Most construction commissioning tracking systems in use today consist of a combination of paper forms and Excel-based tracking spreadsheets. While these are fine for small projects like residential home construction and commissioning projects with less than 100 devices, they are vastly inferior to software built specifically for Cx. Some of the reasons are obvious: transcription mistakes, organizing and retrieving paper forms is messy, hand-written information sometimes is illegible, etc.
But some reasons are not as obvious. This article addresses 8 things that good construction commissioning software (aka Cx software) can accomplish better than a paper- and Excel-based system can, particularly for larger commissioning projects.
1. Track % complete accurately and in real-time
There’s no way a paper- plus Excel-based system can match the speed of a software system in calculating % complete and rolling this up by various levels and hierarchies. Software designed for construction commissioning will always perform % complete calculations faster and more accurately than paper + Excel. Always. With regards to accuracy, there are some inherent problems with a manually-intensive paper system that include the following:
- Paper and Excel-based workflows require multiple human touch points. As human touch points increase, so does the time required to complete the calculations. Complexities multiply, and opportunities for mistakes, data gaps, and inaccurate data increase. For example, let’s say an electrical field tech fills out a medium voltage motor test report form. At the end of the day, he will walk this completed form (along with all his other completed forms) to the construction trailer and hand these to a designated clerical staff for input into an Excel tracking sheet and archiving of the completed paper form into a designated file folder, most likely ordered by Startup System Code and then by device type. Because it’s the end of the day, the completions tests conducted by this field tech are not going to make it into the Excel tracking sheet until the following day or later. When the clerical staff finally finds time to enter the previous day’s info into the Excel tracking sheet, some errors may be transcribed from the paper form to Excel, and in some cases, it may be difficult to read the field tech’s handwriting unless that person is asked about a specific note or value written down. Once the form is entered into Excel, various manipulations of the Excel sheet or sheets needs to be done to properly mark that device as completed for that test. After all of these are entered into Excel, then the clerical staff will update all the chart and graph ranges and proceed to attach the latest version of the Excel tracking sheet to an email to send to various stakeholders. All of the above is tedious, time-consuming, and subject to mistakes, things that software can solve well.
- Rolling up % complete in various ways requires a good command of Excel pivot tables, advanced Excel techniques, and/or very large multi-worksheet Excel spreadsheets. If you want to track % complete by startup system code, area, and device type, it will require multiple Excel worksheets. This can’t be done on a single worksheet, and sometimes not even on a single spreadsheet. Imagine if you have several sublevels that you’d like to track in between each major category. For example, what if you want to track non-rotating and rotating mechanical equipment separately, or further subdivide things into pumps and motors? What if you want to track % complete for a building, then a floor, then a room, and then further track this down to the electrical devices installed in a particular room of a particular floor of a particular building? How do you do that in Excel? Clearly, as you add layers and tracking levels, the complexities of your Excel sheet multiply almost exponentially. And a more complex system means that the system is more prone to errors and mistakes, let alone the time involved to do all of the mathematical calisthenics required that perhaps only one human in your org understands well enough to trust them to do.
- Paper- and Excel-based systems cannot handle partial % complete. Virtually all paper- and Excel-based systems such as the one described above treat a device as either 0% complete or 100% complete. Now consider adding partial % complete to the mix. For example, let’s say you have a motor to commission, and meggering this motor is taking the field tech more time to complete than anticipated. So at the end of the day, the field tech completed just that test, and none of the other tests required for that motor. When the field tech walks to the trailer, he hands in the megger test form but tells the clerical staff that all the tests for that motor have not been completed yet. In a paper- and Excel-based system, this motor is treated as 0% complete, even though it’s partially completed already. While this may not seem significant for 1 or 2 devices, when you roll up thousands of devices on a multi-billion dollar construction project where a single day of delay might mean $100K of cost, it is very significant, especially if your org gets paid based on project progress: if you are always underestimating % complete because your system can’t handle partially completed devices, then you are progress billing less than you could bill, so your money comes in slower than it could.
2. Make fewer mistakes and have more complete datasets
Software systems can ensure that certain fields are filled out and that values entered in certain fields fall within a particular range of valid values. You can’t do that on paper. Field techs filling out paper forms can leave things blank, can write in values that are clearly incorrect, and their handwriting skills can be less than optimal and can be interpreted/transcribed incorrectly by others. All of these issues can be resolved easily with Cx software, leading to a more complete dataset and more accurate data. Also, if you think about it, when you use software at the point of data entry (in the field by the field tech), that data is being entered a single time instead of twice: once on the paper form, and then again from paper to Excel.
