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The Growing Role of Technology in Boiler Inspection

June 10, 2010
Mobile devices advance safety and data sharing

Technology continues to creep into every aspect of our professional and personal lives. Could anyone have imagined the functionality of a handheld device, such as a Blackberry, 10 years ago? Twitter? Or the massive scale and influence of the Internet? Yet, technology is only as good as it is useful. The best technology applications address and solve problems or enhance human productivity in a significant way.

In many ways, boiler-inspection methods are no different than they were a generation ago. Potentially dangerous equipment still is inspected to ensure public safety and protect property. The core competency requirements for modern boiler inspectors and authorized inspection agencies (AIA) remain virtually unchanged. However, technology has come to play a growing role in improving inspections of potentially dangerous equipment, making occupants safer.

Technology has had a direct impact on the boiler industry's heavy reliance on accurate data collection and tracking. Municipalities and jurisdictions from coast to coast are turning to software applications to better record, store, and track data. What once was the domain of pens and paper quickly has turned to computers, databases, personal digital assistants, and the Internet.

Some organizations have invested in off-the-shelf software applications, while others have developed and implemented their own applications for boiler inspection. The accuracy of information and the ability to track historical data are vital to ensuring a vessel’s safe operation. Additionally, software applications and other forms of technology can help reduce the number of staff members and/or hours required to process inspection information. Lastly, automated data collection and storage can enhance a customer's experience if inspection reports and other data can be accessed easily.

Mobile Equipment
Technology can be used to create a single, centralized source of data, making it easier and less costly to locate, share, communicate, and utilize information. The complement to automated "back-end" data management is front-end field software and equipment. Though still in their infancy, mobile software applications are poised to change inspectors' data-collection and reporting methods significantly. An inspector armed with a mobile device is empowered to provide a comprehensive and accurate inspection because the predefined fields of most inspection software cover every aspect of the process and piece of necessary data. Built-in error-checking functions monitor the inspector's findings and sound an alert for any inconsistencies, contradictions, or neglected fields.

"Checks and balances" are built into a mobile application when an inspector is allowed to access data collected during previous inspections. For example, an inspector may be required to collect boilerplate information on each visit. Once the inspector's report is submitted, a mobile application can compare the boilerplate data for each inspection, ensuring consistency and verifying that an inspection actually was performed, thus reducing the incidence of "drive-by" inspections.

Mobile applications also can attach digital images to an inspection. Images serve as a complement to noted deficiencies, offering new ways to review a vessel after the inspector has left the facility. Showing the images to a client also can be a powerful educational tool, give additional assurance that the inspection took place, and communicate that the inspector is using innovative technology and best practices to perform the job. Additionally, digital images can be shared easily with repair technicians in preparation for service work.

Electronic Audit Trails
Should liability questions arise, electronic records enable audit trails and accountability, proving that all of the required inspections were performed in accordance with the manufacturer's specifications, legal requirements, and schedule. Because inspection-related documents and information are stored electronically in one location, they can be archived, located, and retrieved easily, significantly reducing incidents of misfiled or lost documents. Insurance companies, property owners, and real-estate managers benefit from this comprehensive electronic record of safety-inspection and maintenance activities.

New Communication Venues

Communication within the industry also has changed significantly. In the past, boiler explosions were communicated via local news outlets and some trade publications. The incidents were easy to miss; at best, word filtered through days or weeks after the accident had occurred. Today, accidents can be communicated with much greater immediacy.

Current methods of communication run the gamut from Websites to blogs, Twitter, Rich Site Summary (RSS) feeds, and Facebook. It no longer is accurate to assume people are getting most of their information from newspapers and local television stations. While those still are useful venues, most Americans now get their news from up to five different sources.

For the boiler-inspection industry to remain relevant and up to date with technological advances that are changing the country—and, in fact, the world—it must continue to increase awareness about the importance of vessel safety and communicate via the most-popular venues used by the public.

Savvy organizations have uploaded everything from specification sheets to operating manuals online. The once-tedious process of manual research has been transformed into 24/7 information searchability at your fingertips/keyboard. Rapid information dissemination might be the key to saving lives in a preventable accident.

Technologies on the Horizon
What types of technological developments can be expected for the industry's future? One key development likely will be the adoption of radio-frequency-identification (RFID) chips. Already in use in many other industries, these chips store product data that can be accessed from several meters away. Unlike a bar code, which creates a uniform ID for a product, RFID is more complex, creating a unique number for each object of a product. It is likely that pressure vessels eventually will be equipped with these chips, or "tags," which will store information, such as manufacturing data or jurisdictional number. As storage and tag costs decrease, the capacity for information likely will grow to include everything from inspection history to facility contact information.

If each vessel's tag could send data to a mobile device, upon entering a building, an inspector could receive a list of all of the equipment in the facility and be able to access stored information, including details about previous service calls or alerts about newly installed equipment. After an inspection is complete, data could be sent in real time via wireless Internet to a designated central server. Once in the server, the data could be uploaded automatically into various reports and forms and filed electronically with any necessary jurisdictions or governing bodies. This streamlined e-filing process ensures the accuracy and integrity of collected information, eliminates errors that can occur when information is transcribed from written reports, and avoids mountains of paperwork.

Early Adopters Lead the Way
With any technology, a small group of early adopters typically will lead the way in investing in, experimenting with, and demanding functionality to make a process easier or better. The majority of people watch from the sidelines to see how it all unfolds, while others resist change at all costs. Many in the last group say that new technology is no substitute for a good inspector conducting a quality inspection. Technology never will replace a good inspector; however, that is not the goal. Technology should be used to enhance an inspector's ability to do his or her job. No technology can replace the expertise of a National Board or AIA inspector.

For excellence in vessel safety to be achieved, technology that can improve inspection processes must be embraced, and end-users must be educated. The average end-user does not always fully understand his or her equipment. Education can lead to a greater appreciation and validation of the inspector's role in ensuring facility safety. The extent to which the boiler-inspection industry will continue to embrace technology is unclear. It is up to all of us to communicate its benefits. A concerted effort to move forward can help cement the inspection industry as a progressive field that embraces change and opportunity.

Stephen Kleva is the chief executive officer and president of Insparisk, a national safety-inspection company and parent company of City Spec Inc., which inspects low-pressure boilers in New York City. Since joining City Spec more than 10 years ago, he has helped develop new technology to accelerate the company’s new services and pursued expansion into other regions.