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Removing paperwork and transitioning to full paperless manufacturing is a goal for many companies and a crucial step towards digitalisation, the smart factory and Industry 4.0. Every organisation will be at a different stage in this ‘journey’ but there are some common elements.

The problem with paper

Organisations collect data, whether it is operational or regulatory, not for the data itself but for the information the data can provide. Whether data is collected and stored to paper or transcribed to software the following problems are suffered:
  • Inaccuracy
  • Cost
  • Lack of Visibility
  • Data islands


Errors are easily introduced when using paper based data collection, especially if it is subjective and relies, for example, on someone’s perception of time. How long was that machine stopped for? Transcribing paper based data to software introduces yet more errors and further increases costs due to the time taken to input the data. Inaccurate data is virtually worthless as the information it provides cannot be relied upon. Any action taken based on that information is likely to be wasted, adding to the overall cost. Efficiency improvements will be limited by the accuracy of the data collected.


Firstly, the cost of paper, ink etc. Paper and ink is not in itself expensive, making it easy to implement data collection with, so is one of the main reasons it is used
Storage is more expensive. You need to keep all that paper somewhere. Regulatory documents may need to be stored for years and in some case require specialised storage facilities so that the original documents do not deteriorate. Much more costly is the time taken by staff to collect and process the data. Even if you consider they are already being paid for their time they could be doing something more value added. If you do a simple cost calculation of the time taken it can easily run to many thousands of Pounds per year.

Lack of Visibility

Retrieving paper based data, and therefore the information it can provide, is often difficult to impossible. If the data is transcribed to software it takes time for someone to do this so there is always a lag before the information is available. The information to manage operations efficiently is not available when it is needed and it is common practice to be reacting to yesterday’s problems rather than responding to todays.

Data Islands

Over time, companies use a variety of applications and tools to support daily operational activities such as design and modification management, quality, production planning, sales, etc. This is how isolated ‘data islands’ are created, that are not shared or well maintained. Data collected for different reasons, in different formats. For example, production data is stored in a spreadsheet, on a laptop, without connection with other departments. Quality data is stored in another database and the rest of the organization cannot access it. If the data is not easily available to those who need it within the organization, then people will waste an unnecessary amount of time searching for that data.
Without a clearly defined central data source the chance of accessing the wrong version of that data increases significantly. The end result of data islands is that decisions can be made based on incorrect data, at every level of the organisation. Data islands are often based on different applications, files types, databases etc. so it is not straight forward to integrate them together.

How to remove paperwork?

The ideal solution is to remove the manual element of data collection altogether. If at all possible data should come directly from source, digitally. For example, if the data is from a manufacturing asset such as a machine, the data can be taken directly from the machine PLC, control system or by the addition of a low cost sensor. If it is not practical to eliminate manual interaction then devices such as barcodes and RFID tags can be used to ensure high accuracy and minimise interaction.

Where manual data entry is necessary then this should be done directly to an interface such as PC, touchscreen, tablet, smartphone or specialised hardware etc. In this way the data becomes digital instantly and easily retrievable. These types of interface not only allow data entry but can also provide feedback to the user regarding their performance and access to any other information they may need to do their job more effectively. For example, work instructions, training materials, schematics, checklists. Once data is captured digitally it becomes available enterprise wide enabling better management decision making.

Flexible systems like PlantRun are designed to provide this functionality, can act as a central database or be integrated with other enterprise systems including ERP, MES and CMMS to eliminate data islands. Let’s take a look at some typical examples.

Production Data Capture

Production data capture often relies on production staff filling out paper based forms at shift end, then these records being transcribed to spreadsheets. PlantRun is specifically designed to eliminate manual data collection by automatically capturing data from the manufacturing assets and making it available in an electronic format to other enterprise systems, and allow for full paperless manufacturing. The use of barcode scanners and RFID readers also removes operator errors and improves the quality of the data

Utilities Usage

By installing IP based meters to your utility supplies PlantRun can monitor energy usage of your electricity, gas, steam, compressed air, water etc. This eliminates the need for paper based meter reading. Add meters to each manufacturing asset and it becomes possible to determine energy consumption for each run or batch of product. Manufacturing sectors can also receive government support for energy saving initiatives in the form of grants.

Process Data Capture

In a similar way to energy usage any type of process data can also be monitored by the addition of suitable sensors or meters. This could be anything that is crucial to your manufacturing process such as temperature, humidity, pressure, flow, pH, level etc. This data can be captured, reported, analysed or even be used for control of the manufacturing process itself.

Health and Safety Checklists

Regulatory and compliance documentation is becoming an increasing requirement for manufacturers. The need for ever stricter health and safety practices means that pre-operational checklists are often mandatory. Management, storage and retrieval of paper based checklists is not ideal.

Again PlantRun systems can eliminate paper based checklists with questions displayed on interfaces at each asset. Making checklists digital has several benefits;
  • Checklist formats can be managed centrally making it easy to edit or amend checklist questions
  • Checklist questions can be randomised automatically.
  • Incorrect completion of checklists can be flagged up for training purposes.
  • Machine operation can be disabled unless specific questions are answered correctly

Work Instructions

PlantRun systems have been used to eliminate paper based work instructions by providing operator touch screen interfaces that can show e.g. assembly details, digitally and allow the operator to step through them page by page. By pulling files from a central database not only does this remove paper, it also ensures that the correct version of the work instruction is always being used.

Custom Data Capture

Just about any paper based data capture can be eliminated with a flexible system like PlantRun. A recent example is for gas calibration tracking. The usage of specialist gases and calibration of equipment that uses them was a paper based management exercise for a leading engine manufacturer. Provision of a touch screen interface in the gas bottle storage area and barcode capability for scanning gas bottles in and out meant that paper forms were replaced with a digital database that allows fast retrieval of accurate data and the ability to automatically trigger requests for new bottles from their suppliers.

Going paperless…

Going fully paperless, removing paperwork, manual interactions, integrating data islands requires clarity, investment and commitment from higher management downwards. It can be a planned implementation over time using in house resources or more often with a partner that has expertise in database and systems integration. Going paperless can be postponed but it cannot be put off indefinitely as your competitors are responding to the same market conditions. The sooner you start the sooner you will reap the many benefits.