3. Generate a turnover package quickly
Turnover packages are typically completed by startup system code, where the system is “turned over” by the commissioning team to the operating organization or client. Each time a startup system is fully commissioned, a turnover package is generated and submitted. When this occurs, it means that every single device in that system has been checked by the commissioning/QA team and has been certified that it has been properly installed, fully tested, and is ready for operation.
In a paper-based system, whenever a startup system is deemed completed, the clerical staff will retrieve all the paper forms completed for that particular system and will scan every single paper form into PDF. This usually means sorting all the completed paper forms into a particular order, scanning them, and then generating a single PDF document that contains every single device in that system. Doing this manually means ensuring that the Excel-based tracking sheet is accurate and that indeed all the devices are 100% completed, locating all the paper forms, assembling them into the correct order, scanning them into PDF, adding cover sheets and then emailing the turnover package as an attachment to an email sent to the appropriate stakeholders. With software, generating a turnover package can be done in as little as a couple of clicks.
4. Plot scheduled vs actual % complete line charts in realtime
Sure, Excel can generate line charts, including scheduled completions vs. actual completions. But keeping these current means continually updating the cell ranges being used for the charts. If this isn’t done, even if the worksheets are updated, the line charts might not update because the cell ranges haven’t been updated. While this can be set up to update automatically, it still means someone that is very well-versed in Excel needs to set this up and check the cell ranges regularly. Ensuring that all of this is done right typically means assigning a point person to maintain “master versions” of all the Excel tracking sheets and sending out “the latest version” to all stakeholders at a regular interval of time (usually weekly). If the charts you have are old and you want them updated now, you will have to contact the person in charge and have them update the charts and email them to you, something that is not necessarily going to happen immediately. With Cx software, all your charts are updated automatically—in realtime—as the data is entered by the field techs, meaning that this is a non-issue.
5. Never lose a form (or start the day without the right forms)
When a Cx field tech is preparing for the day, he will need to grab blank sheets of paper for each type of test he will be doing that day. If he forgets to bring a particular blank sheet with him, he will have to go back to the construction trailer and pick one up. This is particularly true for devices that require various tests…the tech might forget that a particular device requires a certain test and may forget to bring that particular test’s blank form. With software, all the form templates are available digitally on his tablet and smartphone, so this issue of forgetting a form is a non-issue, even for devices that require multiple tests and forms.
6. Fill out checklists and commissioning forms faster than paper forms
A lot of information (especially form header information such as device ID, device description, area, system code, etc.) can be pre-populated into a form template on demand when it is digital. Doing this on a paper form means having to type this info into the form template and physically printing it before the field tech leaves the construction trailer. If the field tech has to do this while in the field, it will take some time, and inevitably, the field tech will skip some of this and hand write in the bare bones minimum information he can get away with.
With software, all of this header information can be added on demand, from one form to another form, automatically. Checklist tables can also be pre-populated with certain values, such as N/A, for example, which could be edited as needed. Entire sections can also be set as N/A for devices that don’t require filling out certain aspects of a form.
7. Generate/forward punchlist records in realtime
When an issue arises and the field tech has to create a punchlist item, this information needs to make it to the general contractor or appropriate stakeholders quickly so that the issue can be resolved as quickly as possible. When you use a paper- and Excel-based system, punchlist information can sometimes take an informal route, such as a phone call or text message to someone. Tracking this kind of detail outside a formal system can be problematic. The alternative is to capture these details in a paper form and then submit these punchlist forms to the right person in the construction trailer at the end of the day, which usually means that the punchlist item won’t even be looked at until the following day.
Software can push punchlist information in realtime to the appropriate stakeholders, sometimes saving a full day of time. And on a large multi-million or billion dollar project, a single day of time savings is meaningful, especially if the punchlist item is a critical component that may impact other systems or cause delays downstream.
In addition to time savings, good Cx software can also help others understand the problem encountered by the technician by integrating photo and video capture directly inside the punchlist form. While anyone with a smartphone can do this in an ad-hoc way, when a camera control is integrated directly into a punchlist form, information can be viewed in context with other information, something that is much more difficult to do with a one-off email or text message. Which brings us to point #8, below.
