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The competition is with paper, not with other software products

While some folks will have you believe that commissioning software products compete against each other, they have a much more powerful foe than each other: paper.  Yep, good ol’ paper forms.   The habit of using paper forms is so embedded in our thought processes that a lot of folks can’t even consider an alternative to paper.  I would guess that the vast majority of commissioning—even for massive billion dollar construction projects—is done with paper, with some of the data written on the paper forms then transcribed to spreadsheets for analysis and reporting.

As software developers, that’s what we are up against: Paper.  A formidable competitor, for sure.  After all, paper is cheap (at least it is perceived to be cheap), everyone knows how to use paper forms, and it’s easy to deploy to startup technicians for data collection.  But there are underlying costs and problems to using paper.  Here’s some of them.

Paper forms are not cheap when considering the cost of labor

Sure, printing paper commissioning forms doesn’t really cost much.  But what about the cost of converting that static data into something useful?  That requires a human to transcribe from paper to at least a spreadsheet.  And that human costs money, occasionally makes mistakes, and doesn’t work 24/7.

Actionable data is delayed

When you use paper forms, someone needs to transcribe at least portions of that information to something that can process that data digitally in order to calculate percent complete for a particular system, engineering area, or other classification/category.  The data is not very useful if it only remains on the paper forms. Knowing this, most organizations will extract some of the more important information from the forms and put that into Excel spreadsheets. But this takes time.  Someone has to do it.  And the more complex spreadsheets usually are comprised of multiple worksheets, some of which are charts and graphs that require updating the cell ranges in order for them to be accurate.  I’ve seen some spreadsheets contain macros to run some automations, and some spreadsheets with worksheets that are merely used for handling the chart cell ranges.  That means triple data entry: once by the technician onto the paper form, a second time by the clerical staff onto the Excel worksheet, and a third time by the same clerical staff onto the other worksheet that is being called up by the chart.  Sometimes these worksheets get so big that entire columns are then hidden to “unclutter” the view.  And sometimes it’s several worksheets that have to be opened at the same time in order for the cell values to properly update from cells in other spreadsheet files.  Not to mention that all of these spreadsheets get passed around by email, and at some point someone edits a cell value, and then no one is sure which version is the most up-to-date.

A commissioning delay of even one day is very expensive

Bottom line is that all of this transcription stuff is more complex and takes more time than most people think it does, and that means that understanding where you are on a percent complete relative to where you are supposed to be takes some effort and time to calculate.  And when your project is a multi-million dollar, or multi-billion dollar project, every day of delay is a very very big deal.  So if you don’t know that you are behind in commissioning a particular system, or a particular type of device (like electrical devices), how are you going to know that you need to deploy more electrical technicians that week in order to catch up, or least try to catch up to the planned schedule?

You can’t, unless you have timely, actionable, and accurate data.  And that’s where software comes in.  Software that goes beyond Excel.  Software that doesn’t require manually emailing stakeholders periodically.  Software that doesn’t require a human to transcribe data from static paper forms, with mistakes and all.

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