|By Joe Zanter||
|January 18, 2005 12:00 AM EST||
This is not a piece full of technical anything. It's a story about a boy and his dog...ok, not that. It is a story about how a Web-dabbling engineer created some highly useful apps for his co-workers and himself.
We work in a metallurgical lab, which means, among other things, we study metals by looking at finely polished samples (let's call them "mounts," as they are often mounted/embedded in plastic) under microscopes. We like to number and keep track of these samples and their descriptions for reference, and to comply with the record retention requirements of our customers. However, a few years ago we became acutely aware of the limitations of our hard copy log (the mount book) for these samples. Even at only about 1,000 samples per year, the volume of data was too much to search through by turning pages. In other words, "It would be nice to have an application that we could all access to store data, assign new numbers, and do other neat things automatically." Web- (intranet) based seemed the obvious choice, as there were enough computers and an already established intranet presence. Other solutions were available of course, such as a Lab Information Management System (LIMS), but we weren't likely to get approval for a large software purchase. Our IT department had adopted a trouble ticket system, which was fairly simple, but very expensive - more than $20,000. We knew that wasn't going to happen for us; this data was important, but making it convenient and more useful wasn't mission critical.
We had MS Access so we started there. It worked, though it was only really meant for a single user. Knowing that much (or that little) about Access told me that this was not the solution we were looking for. The company has production databases it uses to track the manufacturing of everything we make, and for many other functions besides. Using this system was an option, but it would mean turning over development and any changes to someone else, and, consequently, someone else's timeframe. Our hard copy logs weren't rotting away, so the priority of this work probably wouldn't be very high for them, though it would be for us. That wouldn't work, as we're a rather impatient group when it comes to having the right tools-especially when the right tools seem to be within our reach. Second, changes were typically slow, given the workload of that coding group, so we'd have to live with limitations for longer than we cared to. Third, we weren't talking about one application; we were talking one application to start with, and several others to follow in quick succession. Fourth, if we needed another reason, the work and the output data aren't just text. Images are integral. Though we could probably adapt the production system to deal with images (storing the paths to image files), it seemed more natural to pick some kind of Web-based solution. Finally, the choice between using Access and other established company resources was the choice between doing it ourselves or giving control over to someone else. I knew we could do this, so we decided to keep control. Thus, we tried Access-generated Web pages. Retaining control was the right choice. Using Access Web pages was just a step, however.
At first, the data entry Web pages worked, but they were limited. I thought that maybe I just didn't understand all of the features, but after asking our internal guru it was clear that Access Web pages would not do what we wanted. In essence, we needed something that supported at least a handful of simultaneous users and maintained data integrity without anyone overwriting other data. Access' pages had already proven unfaithful with these modest requirements, much to my dismay. Consequently, some data had to be re-entered from memory. In this case it was caused by simultaneous users. One record was started and before it was finished another person started a record, but it was the same record, so the race was on. One set of data was written and the next overwrote the first. Data erasure is unforgivable by our customers and we don't enjoy it so much either. So - once bitten, twice shy - I went back to talk to someone in IT. Due to the requirements of traceability and data integrity in so much of what we do, the solution had to at least perform these functions well. Flexibility would hopefully be part of the solution.
Our IT department had recently started using ColdFusion on a limited basis and recommended it to me. They were running a server so it was just a matter of learning this new software (Studio 4.5). Looking back, it appears that in it's simplest form CF is just another set of HTML tags allowing the server to build pages from data in databases. At the time, it seemed a little more daunting. I didn't know SQL either. I found enough resources on the Internet to get started. Between several now-forgotten tutorials and some resources at Webmonkey, I started coding. Not having to run the server took much of the steepness out of the learning curve. After a few days of learning some of the ropes and testing code, I started building the interface to enter data for our samples. SQL syntax gave me more fits than CF. If I'd read a little bit more, it may have helped, but it wasn't too bad and there were people to talk to here if I got stuck.
It wasn't long before I had the beginnings of a usable Web interface for our mount book. It's come a long way since those first days. Figure 1 is a screen shot of the latest version of the entry page.
Walking through the major steps of the code, a security template is applied, the last mount number is queried, and a new mount number is generated. The new number, along with the user's ID, is inserted into the mount book so that it is reserved for as long as it takes to fill out the form. The number itself took a little bit of coding effort as it's alphanumeric: a letter and three digits. For each letter, mounts 0-999 are used, then the next letter comes up. That was our original numbering scheme. I think I'd do it differently if I had to do it over. The two little forms at the top are aids, one if users accidentally hit a link to start a mount and the other for inserting mount data from another existing record to save keystrokes for similar samples. Next comes the main body of the form.
Submitting the form gets the data inserted properly and displayed (from a query) for users to check. This application has a query associated with it, of course. The form page is plain. Figure 2 shows a sample of a mount book query result.
The part link, 2177-204, is a link to display an engineering drawing of that part. The update button allows a user to go back in and edit the record data. If that user is not the one who entered the mount, he/she can only add text to the notes field and his/her comments are labeled in the field with his/her ID. Another notable feature is the Add image link. Clicking this link takes users to yet another form where any image can be uploaded. Figure 3 shows this image upload form.
For a certain description of mount, a copy of the image is copied to another network location for processing. An image analysis application is run using a macro to control annotation and measurements and saving of those results. Later in the day, a scheduled task takes the processed image and copies it back to the images tied to that mount, inserting an appropriate record. For any mount with images associated with it, the mount number m328 (as shown in Figure 2), becomes a link to display all images for this mount number. Figure 4 shows the display of all images for this mount page. The data from the mount book is shown, the image is displayed, and all entered image information is shown to the right of the image, including the option to inactivate the image.
I coded apps to eliminate all of our logbooks and I was asked to code a few utilities for other departments as well. One of those departments takes input from a barcode reader and calculates parameters needed to hard-anodize aluminum. I've used Verity in simple ways, such as to give us full text search options over thousands of new and legacy documents. Scheduled tasks monitors some data, reminds us of work that's due, reminds us of equipment maintenance, and supports some QA functions.
The most attractive thing about this setup is its customization and adaptability. Every one of our modest whims was satisfied and we began to have some not-so-modest whims. Some applications have undergone dozens of minor revisions and are now customized to the nth degree by end users. Adaptations emerged from suggestions like uploading images of the metal samples and tying the file to the sample record. That led to another application for uploading and indexing documents for a different department. At the end of the day, we get what we want and need and it becomes not just usable, but also useful. Our customers have access to much of our live data. Presenting analyses to remote locations on our intranet is simplified by adding a few links to an e-mail.
It didn't take long for these applications to become critical to our daily jobs. Now we rely on them, not just for the ability to query our growing body of data, but to satisfy audit requirements and customer requirements as well.
I did have the benefit of not having responsibility for the care and feeding of a Web server. This eased any learning curve that was present and allowed me to take hours rather than days to code something useful. That and the fact that that many CF tags are very straightforward made the self-teaching route practical for a part-time coder. A Ben Forta book and a copy of Studio was enough.
Looking back, I know this was a good path to follow. I knew some HTML and had built a few sets of static pages prior to learning CF; I didn't realize until I started learning ColdFusion tags that the step from static to dynamic was not large. Granted, many of my applications might be considered bicycles compared to others' SUVs. My page designs may not be pretty, but developing for yourself gets you exactly what you want. It's been great for us!
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