21 September 2001
Handhelds Build Industrial-Strength Database
by Frank Yacano
DuPont inventory project captures more than 37,000 records.
As a data collection tool, handheld PCs are proving to be far more practical than laptops, especially for people who have to bend down into nooks and crannies to gather information.
In addition to their obvious convenience, handhelds can also support complex database applications for a wide variety of strategic projects.
A good example is at DuPont, where an inventory project currently under way has captured more than 37,000 records as of May 2001.
The chemical giant's Nylon division has embarked on a major effort to migrate its business processes from legacy systems to an enterprise resource planning environment based on SAP software. DuPont has hired management consulting firm Fluor Global Services to handle the project's Maintenance Management component.
The first step involves compiling an inventory of all components used by the Nylon division in its manufacturing plants. Producing nylon is a complex operation involving dozens of processes and thousands of individual components: pumps, pipes, valves, motors, and many other types of equipment.
Move to Port
For each component, Fluor needs to record its location in the plant; function, part, and model number; manufacturer; and key specifications. This master equipment list will ultimately port to SAP to form the equipment database in the SAP Asset Management System.
The project is ongoing at the Nylon division's manufacturing facility in Seaford, Del., where a team of Fluor technicians armed with Hewlett-Packard Jornada 720 and 790 handhelds is methodically working its way through the plant. To ensure accuracy, technicians are collecting information by physically inspecting each installed part, rather than relying on secondhand data from earlier reports.
The application was developed by Frank Reaves, a database developer for Fluor, using Visual CE, a Windows CE productivity tool from Syware (www.syware.com) that enables users to quickly build forms and database applications for Pocket PCs and Windows CE handhelds using drag and drop controls. Its design features allowed Reaves to create the handheld application without a major development effort.
Using the tool, Reaves created 21 forms corresponding to each type of component in the plant. There is a form for hand-operated valves, another for pumps, another for motors, and so on. Forms are custom designed to gather specific information, depending on the type of component. For example, for a hand-operated valve, the user would specify details such as size and maximum design pressure. For a motor, data would gather on volts, amps, horsepower, and revolutions per minute.
The various forms serve as the front end for a handheld database that is also part of the application. Reaves said an advantage is the program's ability to define and structure a handheld database in Microsoft Access, also the platform for his master database.
By using an open database connectivity data link on a handheld, a technician can use Access to create and download tables to the data store containing parameters associated with the different types of equipment.
"The automation of the upload and download process is a big plus, as is the ease of use," he said. "In addition, the graphical user interface is very similar to Access, as is the ability to build controls on the forms and then define their attributes.
"With more than five years of Access programming experience, it took me only two days to be a Visual CE application designer," he added.
DuPont has developed an extensive coding system to designate locations within the plant as well as specify individual components. Codes list in reference tables also created within Access and uploaded to the handheld, where they are available.
Rather than carrying around a clipboard and code book, all data collection forms and associated reference codes go onto the handheld.
When creating a component record, the technician first identifies the component type and selects the appropriate component form after consulting the component code table.
If the component is a hand-operated valve (HOV), the technician initiates a record in the HOV table. Again, using the lookup tables on the handheld for reference, the technician constructs the number based on the plant area, equipment position, and system.
Functional areas divide into sections and subsections, each with its own code designation. For example, a user may designate AutoClave number 12 as code 29, position 12.3. (An AutoClave is where chemicals cook to make liquid nylon.)
After assigning the location number to the record, the technician enters the description and equipment data for the part. This includes details listed on the component nameplate, using the keypad to record model numbers and specifications and a drop-down list to specify the manufacturer.
Flexible Record Review
Visual CE's forms let technicians review records one at a time or as an ordered list of records. You can duplicate any record with a single keystroke. You can then modify each duplicate record as needed to make it unique (e.g., location number 29-3-ATC-12-HOV vs. 29-3-ATC-13-HOV). You can also record the differences (e.g., serial number 12345 rather than 12346). This duplication capability saves substantial retyping of data that is identical for multiple components.
Reaves has created routines in Access that allow him to select subsets of records. For example, he can specify that a technician will work in area 29 this week and limit all records collection to components in area 29. The routine then slices and dices the Access database to load only code information relevant to area 29 onto the technician's data store. The following week, a user can erase those tables from the data store and replace them with tables for area 32 or some other location.
Technicians accumulate component records throughout the day. When they return to the office, they download the records from their handhelds to a desktop computer (takes about 5 minutes), where a master database resides in Access. In the future, after everyone decides on the data structure within the SAP environment, you will extract component data from the Access database and map it to the inventory database in the SAP Asset Management System.
Reaves had considered other options, but each would have had significant drawbacks.
Plan B involved purchasing laptops for all technicians, who would then have collected information using an Access application. In addition to their added cost, laptops are often too big compared with handhelds. Technicians need to be very nimble in the seven-story DuPont plant, which has numerous little cubbyholes to climb in and out of.
Plan C involved much more expensive handheld units with greater programming requirements using Access, which Reaves said would not have let him automate data entry. "I didn't want to teach my technicians how to be Access operators. I wanted them to be data gatherers, where they fill in the blanks and touch a button," he explained.
Reaves said Visual CE provided value in terms of functionality and price. Another advantage is its ability to run on both Windows CE and Pocket PC handhelds.
Fluor started with Compaq Aero 1520, a Windows CE device, before switching to HP's Jornada Pocket PC. As Visual CE was compatible with both operating systems, recreating the forms for the Jornada units was simple.
Fluor Global Services is scheduled to perform the inventory project in at least three other plants of DuPont's Nylon division to compile a master database of all components used in manufacturing processes. Reaves plans to adapt current tables and forms there to fit new requirements. "I can modify forms on my desktop and put them right back on the handheld. When changes occur, I can respond in a very timely way," he said.
"The ability to develop forms on the desktop, load them onto the handheld, and have the entire program work as advertised is not something to be taken lightly," he said. IC
Figures and Graphics
Frank Yacano is director of business development at Syware, Inc.