PocketPC devices are available!) to capture the survey data “live”. Even better, add a digital camera to the PocketPC device and the surveyor can take photographs of parts of the school in need of further attention. This has the advantage that we don’t have to send multi-discipline engineers out to survey each and every school. If a surveyor isn’t all that skilled in “costing up” the damage caused by dampness, he can take a photograph of the damage and take it back to the office for a damp-expert to examine. Similarly, if we used RFID tags to identify schools, blocks within schools, rooms within blocks, the amount of data entry can be reduced significantly.

testGoogle are helping us too.

Google Earth is an amazing tool that lets us zoom in on various parts of an oil field – it’s so powerful, we can use it to identity new asset items that weren’t present during the last survey/valuation. Of course, if you know that there are new asset items, you can then improve your estimate of how long the valuation will take and how much it will cost – this tool removes some of the surprises! In some areas of the world, Google Earth is powerful enough to let us read the numbers on airport runways. It’s also powerful enough to provide us with geographical coordinates (latitude and longitude) as well as the elevation at various areas within the image – elevation data can help plan how long a survey might take and may allow some optimisation of routes knowing the precise elevations involved.

For example, on the left [hopefully] you can see a location in the UAE desert. From this image we can gleam a few useful facts. Firstly, has the plant expanded since we last looked at it? A quick visual check will tell us. Secondly, has anything been added or moved around? Thirdly, has anything disappeared? Armed with these basic facts, we can prepare informational reports the on-site surveyors can make good use of. Even if such images are just used as project management tools or site plans (the originals of which are often out of date and/or unavailable), their use can be a great time-saver. As they say, “a picture speaks a thousand words”.

A word of warning however, Google Earth is rather addictive!

Robert’s right in what he says, the importance of technology in today’s non-IT disciplines cannot be understated. If you are lucky enough to have pro-active skilled IT people in your non-IT, shop, see if you can get them working for you, give them a challenge, make them part of the business, listen to their ideas. The synergy that this fusion might yield, could be a catalyst in your business and could see enhanced relationships with your clients, increased turnaround, fewer staff required to complete a job in a shorter space of time…and of course, increased profit as a result of increased efficiency.