We retooled our reporting in the field using technology we already frequently use to make it faster and more reliable.
In industries such as engineering, where tradition rules and change may be slow, work processes can often become ingrained even to the point when they are obsolete. This year our team reviewed one process, how we report on-site testing and sampling, and updated it from the 1950s to at least the 2000s. Using familiar and frequently used tools, excel, and cloud-based sharing, we streamlined reporting, making it faster, more reliable, and simple for practically any team to adopt.
Outside engineering, many might be surprised that geotechnical testing and sampling in the field is still dominated by paper-based recording and reporting. While a common practice, the drawbacks to such a method are apparent to anyone who gives it a moment’s thought. As with snail mail, there is a significant time-delay between on-site work and submitting the results to a project manager.
It can be as quick as few hours as the paper is scanned and sent through at the end of the day, which means that if the engineer or the technician on-site needs immediate feedback from their project manager, they may wait for a while. It can take significant time and effort to respond to unforeseen site conditions or test results; which can delay the construction process and ultimately add costs to the project.
Minor issues may not receive consultation until the end of the project. Other issues with paper-based reporting include mistakes in calculations, delays in submitting paperwork, errors in data entry when transferring from paper to digital format, and occasionally lost documents.
Challenges with Paper-Based Recording and Reporting
- Multiple opportunities for human error throughout the process
- Delayed reporting and feedback hinders responsiveness in the field
- Several steps in the process that take significant time or have a high probability of time delays
- Minimal decision-making documentation
Finding Motivation to Change Engineering Process
As with most innovations, the switch from paper to excel at PRI Engineering was triggered by clear inefficiencies in the current process and site representatives being frustrated at spending numerous additional hours offsite with paperwork. Most smart managers will recognize any frustration from their team as an opportunity to change and improve their work processes and will encourage innovation. At PRI, that was exactly the case – my suggestion to implement excel reporting was well received, and I followed up by creating a standardized excel template, which included code that calculates a pass-fail for testing.
Immediate Benefits from Implementing the New Engineering Process
As soon as we implemented the new excel reporting mechanism, we noticed a decrease in the time from testing to the final report and a significant increase in collaboration and real-time responsiveness to test results. As our on-site engineer or technician enters the data on the cloud-based excel sheet, the offsite project manager has the file open, can view the results as the tests are completed, and give immediate feedback which includes appropriate adjustments. In a specific section, the project manager and the person in the field discuss the results using different colors to distinguish the two writers. Instead of one person’s interpretation of the results, the decision-making process is collaborative and recorded. For technicians on their own and in remote locations, this method reintegrates them into the team and strengthens the overall workflow.
The Benefits of Cloud-Based Data Management for Engineer
- Collaboration is straightforward and in real-time
- Streamlined data management – access results and images in one place
- Responsive adaptation of testing and sampling to results as we receive them
- More accurate reporting and fewer opportunities for errors
Will the New Process Hold Up Under Real-World Conditions?
The system was put to the test recently in a geotechnical investigation for a construction site. The new process allowed us to significantly adjust our testing program, saving time and prevent cost overruns. We were conducting the initial pre-design program with 20 piles to install. The ground was a lot harder than anticipated, and it was taking longer to install. After discussing with the project manager, we decided to adjust our target install depth as if we were both in the field.
With the previous paper-based process, there would have been at least two possible outcomes. First, we would have continued to install all 20 piles and experienced significant time delays. Or, we would have paused testing for a few hours while we sent through the results and discussed the various outcomes. Again, the result would have been additional time with machines and workers on standby.
Any Drawbacks to the New Engineering Process
That’s not to say that the process is perfect in every which way. As with any system, there are weak points in the process, which here, largely stemmed from technology rather than human error. We use a tablet to enter data – if the site is cold or the data connection fails, we may have to revert to the paper-based method. Sometimes, the excel sheet has issues with data synchronization, and we end up with multiple spreadsheets. As compared to the overall efficiencies gained, these minor failings fall within the tolerable range.
Should You Adopt a New Engineering Tool or Process
It is easy to become swept up in the novelty of a process, however, new is not always better. A simple rubric to judge whether you should adopt a new process is to ask yourself, will this result in a net positive for our work? And, does this address the issue we were having? Sometimes, better is not always what you need as a team. Adding a little friction to a process may be what you need to reduce errors and not a more efficient process. In this case, the “new” technology was what we needed to address significant inefficiencies in our process that resulted in better work. We could reduce our costs, errors, and the time we spend doing administrative work.