Navy ship inspectors give palmtops a thumbs-up

Navy ship inspectors give palmtops a thumbs-up

Jeremy Garner, a Navy shipbuilding

Quality-assurance crew trades its spiral notebooks for computers to check out new destroyer

By Richard W. Walker

GCN Staff

Navy quality-assurance inspectors left their spiral notebooks at home this spring when they boarded the USS O'Kane at the Bath Iron Works in Maine. Instead, they took palmtop computers from 3Com Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., to check shipboard equipment prior to the destroyer's maiden voyage.

By all accounts, the palmtops passed inspection.

'Once [the inspectors] got comfortable with the different way of entering data, namely into a computer rather than on a piece of paper, they all came around to liking the unit quite well,' said Walt Koscinski, lead yard production manager for the Navy's Program Executive Office for Theater Surface Combatants (PEOTSC) in Arlington, Va., which is responsible for ship procurement for the Navy.

Koscinski compared the ship inspection process'known as the builder's trial'to developing a punch list when buying a newly built house. The purchaser carefully inspects every nook and cranny of the house, listing items that need to be completed, touched up or repaired or that are otherwise inconsistent with the plans and specifications of the home at the time of closing.

In the builder's trial, 'every square foot and every piece of equipment gets inspected,' Koscinski said.

Until the O'Kane trial, the Navy's crew of 30 shipbuilding inspectors in Bath were accustomed to recording their observations in spiral notebooks as they worked their way through hatchways and other tight spaces, looking for discrepancies between what was ordered and what was delivered and deficiencies in everything from air conditioners to radar equipment.

Taking note

After making their notations, the inspectors would return to their desks and fill out bulky forms that were then forwarded to programmers for keying into a main database. 'There was a lot of passing of paper previously,' PEOTSC production officer John Ingram said.

It was a cumbersome process with a lot of potential for error during the handoffs. In a classic example, a programmer might have mistakenly keyed in 'portable' for 'potable' in a reference to water.

In addition, the data that the 30 inspectors scribbled into their notebooks often contained inconsistent nomenclature.

For example, one inspector might have referred to a particular shipboard air conditioner as 'AC Unit #1' while another would call it 'No. 1 AC Unit,' leading to confusion once the information was in the database.

What's in a name

'When you get terms like that into a database, it makes sorting and selecting equipment a little difficult,' said Pat Templeton, project manager for Technology, Management & Analysis Corp. of McLean, Va., which developed the software for the new palmtop system.

It was a different story last March during the O'Kane builder's trial, the first time the handhelds were used by all 30 inspectors during an inspection process. It went almost without a hitch.

During the trial, inspectors scrutinized the ship with their Palm devices, using the unit's stylus to select standardized equipment names from a pull-down menu. They either picked a discrepancy type from another pull-down menu or entered discrepancy information into text fields with Palm's Graffiti handwriting-recognition system.

The data was then uploaded into the database using Palm's HotSync technology.

The new palmtop system has gone a long way toward standardizing terms and eliminating mistakes, PEOTSC officials said. Moreover, using consistent nomenclature makes it easier to track and analyze trends in discrepancies and deficiencies.

The system also has sped up the inspection process. 'What used to take up to five days'to transfer the handwritten information from the inspections down to our centrally managed database'now takes a matter of hours,' Koscinski said. 'In fact, we can have reports available and printed out even while we're still out at sea writing discrepancies.'

The PEOTSC team began looking at handheld computers about a year ago as a way to automate the inspection process. After reviewing a variety of handhelds, they settled on the Palm III, and later switched to the IIIx, which has 4M of RAM.

'I believe there were several [handhelds] that could have performed the function,' Ingram said. 'We did a cost-benefit analysis and chose the one we're using now.'

They also liked that the Palm device could store thousands of records without memory problems. And no hardware modifications were necessary'the off-the-shelf palmtop would do the trick.

Goofy letters

In November, after Technology, Management & Analysis developed the software, the team enlisted an inspector to try out the system during the builder's trial in Bath for another destroyer, the USS Higgins. They then began to train the rest of the inspection crew to use the devices in preparation for the O'Kane trial last March.

'Initially, we had some resistance to a different way of doing business,' Koscinski said. 'They had to get used to using a stylus rather than a pencil and using the goofy letters rather than standard script.'

The only challenge proved to be using the device in direct sunlight.

'Direct sunlight will wipe out the screen, so you've got to work your body around a little bit and use the lid to block the sunlight. But no inspectors found that issue so tremendous that they wouldn't use the unit,' Koscinski said.

Battery life was adequate. The Palm's two AAA batteries provide enough juice for about a month's use, Koscinski said. And the unit's backlighting was effective in dark spaces, he added.

PEOTSC officials are gearing up to implement the palmtop inspection system at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Miss., the Navy's other destroyer shipyard.

'We're in the process of getting the units now,' Koscinski said. 'We want to be ready for the next trial, probably next winter. As soon as we get the units we'll start training the people down there.'

The team also plans to expand the system to more types of shipboard inspections. The inspectors even envision automating the system from end-to-end, using handhelds to exchange data with the shipbuilders.

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