No More Pen and Clipboard: Mobile, Paperless Management of Plant-Floor Data

Nov. 21, 2008
An interview with Steve Woram, President of Form Automation Solutions.

Automating the shop floor is an inevitability. One of the companies speeding this trend is Form Automation Solutions (Addison, Texas), which seeks to rid pharma plants of clipboards or Excel-based data collection and bring them into the Web 2.0 world with its AuditMatic solution. FAS has already worked extensively with Frito Lay, and now with a Big Pharma client as well.
Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Senior Editor Paul Thomas spoke with FAS President Steve Woram:

PhM: Briefly, what does your software do? Do you view AuditMatic as a “niche” product?

S.W.: AuditMatic increases the effectiveness and productivity of frontline mobile production workers who aren’t tethered to a computer at a fixed location. It not only does away with the old pen and clipboard used for data collection during rounds, it takes advantage of the multi-media capabilities of hand-held computers and smart phones to visually document and report conditions in the field. Since the data they collect with their devices is already in electronic form, it can be processed and shared with HMI, DCS and other back office databases without manually loading it into a spreadsheet or other application. AuditMatic also provides decision-support tools to workers as they make their rounds, providing contextual operator instruction and reference material to ensure best practices are followed when out-of-the-ordinary conditions are encountered.

It’s a niche product in the sense that it targets the needs of mobile frontline workers, but it is applicable to multiple data collection and reporting categories and multiple vertical markets.

PhM: What’s your value proposition for your clients? What separates AuditMatic from competitors?

S.W.: AuditMatic, without exaggeration, delivers:

• Greater productivity
• Lower labor costs
• Less down time
• Tighter budget control, and
• Higher return on investment in capital equipment

Unlike other solutions, it is designed from the ground up to be used by non-technical workers, and it can be acquired as either a hosted system or licensed for on-site installation.

PhM: You’re working with a major pharmaceutical manufacturer? Tell us as much as you can about this application.

S.W.: Our pharmaceutical customer is using the product primarily to manage weekly and monthly data collection requirements. In the past, this customer accomplished this task by first e-mailing out Excel questionnaires, then using the phone and e-mail to ensure that the sites submitted timely information. When the dozens of spreadsheets were finally gathered, someone had to tediously compile the data into charts and reports. Now AuditMatic collects the data from geographically separated sites into a single data database, does all of the task reminders and reporting and presents continuously updated reports not only on the collected data, but also on who has submitted and not.

PhM: What are this manufacturer’s goals and rationale for partnering with FAS?

S.W.: We believe that the customer found the AuditMatic application unique and compelling because it did not simply create an electronic form to collect the data, but also did all the time-consuming task management and compiling of data from hundreds of forms into a single reportable and exportable database.

PhM: How well does AuditMatic integrate with other IT systems, in particular manufacturing execution systems (MES) on up to ERP systems? What’s been the experience of the manufacturer mentioned above?

S.W.: AuditMatic integrates easily with HMI, DCS or other back-end systems, eliminating delays and the opportunities for transcription errors. The manufacturer above does not roll up data into a back-office database, but other customers have used AuditMatic to become a useful tool for gathering data into SAS and other quality-oriented business analysis tools.

PhM: Has this pharma manufacturer shared some of the cost or other benefits that it’s realized?

S.W.: No. However, most customers base their purchase of the product on the reduction in hours spent on transcription, task management and reporting labor since these can be well documented.

PhM: Pharma manufacturers are striving for paperless plants. How much can FAS help them in this direction? What are AuditMatic’s limitations?

S.W.: AuditMatic can eliminate virtually any kind of manual, paper-based process for data collection and reporting. Examples of “sweet spot” applications include regular (ie. every hour, shift, day, etc.) production line rounds, product safety audits, regulatory compliance audits and inspections, to name a few. The main limitations of AuditMatic relate to the size of the hand-held computer or smart phone display. Data collection that requires extensive narratives to be written by the user are not well suited to the smaller screen real estate and keyboard size.
PhM: Could the software be used for laboratory applications, or is it mainly applicable to large-scale manufacturing?

S.W.: Yes, it can be used for many kinds of labs and research facilities. It is already being used, for example, at the Stanford Linear Accelerator for rounds and readings. It can be used for any kind of data collection and reporting which is done by mobile, frontline workers.

PhM: You’ve also worked with Frito Lay. What aspects of this implementation are significant and might be relevant for pharmaceutical manufacturers (which, coincidentally, have been unfavorably compared with potato chip manufacturers in the past in terms of productivity and technology)?

S.W.: Frito-Lay was an early adopter of AuditMatic and initially used it to collect and report data related to only one aspect of product quality. Now they are seeking to use AuditMatic to replace virtually every type of manual, paper-based data collection and reporting activity throughout their operations, including product quality, product safety and equipment checks. Although one industry’s product may be consumed for pleasure and the other for longevity, the modern automated factories that process both products often are similar in their need for extensive operational oversight and detailed documentation to ensure that what the end user ingests meets the high standards that the manufacturer and the government have set.