8. Capture and centralize pictures (and video) of problems encountered
Sometimes a picture or video illustrating a problem is better than a textual description. And yes, field techs can pull out their smartphone, take a picture or video, and text it or WhatsApp it to their boss or appropriate person. But what about the context associated with that picture or video? How do others access it long after you or the field tech have quit your job? Unless this kind of information is later uploaded into some system, it will be difficult to access later.
Good Cx software will have image and video documentation built into it so this kind of information can be easily accessed and retrieved along with a device’s information, adding context to the image. Metadata associated with the image such as geolocation, date/time, etc., is also something that good Cx software will have available.
So if Cx software is so good, why isn’t it being used more often?
Most of the complaints I hear are related to 3 things:
- software complexity;
- the time required to set up a Cx system;
- total cost to implement and adopt.
It’s too complex
Some older legacy Cx software can be overwhelming, contain steep learning curves, and require working in a particular way. Field technicians are already really busy doing a lot of stuff. Adding yet one more thing for them to learn, just to satisfy upper management, can be stressful.
But some of the more modern Cx software tools that are available today—including XForms—are not that complicated. They even run on the smartphones that nearly everyone on the planet already uses and carries in their pocket. Even all thumbs mechanical guys use smartphones every single day now. Asking them to fill out a commissioning form on a smartphone is not asking a whole lot of them anymore…everyone is used to interacting with iPhones and Android phones nowadays.
It takes too long to set up my project in that Cx software
What they are saying is that it’s too much work relative to the benefits derived from the use of the software. Most companies get hung up on the following steps:
- Importing a device/equipment list into the Cx system
- Creating tracking hierarchies such as startup system codes, device types, and areas/elevations
- Creating and editing commissioning checklists and form templates
- Assigning device types to the device/equipment list
- Assigning form templates and checklists to the device types
While I have heard that it could take up to 2 months to set up a system in CxAlloy, there are newer Cx software tools that make the above steps less time-consuming and simpler to do. With modern software, a lot of this can be done quickly…in days, not weeks. For example, setting up a tracking hierarchy can take as little as 5 minutes. Importing a device list is a matter of clicking a few buttons…getting the device list from the GC is what’s time consuming 🙂 Once you have a few form templates created, you can clone these and edit as needed, making form template creation not so painful. And assigning form templates to devices can also be sped up by assigning form templates to device types instead.
Modern Cx software can handle a lot of the above easily when compared to legacy Cx systems. All of them use a browser-based user interface and standard toolsets that everyone is used to.
It’s too expensive
Construction commissioning software is less expensive than you might think, especially if you calculate the true cost of paper, which is going to include a lot of labor hour costs needed to manage the paper- and Excel-based system that is just not required for a Cx software system. For example, with a paper- and Excel-based system, you will most likely need a dedicated full-time person to manage the paper documents coming in from the field and update the Excel tracking sheets. You don’t need any dedicated personnel to manage a good Cx software system. It’s simple enough to manage part-time.
When it comes to delays, a single day of project completion delay is almost invariably more expensive than any software deployment cost, especially for larger projects.
What about progress billing? If you are consistently underestimating % complete because your Excel tracking sheet is not up to date, you are leaving money on the table that you could otherwise bill for sooner.
To summarize, if you have an upcoming long-term commissioning project, especially if it’s a large project with hundreds of devices, give modern Cx software another look. I’ll bet money that in the long run, it’s going to work better for you than a paper- plus Excel-based system.
Ok then, which modern Cx software products should I look at?
Well, for starters, hopefully you will give XForms a look. It’s a new forms software platform built from the ground up with Cx in mind. It has an automatic % complete calculation built into it which makes it really unique. We are working on developing a really slick reporting and admin dashboard now for it, where you will be able to create device type and area/location hierarchies with ease and be able to quickly assign form templates to these. Our product is still young and not quite fully developed, and as such it’s a great time to check it out for various reasons, one being to possibly influence the direction that the product goes toward.
You should also check out the following modern Cx software products, in no particular order. Rather than me summarizing each, click the links below and give each an impartial look for yourself. Note that I have excluded other Cx software products that have been around for awhile, such as WinPCS, ProjecTools, Hexagon PPM, and CORS. Those older software tools are considered mature legacy tools, and the newer products mentioned below will serve you better in today’s modern world than those much older, more complex toolsets which were designed over a decade ago, some of them designed (gasp!) before the iPhone was introduced in June of 2007.