Accuracy is the most important objective in construction materials testing. But in most labs and testing environments, human error still finds a way to influence results. In this post, we take a look at the most error-prone parts of the testing workflow, and how an integrated platform can help fix them.
If you’re here, you’re probably very familiar with each step in the construction materials testing (CMT) workflow. You have a specimen of material you need to test, such as ready-mix concrete. You load the cylinder into a compression machine. You run the test. You record the results. You pass the results to your administrator who then passes them to the next stakeholder.
It’s a tried and true and, for the most part, well-oiled process.
Unfortunately, the potential for human error is present almost every step of the way. And failure to mitigate this potential can lead to consequences that range from basic to tragic. To combat this risk, labs and testing professionals are turning to an integrated platform to help remove from the workflow as much human interference as possible.
What does this platform include? A good CMT platform will consist of a database, an interface for accessing and communicating with that database and, finally, a way to integrate those two features with your testing machine.
To illustrate what this solution looks like in practice, let’s examine the four areas of a basic CMT workflow. We’ll look at each step and explain how the right CMT platform can help.
Four areas of a basic CMT workflow
#1. Specimen Identification
The crux of the construction materials testing process is, of course, the specimen or sample you’re testing.
Take concrete cylinder testing, for example, which has been a pillar of compression testing for over 180 years. Traditionally, cylinders are tested 3, 7 and 28 days after field installation. That means there are hundreds to thousands of different specimens, of varying ages, moving in and out of a testing lab on any given day. How do you keep track of each one?
Believe it or not, many labs still label specimens by hand in permanent marker. Depending on the lab, specimens are then typically passed from technician to technician several times before testing. This means every person in the chain must be able to read the first person’s handwriting to ensure the right cylinder gets tested at the right time.
Legibility impacts consistency. Handwritten labels create a hard-to-calculate number of opportunities to misread, misidentify or misplace specimens. All because the original marker was illegible.
For example, suppose a lab has 31 different locations to store specimens. A technician takes a sample on October 1 and designates it for a 28-day break so the test will take place on October 29. If the specimen is misread, and placed on the wrong shelf, it will be tested on the wrong date.
This kind of manual testing environment is what spurred development of construction materials testing software in the first place.
With a CMT platform, you can use barcodes instead of handwritten labels. Barcodes are better because they can tie more information about a specimen to its ID, including the cast date, date to be tested and expected strength. This information can then be stored in a database. So, now you just apply a barcode label – no markers, smudges or handwriting – and the next technician can get all the specimen information he or she needs by scanning it. The label can also contain very legible, human-readable information that doesn’t require a scanner.
#2. Test Data Collection & Transfer
Unfortunately, handwriting isn’t limited to specimen identification. Many labs will also manually record results during and after a test.
Doing so means inviting the risk that your data will be recorded in the wrong place or misidentified down the road. This causes trouble in your spreadsheet. If a misidentified specimen gets recorded in the wrong section, it can cause, essentially, a traffic jam of results. Because when the actual specimen results for that section come along, there’s no place to add them.
Also, there’s an opportunity cost associated with manual test data collection. Your lab technician could be doing more valuable tasks – like preparing the next sample for testing – instead of recording results by hand.
A CMT platform can help you automate the test collection process – so as you run the test, results generate and export to your database automatically. This is what is known as a semi-automated testing workflow because the platform takes care of key parts of the process. If you want to get closer to a truly automated testing environment, you need to add process automation to your machine.
#3. Machine Functionality
Without an integrated CMT platform, your machine is isolated from your other systems, including your Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS), quality control system or homegrown database.
This means the technician who records test results must type them up or pass off to someone else to type. Either way, it’s a time-consuming task that can lead to costly mistakes.
An integrated CMT platform can help in three ways:
- By making your machine smart
- By making your technician smarter
- By making results quickly accessible
When your machine is connected to a database, test protocols, settings and unique specimen data can be downloaded to the machine ahead of time. This means, in a sense, your machine “knows” what it’s testing. It also means you don’t have to spend time punching in the information yourself.
If your machine is integrated into your process, you can preload specific test parameters. So, for example, it will warn you if you try to break a specimen on the incorrect date. This frees up the time it would take a technician to identify the specimen, check the parameters and monitor the test.
Finally, because the machine and database are integrated, results can be quickly accessed. No need to pass off from one person to the next. It also makes the testing process fully transparent, as anyone with database access can view results.
#4. Data Analysis
Without the right construction materials testing platform supporting your workflow, you’re left with flat, unstructured files to store your results. So, if you want to share data and insights with someone, you have to search your computer or a shared drive to find it. Key pieces of information may be scattered across multiple files that you have to pull into one report.
Unstructured data – or handwritten information hiding in stacks of folders and paper – is much more difficult to collect, process and analyze.
With an integrated CMT platform, everything is stored securely in a database. This means your data is now structured, highly organized and formatted so you can search and quickly find what you’re looking for. It also makes it easier to check your work and perform the appropriate analysis. Because everything is in one place, you can expand your analysis to report results for an entire project, for a mix design over multiple projects or for all projects over a specific period of time.
An integrated construction materials testing platform helps you prepare your lab for a truly automated testing environment. This, in turn, puts your lab in a more defendable position because the testing process is more automated, accurate and transparent. The next decade in materials testing will favor the labs that understand this and punish the ones that don’t.
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