How to digitize documents with CMMS

David Berger offers a checklist of information you can manage electronically.

By David Berger, P.Eng., contributing editor

At some level, CMMS software represents a fundamental transformation from a manual-based system to an electronic equivalent for inputting documents such as work orders, time cards and purchase orders, as well as preparing reports such as equipment cost history, budget variance and schedule compliance. The first major expansion to this document management functionality was the ability to link or attach external documents. For example, CMMS users might want to attach engineering drawings to a work order. Documents can be linked or attached to master files, forms and reports within the CMMS. Even some of the simplest CMMS packages had this document management capability for many years.

The more sophisticated CMMS applications offer a wide range of features and functions related to document management. That’s why you should be aware of some of this functionality and the steps needed to make the best use of it.

Which documents to manage

In this electronic age, we’re bombarded with documents relevant to the assets we maintain. These include:

  • Equipment operating manuals
  • Technical bulletins
  • Spec sheets
  • Installation manuals
  • Troubleshooting guides
  • Engineering drawings
  • Blueprints
  • Photographs
  • Warranty documentation
  • Contracts
  • Training manuals
  • Help videos

The OEM provides some of these files in electronic format. They range from read-only generic files such as a .txt or .pdf file to native formats that require the source software application such as AutoCAD drawings. Other documents come in hardcopy and might require conversion to an electronic format. Institute policies and procedures should govern which documents need to be gathered for which asset classes in which formats and who is responsible for document collection and maintenance.

Of course, not all documents need to be linked to the CMMS. However, because data storage costs are relatively low, when in doubt, link the document to the CMMS. The probability is high that it might be useful at some point in the asset’s life.

For new equipment, gathering the right documents in the right format is relatively straightforward, once you have the policies and procedures in place and a CMMS with even minimal document management capability. The difficulties lie with older assets. Relevant documentation might be hard to find, and time-consuming to convert from hard-to-read paper formats. The effort might not be worth it. In some cases, it’s simpler and more effective to reproduce documentation from scratch. A cost-benefit analysis is helpful to determine the most appropriate course of action.

Scan and organize documents

One advanced feature available with some CMMS packages is the ability to mark up documents and save them as new files.

If your paper-based documentation is in bad shape, obsolete or lost, you have a few options. One is to rewrite the documentation using in-house or external resources trained in technical writing. Another option is to convert the knowledge into short videos that can be linked to the CMMS. A third option is to hire a company that specializes in digitizing old documentation, regardless of condition, from binders of manuals and historical documents to barely legible scribbled notes on scraps of oil-stained paper.

A final option is to scan and organize the documents using internal resources. Scanning has become fairly straightforward for stacks of letter or legal-sized sheets of paper. The process is essentially the same as photocopying. The problem is dealing with odd sizes and thicknesses, or faint writing, especially at the edges of the paper. More expensive equipment can automate making the necessary adjustments, but less sophisticated equipment requires manual intervention. In some cases, documents such as a large blueprint or an old map need to be taken to an outside service center for scanning.

Once the image is digitized, the CMMS document management functionality takes over. One of the most important features is the ability to generate templates for different document types to facilitate storage and retrieval of information. Each scanned or electronic document should be accompanied by a user-definable template that provides valuable information such as document type, document name, description, date created, reference number, version, owner and any related documents. Template information allows indexing, searching, sorting and filtering by any field on the template, and all integrated within the CMMS.

Another key document management feature to look for is the ability to establish a document hierarchy. This allows users to view and search for documents using an expandable, indented tree structure, similar to MS Windows Explorer. More sophisticated document management applications have drag-and-drop capability for users having the appropriate security access, which makes it easy to change the hierarchical relationships and move documents around. Some document management software also can compact documents for more efficient use of storage space.

Control access and editing

One advanced feature available with some CMMS packages is the ability to mark up documents and save them as new files. For example, lubrication points might be added to a digitized drawing or a photo of the equipment, and the new document attached to a PM work order. Each time the PM comes due, the work order will include the edited drawing.

There are two ways a document can be viewed and edited. The first is by launching the program from which the document was generated, such as Acrobat, MS Word or AutoCAD. The benefit is that full native functionality is available. However, launching the relevant program assumes it’s available over the Web or on the user’s desktop or mobile device in compliance with any required licensing. As well, it assumes the user has sufficient security rights to perform edit functions on the document. Finally, the user must be familiar enough with the application to be able to make the desired changes.

The second approach is to use a generic tool that accepts documents with a wide range of file extensions for viewing and simple editing. Users can mark up the document such as adding a text box, drawing a line and erasing a section of the document. The changed document is then saved under a new name to ensure version control and integrity.

In some work environments, it might be necessary to restrict access to a particular document or to specific features such as viewing or editing. For example, there might be documents considered highly confidential. Other documents might require carefully controlled access based on strict regulatory requirements.

Document management and change control

Many documents tied to specific equipment don’t remain static throughout the asset’s lifecycle. As documents are changed or manipulated, there must be an audit trail or history as to what changed when. The management of change or version control is a critical feature of document management systems. More sophisticated systems force users to check documents in and out to avoid two users working on the same document at the same time. Versioning also can allow access to previous versions if necessary.

If the CMMS has a workflow engine, as well as document management capability, documents of a given template attribute such as “document type” can be routed to other users for review, further editing or approval. The route taken and action expected is based on user-defined business rules governing the workflow, for example, engineering drawings destined for archiving must first be approved by the engineering manager.

Email Contributing Editor David Berger, P.Eng., partner, Western Management Consultants, at david@wmc.on.ca.

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