Consulting Firm Replaces Paper-Based Processes with Tablet PCs

By Ariel Jones — January 12, 2012

Six years ago, when the Business and Technology division of engineering consulting firm Burns & McDonnell was first created, field service workers used a combination of paper-and-pen, personal digital assistants, and GPS systems to collect and analyze data for its clients. Projects could take weeks to get field data back to the office - leaving the company searching for a more efficient, accurate alternative to manage information on its projects.

Motion Computing, a provider of rugged tablet PCs and mobile point-of-care solutions, was selected to overhaul Burns & McDonnell's paper-based workflow. The firm currently employs a number of Motion Tablet PCs for field use, including a recent deployment of 115 customized devices to monitor key environmental issues during construction of a new power transmission line in the California desert.

Motion F5v in the field

According to Bryan Claxton, Associate Project Manager at Burns & McDonnell, this process could take up to weeks (between sending and receiving hard copies, and deciphering handwritten notes) and was prone to error. Now, with the partnership with Motion Computing, field service workers use Motion Tablets to collect and monitor data in near real-time.

"There are several layers of benefits that come with using Motion Tablet PCs," Claxton says. "No more transposing handwritten notes - we collect the data once, instead of having to touch it three or four more times before the next step of the process."

Using Motion F5v Tablets for Remote Environmental Inspection

For one of its most recent mobile-enabled projects, and the largest deployment of mobile field service devices in the firm's long history, Burns & McDonnell selected the Motion F5v Tablet PC.

Motion F5v Tablet

Burns & McDonnell chose the device for its portability and ruggedness, weighing only 3.3 pounds and coming standard with Corning Gorilla Glass screen, as well as the processing speed delivered by its Intel Core vPro processor.

"The auditors are more productive since they are able to digitally capture information at the point of service, which means the data is less error-prone and available in real time," Claxton says. Auditors take advantage of the tablet's native features, such as a digital camera combined with GPS and mobile GIS functionality, to collect information remotely.

Previously, environmental field auditors would have to rely on large, paper-based map books, which were not only cumbersome to tote around, but also could become quickly outdated. Now, large volumes of data collected via the Motion F5v go immediately into reporting, and a variety of different analysis workflows.

Sidewalk project with Motion F5v

The tablets are also equipped with a customized ESRI ArcGIS Mobile software solution, which enables users to document exact locations of environmental information along the project. The location or spatial information is coupled with a robust set of data that is entered through custom forms within the application.

The data forms are developed to help the user enter accurate data including using on-the-fly logic checks, pick lists, and auto-population of data based on the user’s proximity to project features, Claxton explains. Within seconds a user can not only log the location of environmental information but also populate nearly 50 different pieces of data defining the event.

"Additionally, we are able to build customized applications on the tablet PCs that support very specialized workflows," Claxton adds. "The applications replace outdated hardcopy-based workflows, increasing the speed at which we can move data to and from the field, while employing logic and rules in the applications to help our users collect more accurate and useable data at the point of service."

From this platform, field auditors are able to note and track environmental information remotely, even when lacking an internet connection; once they're reconnected, data is synced to an enterprise server through web services, meaning analysis and reporting can begin immediately.

"Each team member interacts with thousands of pieces of data each week, and it is crucial that we can keep the entire environmental team in sync so that informed decisions can be made," Claxton says. "This project is the culmination of our focus over the last four years - to seamlessly align workflows, technology and people into one interconnected and organized process, regardless of size or location."

Implementing Mobility Solutions in the Future

"We have focused very heavily on developing applications that meet project requirements while also being user-friendly and accessible to non-IT users," Claxton says. "Almost none of our mobile applications are used by GPS, GIS or IT professionals so the applications have to use these tools, but not overwhelm the user with how they interact in the application."

In the future, Burns & McDonnell plans to extend mobile technology to its other business processes, including facility audits, pavement condition assessments, right-of-way/encroachment analysis, arc flash studies, and project safety tracking. "[We] intend to look for additional opportunities to leverage mobile tools to better enable our staff and clients to interact with their data and systems when they are away from the office," Claxton adds.

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