Tablet technologies in traditional engineering projects

The benefits of tablet-based tools are being realized vs. using traditional methods.

By Timothy Lemoine, P.E. and Scott Byrne, P.E. Matrix Technologies Inc. December 11, 2016

The majority of engineering fieldwork is still done the old-fashioned way with paper drawings, pencils, and highlighters. This method is time-tested and adequate to get the job done. However, there are certain projects that present challenges using this traditional method. Efficiencies plummet when large projects with hundreds of drawings, thousands of pieces of data, and environmental issues affect the output.

The use of wireless tablets and database technologies for large engineering projects with massive amounts of fieldwork are increasing. The following project used the traditional method in the first phase and tablets in the remaining phases. A comparison of both methods and additional uses for this technology in engineering and industrial applications are explored.

Tablet market penetration

Today, tablets are becoming commonplace in the industry. As shown in Figure 1, the tablet’s market penetration for the first 5 years of product history has greatly exceeded other mobile and nonmobile computing devices. This exponential curve is assisted for a couple of reasons. First, the enterprise is rapidly adopting tablets within the workforce. In many cases, laptops and desktops are no longer provided for employees. Second, the devices are used for more than consuming content such as Internet browsing.

Some studies indicate that greater than 20% of the tablets are actually used to create or edit content. This article explores how tablets can be used in an enterprise to both consume and create content and increase efficiency.

Many engineering projects begin by collecting field data to determine current field conditions. This requirement typically involves a tedious process of locating the instrument or piece of equipment and the paper-and-pen method of confirming drawing accuracy. Existing drawings are taken to the field and marked up by hand to represent actual conditions.

There are inherent challenges when doing this type of work. For large projects involving a lot of data, the challenges become magnified. When working outdoors, this becomes even more demanding. These challenges often lead to a loss in efficiency, schedule delays, poor quality, and ultimately higher project costs.

For example, a project involved the replacement of over 3,000 field instruments in a large petrochemical facility. The project goal was to upgrade the distributed control system to a new control system based on Foundation Fieldbus (FFB). All instrumentation would be replaced with an instrument that could communicate using the FFB protocol. The project team was tasked to specify new model numbers for each instrument to be replaced and devise a migration plan for the hot cutover of the majority of the instruments. The remaining instruments will be replaced during an outage.

New instrument models

The first step in creating new instrument model numbers is to obtain information related to the existing instruments, locations, process data, electrical ratings, etc. The team initially turned to the facility’s documentation, such as the International Society of Automation (ISA) specification sheets, loop drawings, and loop folders. The plant documentation was quickly dismissed as unreliable or unavailable. The team needed to start with practically nothing regarding instrumentation and would gather it all from the field. The instrument survey involved several field engineers completing the following tasks:

  • Confirm the field location
  • Confirm representation on process and instrumentation diagram (P&ID)
  • Gather 15 data points relating to the instrument
  • Place identification tag on the instrument
  • Take several photographs of each instrument installation.

This data was then analyzed in the engineering offices to specify the FFB-equivalent device to purchase for the new control system.

The project team encountered many obstacles that caused budget overruns and schedule delays. Several factors played a significant role in missed project goals. For one, the team found human error in handling the large amounts of data and documentation. Also, design engineers found further difficulties in communicating data with the team. Even the logistics of carrying stacks of drawings in the field, in normal and adverse weather conditions, caused missed goals. 

Creating tablet solutions

The initial instrument survey was completed for the first 40% of the instruments using the traditional method. The schedule and budget problems prompted the project team to find a solution through a brainstorming session with the company’s information technology (IT) group.

The first part of the solution was to implement a custom database accessible via a Web-based user interface (WUI). Together, they replaced the paper forms used to manually gather the instrument data. The second part of the solution addressed the data entry method. An electronic tablet with basic Internet access was chosen as the preferred means to enter data since it could be accomplished in the field.

The type of Web interface was chosen so the database could be accessed from anywhere with an Internet connection, not just the tablet. The tablet would be a means of storing all drawings and eliminating the need to carry everything into the field. Figure 2 shows the flow of data. The intent of the database itself was to create a real-time, single repository of information. The database alone solved the following issues:

  • Multiple spreadsheets with repetitive data
  • Data entry errors from handwritten forms to electronic spreadsheets
  • Stale or incomplete data
  • Reliance on voicemail or email communication to detail the main data source.

