Recently, a European manufacturer of large-bore diesel engines for marine propulsion systems reached out to us with a need to automate offline inspection forms submissions. We would like to share their success story how PDF Share Forms product significantly improved the process of doing onsite service inspections for their customers.

Before introducing PDF Share Forms, this company had been using other popular forms solution for SharePoint 2010. They were not happy with a slow performance and were missing a critical functionality like true offline support and the ability to present a “real” document as a proof of inspection presented to their clients.

Use case

Our product became a natural fit for them for several reasons.

Unlike most other SharePoint forms solutions that use web forms, PDF Share Forms uses real documents as the base – PDF. Using PDF forms in customer’s business scenario covered most of their requirements straight away.

One of the requirements was to handle attachments and allow freehand drawing on the forms, which is also a standard PDF functionality.

The whole scenario looks like this: service engineer creates a new instance of the inspection form in SharePoint and completes some fields like Client Name, Ship Name, Engine type etc. Then he or she saves a local copy of the prefilled form to a mobile device and the process continues offline.

Service engineer continues filling in the form offline, takes pictures with the mobile device and uploads them to the form, makes remarks and drawings. After finishing the inspection, the service engineer and the client digitally sign the form. The copy of the inspection report is given to the client straight away either by printing, emailing if there is Internet access or simply given on a removable storage device like a USB stick.

Once the engineer is off the ship and gets Internet access the form is submitted via email to SharePoint where data is automatically extracted and synchronized for record keeping.

Customer requirements

This client was represented by their IT manager, who had an extensive experience with different form solutions. Therefore, our conversations have quickly turned to a technical discussion of what they were looking for. Below you can find a list of the requirements and detailed explanation of each one of them.

Form requirements:

  • Lookup fields and data pre-population
  • Date picking and validation
  • Offline mode
  • Cross-platform
  • Digital signatures
  • Ability to free hand draw on forms
  • Use attachments
  • Have a “real” document as proof to present to clients
  • “Fast” performance for forms bigger than 5 pages

One could say that this list of requirements is too broad and cannot be satisfied with just one product. I am proud to say that PDF Share Forms was the perfect choice.

Many forms providers come with a predefined methodology how to implement their forms. “Do this, and then do that”. PDF Share Forms was different from the founding moments – we believed that each organization is unique with its unique processes. We respect that. If I think about PDF format, it is exactly the same – it respects me for whatever needs I have for it.

Large organizations have complex processes that require form solution to be flexible to its intricacies. It is possible to meet all requirements by the combination of several products.

However, it adds an extra risk factor when a business process must rely on multiple 3rd party software working simultaneously: each cross-product integration is a potential breaking point of the whole process.

Solution summary

Our team of presales engineers carefully studied all of the customer’s requirements and provided a proof of concept for PDF Share Forms Enterprise for SharePoint 2010. The proof of concept entirely was met with success. Solution purchase was approved almost instantaneously and currently is being deployed.

I understand that technical details might be of the interest to some. Let’s take a closer look how PDF Share Forms addresses each of the defined requirements.

Lookup fields and data pre-population

Our software uses data sources like SharePoint lists to populate dropdowns and lookups. In this case, the client wanted to have an easy way to populate “engine type” and “engine serial number” dropdowns to avoid manually entering long strings of characters. The business goal was to reduce human errors, which could lead to many hours of trying to fix “typos” in many other data systems.

Using our drag-and-drop designer, it is very easy to put dropdown controls on the form.

 

Dropdown field in the toolbox PDF Share Forms for SharePoint

Figure 1: Dropdown field in the Toolbox

Populating a dropdown just takes a couple of clicks. Select a dropdown and go to Item Values where you can work with data source options including lists.

Dropdown properties PDF Share Forms for SharePoint

Figure 2: Dropdown properties

Dropdown item values and data sources PDF Share Forms for SharePoint - offline inspection forms

Figure 3: Dropdown item values and data sources

Date/time picking and validation

PDF Share Forms use Date/time picker fields to validate start and finish times of the process of filling the form. Besides correct date and time values, inspections could happen in different geographical locales, so it was also necessary to support different date formats.

data validation options PDF Share Forms for SharePoint

Figure 4: Date validation options

Offline mode

PDF form is a real document, unlike a web form, hence offline mode comes naturally. PDF allows filling and submitting offline inspection forms using free Adobe reader or products like PDF Expert for iOS devices. Working with a standard, such as PDF, enables the client to choose best form fillers for different devices.

In the offline scenario, the form is submitted automatically via email. It stays in user’s e-mail outbox of the email application until the Internet connection is available. When inspector returns to the “surface”, he does not need to worry and remember to manually synchronize form submission. Everything is automated. Once Internet connectivity is restored, the form is automatically sent to SharePoint and data is synchronized.

This is major requirement for our client because service engineers spend most of the time in the areas with no or limited network coverage.

Cross-platform

P in PDF stands for Portable. PDF feels at home on Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, UNIX, Android and any other operating system. PDF is a structured document that looks the same regardless of the device it was created on or viewed on. Perfect fit for hybrid desktop/mobile situations.

Digital signatures

PDF forms are born for digital signatures. We support standard Adobe certificate-protected signatures and other 3rd party signing tools that allow signing a PDF file.

One of the requirements is to provide a signed report at the end of the inspection.

It is very easy to put a signature field on the form – just drag it from the toolbox.

digital signature field will be marked with a sign here PDF Share Forms for SharePoint

The Digital signature field will be marked with a Sign Here link:

digital signature field runtime PDF Share Forms for SharePoint

Ability to free hand draw on inspection forms

Drawing tool is a standard PDF functionality. It allows service engineers drawing sketches and making notes on background pictures of the form.

Use attachments

Our software enables submitting forms with attachments either inside of the form or as separate documents. In terms of client’s requirements, service engineers need to attach photos of engine parts to the inspection form. Flexible attachment settings allow configuring file types, quantity and their size.

Have a “real” document as proof to present to clients

This was one of the biggest pain points our customer worked with alternative form products.

Most SharePoint form solutions are web forms and can’t produce a print-friendly document in the offline scenario. You need to create a separate print interface for each form.

PDF is a document that can be printed or given to a client on a removable storage device like a USB stick when there is now Internet.

It was a business requirement to provide a signed proof of completed inspection right on the spot.

Fast performance for long (5+ pages) forms

PDF Share Forms reuses Adobe reader technology that over the years has proven its stability and performance.

Because of this implementation, our client has significantly reduced the time needed to complete the whole process. Error-prone and time-consuming process of taking notes and manually entering data to SharePoint has been eliminated.

Lessons Learned

The only technical challenge we faced in this project was that the default free Adobe reader on mobile devices is heavily lagging its desktop brother in terms of functionality.

Adobe mobile reader does not support advanced logic that is necessary for forms that are smarter than just a couple of text fields.

Luckily, third party products that support scripting cover this market niche. In this case, we recommended PDF Expert app for iPads to overcome limitations of Adobe mobile reader.

PDF Expert and Adobe Reader are third party products and are not affiliated with PDF Share Forms.

Conclusion

It was a great project to be involved in. The main reason for this success is an environment where several teams were working together – each very technical, each very professional, and all moving toward a common goal.

While this project is being deployed, we are continue working with client’s PM to gather hard numbers on what the impact of the solution to their process of remote inspections. Once I have those numbers, I will share them with you.

If you think that PDF Share Forms can help your organization, don’t hesitate to contact me at “pavel@pdfshareforms.com”. Or you can just send me your thoughts and comments.