Oil has always been big business. Just as important as getting it out of the ground is transporting it across vast distances to where the oil is needed. Shell Pipeline Company, a subsidiary of Shell Oil Products, specializes in building and servicing pipelines for moving oil from one place to another, often over thousands of miles of open country.
Managing all those pipelines is no easy task, and a field force is required to inspect and maintain pipes for safety and environmental reasons. Shell’s 300 pipeline technicians perform these tasks, as well as gather information about the pipes that they enter into a database. Filling out paper forms in the field and then manually entering the data upon returning to the office was resulting in delayed information relay, redundant data entry, reduced worker productivity and, most importantly, less wrench time for the techs. Shell set out to find a mobile solution to help lubricate the process.
Laying it Down
“Three to four years ago we began a project to remake the way we do business with the pipelines,” says Brian Ashe, manager of measurement and quality services at Shell Pipeline. “We needed to change the way we purchased equipment and services from people, how we brought new customers onto the lines and how they are serviced and billed using the pipeline.” In order to help facilitate this, Shell chose to integrate SAP software within the pipeline aspect of the business. Once that decision was made, Shell wondered how best to capture inspection data on paper and upload it into the SAP database.
“One of the thoughts was that we could use a handheld device to gather the information and use that to input data into SAP to free up the technicians’ time in the field,” says Ashe. Shell drew a line in the sand and said, “This is what we want, now who can provide it for us?” Five software companies and four hardware suppliers stepped forward and made presentations. Shell chose Telispark Mobile Enterprise for its mobile preventive and predictive maintenance applications. Due to the potentially hazardous vapors associated with petroleum, Shell had very strict requirements for the device (class 1, division 2), which narrowed the field down to one—Symbol’s 8100 Pocket PC handheld.
Once the final vendors were chosen and requirements defined, Shell sat down with Telispark to scope out the entire project. “Telispark did ride-alongs with techs in the field to gather data and see what the workday was like,” says Ashe. “Then, based on the information from the ride-along phase, the design phase lasted several months. The vendors continued to go back to the field to say, ‘This is what we have.’ The test mode was very interactive.”
After the solution was completely designed, Shell began a pilot with 30 people utilizing the solution in the field that lasted from mid-January to mid-March, 2003. “Based on their input, we found some bugs, went back to Telispark and had them tweak it. Telispark had a couple of weeks to fix the bugs and we began a phased rollout in the beginning of April,” says Ashe.
Greasing the Wrench
“Once we had the solution and it was on the handhelds, we put together a presentation for 30 super-users, who received day-long classroom training,” remarks Ashe. “Training had to be very interactive, as this is a solution they have in their hands.” The super-users were asked to help train the rest of the 300 technicians, who received a mix of classroom training and one-on-one instruction with super-users.
As one might expect, acceptance was mixed at first. “Computers don’t bother younger folks at all,” notes Ashe. “Some of the older folks had some natural resistance to change and didn’t take to it right away. Overall, though, the acceptance has been pretty darn good. The more they use it, the better they like it as they find how useful it is.”
Freed from many administrative hassles, Shell pipeline technicians have found their jobs have become simpler. “Techs out in the field cover a rather large territory. They often leave the office on a Monday morning and may not return to the office for one or two weeks, covering 300 to 500 miles of pipes. When they come back to the office they have a lot of data to enter and might have had to spend an entire day entering it; or they would hand it off to data-entry personnel, which introduced more chance for error,” says Ashe. “Now, they synch up first thing in the morning, upload the information into our SAP database and download new work orders. Then the techs go out and do their job, and when they return to the office, they resynch the device. It’s made it easier for the techs and given them more wrench time and less administrative time. They spend more time on the job doing work.”
From a manager’s perspective, it’s given decision-makers a clearer picture of how much time the techs are in the field working rather than entering data into the SAP system. They also have “more reliability on the inspections standpoint to know that they are getting done on time,” notes Ashe. “There’s more accountability as the inspections are downloaded when they are completed.”
While Shell didn’t expect to make a calculated return on this investment, they’ve made some appreciable gains in terms of time. The company has achieved an 80-percent paperless business function with the SAP and Telispark solution, saving two to three hours per week by eliminating paperwork prep time and saving an additional six to eight hours of data entry time per week per person. This results in the techs spending more time in the field inspecting pipes, which has improved the maintenance and work processes, provided faster access to critical data and vastly improved data integrity.
Shell is pleased with the results. “Everyone worked very well with one another to make sure each party was satisfied,” says Ashe.