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Handheld Database Applications Solve Large Construction Problems

Dick Corporation is using handheld database applications to help track the parts and materials that go into a power plant or office building
Dick Corporation is using handheld database applications to help track the parts and materials that go into a power plant or office building.

Are those inventory records accurate? Are all workers accounted for? Handheld database applications help construction firms keep track of what's really happening out in the yard.

Construction companies are discovering that they can save time and headaches in their field operations by trading in traditional clipboards for handheld PCs equipped with bar code scanners. Paper-driven record keeping simply cannot measure up to the capabilities of these pocket-sized devices for collecting and accessing information. Processes are not only faster, they allow information to be put to use in ways that were never before possible.

Streamlined Inventory Management at Dick Corp.
Dick Corporation (Pittsburgh, PA), one of the country's largest construction firms, is using a handheld database application to help track the vast assortment of parts and materials that go into a power plant or office building. Material supervisors use their Handheld PC (HPC) to carry around the complete project inventory and perform inventory-related transactions. Bar coded labels link each item to a database containing all information necessary for thorough tracking.

The inventory tracking database application is being used in the construction of a large power plant in Meriden, Connecticut, as well as at many similar locations. Dick Corp. is prime contractor, managing the work of numerous subcontractors. It's a fast-paced project spread over many acres, with individuals from different companies constantly requesting materials and picking through the storage yards. Before the handheld database application was installed, delays in processing paper records and inadequate tracking details meant that items had a tendency to become lost or misplaced.

"We needed a better tracking system than Excel spreadsheets and paper," explains Mike Toland, Equipment Material Coordinator for the project. "Paper is too cumbersome and also too limiting - you're never able to specify all the information you need. We had heard about other industries that were using bar code systems, so we decided to investigate it for inventory tracking and see if it would work for us."

The software behind the new database application is called iTrack and is available from SyntegraTech ( It consists of a master inventory database running on a desktop PC and a handheld application that mirrors the central database. For each item in inventory, the application tracks its location, condition, date/time of arrival, special handling instructions, and other details. The core program runs in Microsoft Access, while the handheld application was created using Visual CE® from SYWARE ( Visual CE is often used by companies to create their own custom forms, as well as by software developers like SyntegraTech.

Pop-up menus squeeze extra real estate from the handheld screen. When the user drops the handheld into its cradle, the transactions stored on the handheld database are synchronized to the desktop Access database. It's a much more efficient approach than creating paper records and keying the same data into the central computer in what amounts to a complete duplication of effort.

Handheld preloaded with new inventory data
Dick Corp. vendors supplying materials for the project submit lists of incoming items by email, usually in the form of a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, which is imported into the Access database. At the start of the day, Toland synchronizes the Access database to the handheld database using one of the menu options on the desktop menu (Figure 1). He then goes out to the yard to receive the new material.

Handheld Database Application: Main Menu (Desktop)
Figure 1
Desktop Main Menu

All items are shipped with tracking documentation, including a purchase order number, case number, or some other tracking number. This number is also part of the database record that was downloaded in advance into the desktop computer, then synchronized to the handheld database. As material is unloaded, Toland looks up the tracking number on his handheld to display the complete item record. Everything he needs to know is at his fingertips: a description of the part, total number of units ordered, storage requirements, designated contractor, and so on. Toland now completes the Receipt transaction, tapping through the drop-down menus to indicate the date he received the part, its condition upon arrival, storage location, and other key details. See Figures 2 and 3.

Handheld Database Application: Main Menu (Handheld)
Figure 2
Handheld Main Menu

Handheld Database Application: Inventory Item Detail
Figure 3
Inventory Item Detail

At the end of the day (or at his convenience) Toland synchronizes the information captured on his handheld database with the Access database on the desktop. He can then generate a variety of reports about the equipment received, which can be sorted by contractor, storage location, condition, or any other criteria.

Bar codes linked to database records
One of the biggest advantages of the inventory control system is the ability to track items in the database by their bar code serial number. The first step is to print a set of labels using one of the desktop menu options. Initially, bar code numbers are unassigned, similar to a new license plate that has not been assigned to a vehicle.

When he's ready, Toland goes out to the materials yard with his handheld and labels. Using either the Receipt or Verify options on the main menu, he accesses the inventory record for a newly received item by looking up that item by the purchase order or other tracking number. He then sticks the bar code label on the part and scans the label. The scanned bar code number is entered into an input field on the handheld form and becomes part of the inventory record.

