Electrical inspectors get positive charge from new Sybase-powered system

For the inspectors at Ontario’s Electrical Safety Authority (ESA) “timeliness” and “co-ordination” are far more than buzzwords.

They are critical pre-requisites for success at the job.  

As its name suggests, this not-for-profit corporation is responsible for enforcing electrical safety across Ontario. It is accountable to the public through the Ontario Ministry of Government and Consumer Services.

ESA carries out its mandate through a fleet of 260 field inspectors, who – day after day – inspect electrical installations relating to new construction, renovations, or maintenance in commercial, industrial and residential settings.

As each year ESA receives more than 350,000 new inspection requests that are divvied up among 260 inspectors.

Managing the logistics of such a workload is a pretty daunting task.

A lot rides on the quality of the system used to record and synchronize inspection data.  In fact, the productivity of inspectors and seamless coordination between teams depend on this.

After a couple of disappointing experiences (first with a home-grown Windows-based mobile inspection system, in 1995, and subsequently with SAP’s field service software in 2000) ESA finally hit the jackpot.

In 2005, it finally identified a system that’s just what the doctor (or the inspector?) ordered.

In the three years since its roll out at ESA, the system has increased inspector productivity, slashed synchronization times by as much as 90 per cent, and drastically reduced administrative labour and costs.

It has also boosted morale among ESA inspectors.

The cornerstone of the system is FieldWorker Enterprise, an application from Toronto-based FieldWorker Products Ltd. that enables exchange of corporate information with mobile workers

Embedded within FieldWorker Enterprise is SQL Anywhere, a database management system from Sybase iAnywhere Inc., the Waterloo, Ont.-based subsidiary of enterprise software and services firm, Sybase Inc.

As a mobile and embedded database, SQL Anywhere is widely used in various contexts. For instance:

– As an embedded database, it is used as an application data store. Its use in this way within Intuit QuickBooks enterprise accounting package helped increase performance by three to five times.

– It can be used as database server software for workgroups or for small or medium-sized businesses.

– In mobile computing environments, it supports and speeds up scalable data synchronization.

That’s one of the main benefit it offers ESA inspectors and administrators.

“The really fundamental benefit is the inspectors have something relatively easy to use while on the road,” said Rod Fox, general manager of information technology at ESA.

Most ESA inspectors work remotely doing electrical inspections across the province. They needed a system that helped them quikcly download their assignments, each morning, on their Panasonic laptop, record the results of each inspection, and synchronize that information with the backend SAP ERP system Fox said.

He said the FieldWorker system – powered by Sybase SQL Anywhere – meets these need far better than the SAP product they were using previously. “The CRM function of SAP was a little more complicated.”

From a work process perspective – synchronization and flexibility are two key benefits of the FieldWorker system.

Inspectors synchronize at various levels through the one-screen application that FieldWorker developed.

Once inspectors connect to the system through a virtual private network, they just need to hit a button and synchronization between the Sybase [SQL Anywhere ]database and the FieldWorker application will happen.

“One unique thing about our application is it gives the inspector the ability to do a query about other people’s work,” Fox said. “So, for instance, if I’m a senior with a bunch of inspectors working for me, I could pull down the work from my entire team and have a look at that on my machine.”

This is a very useful feature, he said, as an inspector may be needed to cover for a colleague who is on vacation. “He could download that person’s work.”

And if the senior inspector sees the need to adjust or re-assign jobs, they could also do that as well, he said.  

When attached to the system, inspectors can also query against the SAP backend system through FieldWorker. Fox said in many cases inspectors may snap a picture of a defect they’ve noticed. “They would e-mail this picture to the electricians who are doing the work so they can see visually what needs to be corrected.”

Customization – or the ability to easily tailor the system to existing ESA workflow and processes is the other big benefit, Fox said.

He said Sybase SQL Anywhere – embedded within FieldWorker – supports bi-directional synchronization between the mobile device and backend systems.
For instance, it enables the results of each inspection – recorded on the Panasonic laptop – to be synchronized seamlessly with the core (Oracle) database “without us having to program a whole bunch of stuff.”

Captivating Training

Fox says the inspectors learned how to use the new tool very quickly after some hands on training sessions. “It was relatively easy for them to use, as it matched their existing work processes.”

He said when ESA did an upgrade the FieldWorker product, around eight months ago, it created a computer based training (CBT) application, using Adobe’s Captivate product.”

The CBT program – that covered all changes put in place – was very successful, he said, and was used as part of a tiered training strategy. “We could go out and train the senior staff, and have them, in turn, train their teams. That way we have a consistency in the content of the training.”

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