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Write Method

15 January 2007

A camera in the pen nib records the penstrokes in correlation to a special dot pattern embedded in the paper form

A maintenance company with mobile operatives found that an automated data capture system based around a digital pen and paper system proved to be simple to implement and reduced work order processing time from two weeks to minutes

FOUNDED IN THE LATE 1960S TO DESIGN AND MANAGE refurbishment works, D&M contractors has grown to become a leading general maintenance company, handling everything from repairing a defective lock on a front door to full external decoration, refurbishment and M&E services. Its customers include large banks such as Barclays and The Woolwich, hotel chains such as Travel Inn, and many leading bars and retailers such as Enterprise Inns, Beefeater, Marks and Spencer, BHS and Pitcher and Piano.

The company employs over 100 field-based operatives who perform reactive and planned maintenance duties on client sites. Prior to implementing new technology, its mobile operatives were contacted by phone with details of the jobs that they had to complete. They then had to fill out a JCC (job completion certificate) with details of works done, the time it was started and ended, parts used etc, which could then be signed by the client on completion. These details were then telephoned back to the office, where staff updated the back office system. The forms would then posted or delivered back to the office-based clerical staff so that sheets could be matched to orders, for wages processing and charging.

As Stewart Robertson, MD of D&M Contractors explained, “We handle 500-700 work orders on average per week and we were beginning to find that the paper work was taking more than two weeks to process. It was too time-consuming, both on the part of our clerical staff who had to update the system and for our field operatives who would need to phone in when the job was completed or if they needed parts. We needed to automate the process so that the job status would be constantly up-to-date and we could have full site information at our fingertips. The system was also having a knock on effect to our invoicing system so we knew it was time to have a fresh look at it.”

Robertson looked into a variety of electronic systems including hand-held mobile PDAs but none of the systems he looked at ticked all of our boxes. The field operatives are highly skilled tradesman but are not used to dealing with such devices and would have had to have an extensive training programme at a cost. He also found the electronic PDA’s restrictive in the amount of text they could take which could result in a less thorough reports being filed. There was also the problem of D&M’s operatives working in inclement weather and in difficult locations, and conditions that were not conducive to expensive and fragile electronic equipment.

Additionally, the operatives are required to illustrate their reports in order to accurately record their actions, such as including a quick sketch of part of a boiler to clearly show the problem. Electronic PDA’s could not accommodate this. He continued: “While researching for technologies, we came across the Destiny digital pen and paper solution. We immediately realised the potential for automated data capture that would not require extensive re-training of our workforce, was not restrained by the limitations of PDA solutions and gave the client the same signed JCC that they have always required.”

Digital pen and paper works in exactly the same way as a conventional pen and paper. The only difference being the use of a special pen with a camera built into the nib which records pen strokes in correlation to a special dot-pattern embedded into the paper form. This allows the pen to accurately record the hand-written data. Information can then be electronically captured simply by ticking a box at the bottom of the form, which initiates a Bluetooth link-up with the engineer’s mobile phone.

Over 2 years, Design and Management Systems Ltd, at the request of D&M Contractors, designed and implemented a new call logging system called Datascriber, entirely built around Digital Pen and Paper technology. It worked closely with D&M Systems to understand the data capture processes and requirements, and helped them to design, manage and evaluate forms in order to ensure that digital pen and paper technology works well. It was necessary to redesign the JCC so that it was relatively straightforward to capture the required information. Destiny also helped to build critical fields into the forms that could then be later verified at the office to ensure that the data is 100 per cent accurate.

Another useful feature of the form is a large ‘free-text’ box that meant that workers could include diagrams to help explain the work that they had completed. They could also change the colour of the lines to denote such things as different colour wires, or change the thickness of the lines. This meant that drawings could be as simple or as detailed as necessary.

The implementation of the Datascriber system now means that operatives simply complete the new JCC’s as before. The client signs as a verification of the work being completed, and retains a copy. By ticking the ‘send’ box at the bottom of the form, the captured data image file is sent via a Bluetooth connection to the engineer’s mobile phone, where it is verified. Once verification is complete, the data and images are then transmitted via GPRS to a central server where they are automatically converted into text and attached to the job record.

Now employing some 70 digital pens to its operatives, productivity at D&M contractors has been greatly improved. The data capture process is now completely automated which has reduced work order processing time from two weeks to just minutes. This has greatly streamlined their internal business processes.

According to Robertson, “The implementation of the digital pen and paper technology has been completely hassle free. Our operatives took to it immediately and there was minimal training required. The technology does exactly what we want it to and the response from our field operatives and clients has been very positive indeed. “The job status on our screens now changes dynamically so that office-based staff can see exactly what work is complete and what needs to be done. New jobs can be pushed to the relevant skilled workers the instant that they have come off-site, which has greatly improved productivity. The benefits also translate to our customers, who get prompter response and if required, a copy of the worksheet to Head Office the instant it is complete. The biggest benefit to us is the fact that we can now invoice instantly which has had a very positive impact on our revenue stream.”

An approved Destiny Partner, D&M Systems, designs and installs tailored systems and has also created a full link-up to Sage MMS and Construct, so that job details and purchase orders can be automatically updated within Sage. This has ended the ‘double entry’ previously required in operations and accounts packages, further freeing up clerical and financial resources. A link is also planned into Sage Payroll, so that engineers’ site times, nonproductive times and expenses can be automatically updated.

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