The WUI had to provide a way to extract this data for the engineering design. The project team created custom reports to access the database that could be configured by the WUI.

Criteria for input device

The design of the user interface was developed with the limitations of the tablet and nature of work in mind. Screens were designed to fit the size of the tablet and rotate as needed. Any buttons placed on the interface considered the user wearing gloves. The color scheme was chosen based on the user standing in outdoor light. A tablet was chosen over other options because of various reasons including:

  • Portability
  • Inherent "instant-on" capability
  • Adequate viewing area
  • Long battery life (up to 10 hours)
  • Relative low cost
  • Available accessories-carrying straps, hardened case
  • Custom or user-ready apps
  • Built-in security features
  • Instant communications between team members (even in CL 1 Div 2 environments).

The tablet was used to facilitate three main functions to improve the efficiency and quality of the instrument survey:

  1. To get the instrument data into the database
  2. To provide instantaneous access to all current drawings, documents, and data used in the project to all members working on the project
  3. To keep all members of the team connected (i.e., via email and through instant messenger applications).

Implementing tablet technology

There were three obstacles to overcome prior to the implementation of the tablet solution:

  1. Safety department approval to work in a class 1, division 2 hazardous location
  2. Reliable Internet access
  3. Tablet environmental protection.

The facility safety policy states that electronics that could potentially cause a spark and possibly ignite the explosive gases are not permitted. This includes mobile cellular phones, laptops, flashlights, and any tablet. The team met with plant safety personnel and agreed that the use of explosive gas detecting monitors was an adequate solution. All team members were safety trained and equipped with a four-gas monitor.

To gain Internet access, the team investigated two options; connect to the facility’s local Wi-Fi network or use local cellular towers. Usage and security tests were done. Results showed Wi-Fi did not exist in some areas and had security complications. Cellular towers were chosen for Internet access.

Blowing debris scratching the screen, dropping the tablet from ladders or scaffolding, banging tablets against sharp corners, or getting them wet in the rain were all environmental concerns. An Internet search provided options for sturdy cases that would protect against all concerns. A case with a hardened shell, removable shoulder strap, and a waterproof cover was chosen.

The graph in Figure 3 shows that what once took 49 weeks to complete now only takes around 29 weeks. Using an average engineering labor rate, this represents approximately a $240,000 savings for the project. 

Security concerns

The data that this system is transporting is generic compared to phone and email data packets. However, security is always a concern. This system relies upon security at multiple levels of the OSI 7- layer model:

  • Physical layer (1): Remote wipe of tablet if lost or stolen
  • Network layer (3): Server hardware behind the firewall
  • Session layer (5): Strong 14-character password requirement with auto-lockout feature
  • Presentation layer (6): Transport layer security (TLS) using encryption
  • Application layer (7): Unique access levels per user (read-only, r/w, deletion, etc.).

Analyzing traditional methods vs. tablet technology

The traditional method resulted in budget overruns, schedule issues, and quality problems. These were only overcome by long hours and a lot of rework. The tablet method resulted in significant savings to the budget and the schedule. The quality can be measured by customer satisfaction. The migration was smooth, and the construction package was well put together and easy to understand. This is a result from spending more time creating a useful and clear package rather than spending countless hours in the field and reworking items due to lost or unreadable data.

The success of the tablet and database led to an expanded role in the project that included commissioning activities. Unique forms were developed for each instrument type, and the forms were used as a checklist for quality assurance measures and progress tracking.

Efficiency is not always measured by how long it takes to complete a task from start to finish. It should also take into account the amount of extra work caused by the methodology used in completing the task. Simple, effective methods are the most efficient. The tablet-and-database solution simplified instrument documentation. There weren’t longer, multiple sets of drawings and documents owned and manipulated by multiple people in multiple locations. The solution brought everyone and everything to a single, simplified point of reference.

This project demonstrated that there is definitely a place for tablets in engineering projects. The dominance and fast growing tablet market will be further strengthened as more firms use and develop tablet-based tools in the future.

Timothy Lemoine, P.E. and Scott Byrne, P.E., Matrix Technologies Inc.

Original content can be found at Oil and Gas Engineering.