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Handheld Database Application Provides Industrial Strength Inventory Control for DuPont

By Frank Yacano, Director of Business Development, SYWARE, Inc. (

Dupont used Visual CE to develop a handheld database application for inventory control
Dupont used Visual CE to develop a handheld database application for inventory control.

As a data collection tool, handheld PCs are proving to be far more practical than laptop units, especially when you have to bend down into nooks and crannies to gather information. In addition to their obvious convenience, handhelds can also support complex database applications, allowing the units to be deployed on a wide variety of strategic projects.

A good example can be seen at chemical giant DuPont where an inventory project currently underway has captured over 37,000 records as of May 2001. The corporation's Nylon division has embarked on a major effort to migrate its business processes from legacy systems to an enterprise resource planning (ERP) environment based on SAP software. The company has hired Fluor Global Services, a leading management consulting firm, to handle the Maintenance Management component of the project.

The first step involves compiling an inventory of all components used by the Nylon division in its manufacturing plants. The production of nylon is a complex operation involving dozens of processes and thousands of individual components - pumps, pipes, valves, motors, and many other types of equipment. For each item, Fluor needs to record its location in the plant, its function, part and model numbers, manufacturer, and key specifications. This master equipment list will ultimately be ported 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, Delaware, where a team of Fluor technicians armed with HP Journada 720 and 790 handhelds is methodically working its way through the plant. In order to ensure accuracy, technicians are collecting information by physically inspecting each installed part, rather than relying on secondhand data from earlier reports.

Rapid Application Development
The application was developed by Frank Reaves, a database developer for Fluor, using Visual CE®, a Windows CE productivity tool from SYWARE ( Visual CE allows users to quickly build forms and database applications for Pocket PCs and Windows CE handhelds using drag & drop controls. The intuitive design features allowed him to create the handheld application without a major development effort.

Using Visual CE, 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 you would specify details such as size and maximum design pressure, while for a motor you gather 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 Visual CE application. According to Reaves, a major advantage of Visual CE is the ability to define and structure a handheld database in Microsoft Access, which is also the platform for his master database. Tables containing the parameters associated with the different types of equipment can be created in Access and downloaded to the Visual CE data store on the handheld using an ODBC data link.

"It's pretty slick," he says. "The automation of the upload and download process is a big plus, as is the ease of use. 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."

Building an Inventory Database
Dupont has developed an extensive coding system to designate locations within the plant as well as to specify individual components. Codes are listed in reference tables that were also created within Access and uploaded to the handheld where they are available for easy access. Rather than carrying around a clipboard and code book, all data collection forms and associated reference codes have been consolidated 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. For example, if the component is a hand operated valve, 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 are divided into sections and sub-sections, each with its own code designation. For example, AutoClave number 12 may be designated as code 29, position 12.3. (An AutoClave is where chemicals are cooked 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.

The Visual CE forms allow technicians to review records in one-at-a-time fashion or as an ordered list of records. Any record can be duplicated with a single keystroke. Each duplicated record can then be modified as needed to make it unique (location number 29-3-ATC-12-HOV versus 29-3-ATC-13-HOV, for instance) and to record differences (serial number 12345, rather than 12346, for instance). This duplication capability saves substantial retyping of data that is identical for multiple components.

Reaves has also created routines in Access that allow him to select sub-sets 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 will then slice and dice the Access database to load only code information relevant to area 29 onto the technician's Visual CE datastore. In the following week, those tables can be erased from the datastore and replaced 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 certain decisions are made about how data will be structured in the SAP environment, the component data will be extracted from the MS Access database and mapped to the inventory database in the SAP Asset Management System.

Weighing the Alternatives
Reaves had considered other options, each with significant drawbacks. Plan B would have involved purchasing laptop computers for all technicians, who would then collect information using a Microsoft Access application. In addition to their added cost, laptops can be extremely inconvenient compared to handhelds, especially in cramped situations. 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 would have involved much more expensive handheld units with greater programming requirements using Microsoft Access, which Reaves sees as counterproductive for his requirements. "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 explains. "Visual CE allows me to automate a good deal more of the data entry operation than I could have with Microsoft Access."

Low-Cost Functionality for Major Projects
According to Reaves, Visual CE provided a superior value in terms of functionality and price. "As a software developer for 10 years, developing applications for laptops, desktops, and handhelds, I put Visual CE right at the top in bang for the buck. I didn't have to buy a $5,000 software suite to program my handhelds with custom data fields. You can't even buy standalone copies of MS Access for the price I paid for Visual CE."

Another advantage of Visual CE is its ability to run on both Windows CE and Pocket PC handhelds. Fluor started the project using the Compaq Aero 1520, a Windows CE device, before switching to the HP Journada Pocket PC. Because Visual CE was compatible with both operating systems, re-creating the forms for the Journada units was a simple cut and paste exercise.

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. The editing flexibility of Visual CE will allow Reaves to easily adapt current tables and forms 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."

"The ability to develop forms on the desktop, load them onto the handheld, and then have the entire program work as advertised is not something to be taken lightly," adds Reaves. "If only all development projects went so smoothly."

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