PTO tracks who's using what

A radio network inventory system running
on handheld computers has brought the Patent and Trademark Office good grades from the
Commerce Department’s inspector general.


In fiscal 1997, PTO did well in the IG’s annual inventory inspection, said George
Naughton, president of AMT Associates of Arlington, Va., which assisted in building the
system. The inspector general’s random tests measure an agency’s ability to
track valuable items such as computers.


When PTO buys computers, fax machines, printers and small refrigerators, Naughton said,
vendors ship them to a PTO warehouse. There, agency officials attach bar codes and record
purchase order and warranty data.


PTO officials have gone “from walking around with a pad and pencil, trying to
figure out where everything is, to having signed forms where everyone agrees” about
the location of computers and other important property, Naughton said.


When employees leave the agency, the inventory systems can verify whether their
workspaces have the same computer equipment as at the last inventory, he said.


PTO has integrated its inventory system with a field engineering system and help desk.
That has brought about a change in employee attitudes, according to one PTO official.


“A lot of individuals don’t want to take responsibility,” said Dawn
Fields, a PTO program analyst. “Now we have the tools to make them take
responsibility.”


For example, systems administrators can track when technicians arrive on site and what
they are doing, she said.


Technicians use one of three handheld computer models, numbering 75 in all, from Psion
Inc. of Concord, Mass. The HCR 900 is a long-range radio unit, the HC 120 works on a
spread-spectrum radio network and the WorkAbout has an integrated laser scanner for batch
data collection. All the units run Psion’s Epoc, a Unix-like multitasking operating
system.


PTO users keep everything active on the unit, Naughton said. “They can scan while
still inputting data. The radio can be transparent to the user,” he said.


On the cellular radio network, Psion users do not even need to dial in, Naughton said.


The handhelds have 512K to 1M of internal memory, and they hold up to 32M of flash
electronically programmable read-only memory, using slide-in modules.


With flash EPROM, PTO administrators can write once and not worry about losing data,
Naughton said, because no batteries are needed.


Technicians key inventory information into the handhelds. An Oracle7 Release 7.3
relational database stores data on up to 70,000 items, including bar codes, manufacturers,
serial numbers, user names, buildings, and room and phone numbers, Naughton said.


The inventory system’s servers are three Hewlett-Packard Co. machines running
Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0. One server runs the dispatch of field service personnel
and links their handheld units.


Another server acts as a radio server for field inventory data. The third handles
inventory reports.


The system’s software is written in Visual Basic. Other programs written in C tie
the Oracle database to Epoc on the handhelds, Naughton said.


The agency has trained 100 technicians and 500 property custodians to use the system,
Fields said.


“It works well; there’s just a training and learning curve,” she said.


At installation, a field service worker enters user name as well as building, room and
phone numbers, he said.


The dispatch system assigns bar codes to technicians as their personal identification.
Administrators can track the servicing of PTO equipment via the bar codes.


Field engineers carry rugged handhelds with no moving parts, Naughton said. Inventory
personnel carry more sensitive Psion laser products and can scan bar codes from as far as
3 feet away, he said.


PTO has spent about $2.5 million on the inventory system during the past three years,
Fields said, primarily through a contract with AMT Associates.


This fiscal year, PTO officials will give the Commerce IG inventory reports signed by
property custodians, Naughton said.


The state of the forms will be an important part of each property custodian’s
annual review.


Agency officials plan to improve on the 1997 Commerce IG’s report, which gave them
the equivalent of a B grade, Naughton said.

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