From Hesitation to Automation

Two companies save time, gain accuracy with automated report generation

Several years ago, when BirdNest Services of Houston started offering its software-as-a-service to water production and wastewater treatment operators and municipalities, many customers were initially attracted by the system's use of Internet-connected cell phones for operators.

Shifting emphasis

The system also includes an automated report generation feature, which is becoming the "tail wagging the dog." Two of the first customers, Severn Trent's Gulf Region and Municipal Operations and Consulting (MOC), have now reported recognizing the full value of the system's report generator. MOC is an independent water operations and maintenance company, headquartered near Houston, that handles 26 water plants, 16 waste treatment plants and 34 lift stations. The operations branch of Severn Trent Intl. encompasses much of South Texas.

"When we first heard about using cell phones for field data collection, I loudly protested that there was no way to take away our handwritten field logs," said Lonnie Cox, south area assistant manager for Severn Trent. "Three months later, I equally loudly proclaimed the significant benefits of the cell phone system. And during that same time, we began to
see the eye-opening report generation."

MOC's General Manager Greg Dubiel approached the new technology in a similar manner. "We initially focused on how easily the system allows our operators to use cell phones to gather and digitally transmit our field data," Dubiel said. "We also recognized that automated report generation would be important, but at first we did not realize the true potential of this facet of the service on our operations."

Automation benefits

Both Cox and Dubiel stress system accuracy and speed. A report such as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality used to take between 8 and 12 hours of clerical work, according to Cox. "The first time we used the new system, that time dropped to about 2 hours," he said. "Now, after we tweaked the spreadsheet using macros, it is done in minutes."

A major milestone in the development of the automated report generation process, Cox added, was the introduction of a custom report generator called "My Reports." This tool allowed for data to be retrieved in bulk instead of by one facility at a time. "Now we make region-specific spreadsheets and macros for reports that let us track pump usage, volume and other field operation data to better manage our client's facilities. We can easily look for trends, predict material needs, spot potential maintenance problems and generally provide significantly improved customer service," Cox said.

"We look back and marvel at the improvements," Dubiel said. "With our new system, timely information is retrieved for use in our spreadsheet templates as needed. Drawing data directly from our central account and using that data to populate our report spreadsheets has eliminated human errors and greatly reduced the clerical time involved. Information can be graphed so trends are easily identified, and we can share data electronically with anyone we authorize. They can access the data from any Internet-connected PC through password protection privileges."

Both Severn Trent and MOC are now able to review operational and compliance reports more quickly and easily knowing that information displayed in a report has been handled digitally and automatically. And both companies are finding additional benefits, not initially envisioned.

"A less obvious but very valuable advantage is that we are now able to greatly expand on the ways we can use the available field data and also to gather other kinds of information that we simply had not conventionally considered before," Cox said. "Our field and office personnel can now start to imagine new ways to use information in our digital database to benefit the organization and our customers. We are definitely working in an enlightened environment as we exploit some of the advantages of currently available technological developments."

MOC President Lonnie Wright said he and his company have also seen increased efficiency in the field and the office. His team has created spreadsheets for automating tasks such as pumping fee invoices. "Of paramount importance," Wright said, "all these new methods of utilizing automated reports and digital technology throughout have allowed us to achieve the true bottom line advantage—even further improvements in service to our customers."

Jim Anthony is a freelance writer based in Houston. He can be reached by e-mail at jpa2@sbcglobal.net.

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