From this point on, he can scan the label to instantly access the complete inventory record for the item, and the look up process is greatly streamlined. "We can point the handheld at a part, read the bar code, and the machine tells us everything we need to know: what it is, when it got here, where it came from, and who it belongs to."

The handheld database application also includes a Move function used to move items from location to location and issue inventory items to a contractor. At the time of issue, the record is removed from Active inventory and pushed to a History inventory so it can't be issued again. When inventory is issued, the contractor signs for it on the handheld screen using a scribble box created using Visual CE. Their bar-coded badge is scanned to record the recipient's ID information along with the signature. Later, when the materials supervisor runs a report of inventory issued, the contractor's signature appears next to every inventory item received.

As Toland points out, this approach is very useful for eliminating potential controversies down the road. "Eight months later, if someone claims they never received an item, I can go to my records, and guess what: there's his signature and his bar code. As they say in these situations, 'Hey buddy, you own it!"

Mobile Attendance Tracking at Williams Service Group
Handheld database applications are also being put to good use for mobile attendance tracking - creating the equivalent of a time clock in your pocket. Construction firms can track the comings and goings of workers in situations where fixed scanning stations are not feasible or available.

Williams Service Group (a division of Williams Group International, Stone Mountain, GA) is using the technique during construction of a large power plant in Dresden Ohio, and at many other similar locations throughout the United States. The Dresden plant has a number of entrances to accommodate different types of equipment. Using the handheld devices to scan employee badges eliminates the possibility of people slipping through undetected.

The attendance data integrates with the company's payroll and security systems, and also helps address safety concerns regulated by OSHA. "If there is an accident, I can give an accurate count of who is on the job site, when they arrived, and where they entered," notes Ed Hayes, systems analyst for the Dresden site and responsible for managing the new system.

Scanning is performed by members of the local labor union. While this is generally a new experience for them, Hayes reports that any initial unease goes away after a few minutes of training. As shown in Figure 4, the process is extremely simple. When an employee's ID badge is scanned, the ID number and time are displayed on the handheld screen and linked to the employee record.

Handheld Database Application: TimeTrack Scan Badge Screen (Handheld)
Figure 4
TimeTrack Scan Badge Screen (Handheld)

The attendance tracking program is called TimeTrack and is also available from SyntegraTech. Like the iTrack inventory control program described earlier, TimeTrack combines an Access-based workforce database on the desktop with a Visual CE database application on the handheld. When the operator drops the handheld unit into the dock, the clock in/clock out data automatically flows into the Access program, which processes it just as if it has been punched by a fixed time clock PC workstation (also an option in TimeTrack). As shown in Figure 5, the desktop Access program includes numerous options for generating reports, managing the workforce database, and creating bar-coded ID badges.

Handheld Database Application: TimeTrack Main Menu (Desktop)
Figure 5
TimeTrack Main Menu (Desktop)

The flexibility of the Access database enables powerful reporting functions to help make workforce decisions. Daily force reports indicate by trade and company how many workers are onsite, how many are absent, and important trends. The system can generate daily and historical staffing reports by craft and sub-contractor, tracking who is present, absent, and late. Reports can also be customized for specific subcontractors and individuals; for example, foremen can get a daily report of who is present from their group to help plan their workday.

Effective tracking of attendance patterns can also be used to detect and prevent abuse. Hayes points to a case where two individuals were habitually arriving 30-45 minutes late. This information was detected by querying on all arrivals after 7:30 am, then checking for a pattern over time. Their excuse - that they were in another area of the site - no longer stood up to scrutiny since their badges had not been scanned.

"It's definitely a more secure method than 'dropping brass,'" Hayes adds, referring to an old method - still seen at some sites - based on brass tags with employee ID numbers. If the foreman does not see a worker's tag hanging on the wall, he assumes that the individual is absent for the day or no longer on the job site.

Customized Applications in Minimal Time
The handheld unit is manufactured by Unitech and uses the Windows CE 3.0 operating system. Both iTrack and TimeTrack are available from SyntegraTech, a Bow, NH integrator and developer of commercial and industrial applications. SYWARE's Visual CE, used to create the handheld applications of both products, is an intuitive, "drag & drop" software development tool that greatly reduces time and cost compared to traditional coding. This ability to short-circuit the development process opens up new opportunities for companies that could benefit from these types of applications to meet a variety of productivity and communications challenges.

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