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Trade Repair and Reporting System

Situation

In 1979, I was appointed Officer Commanding ACT Wksp Platoon.  The workshop consisted of around 20 personnel; its role being the support of a variety of military units located in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT).  Because of its small staff, much of the repair work, particularly that associated with office machines and commercial vehicles, was performed using external contractors.  The workshop's main customer was the Royal Military College followed by the various Defence Headquarters and HMAS Harman.  The workshop came under the control of the Headquarters of the 2nd Electrical and Mechanical Engineering Group (HQ 2 EME Gp) in Sydney, 300 km away. 

The Problem

Just before I assumed my position, there had been an establishment review that had, amongst other things, cut two of the three clerks from the Workshop's manning.  Because there was only one production clerk left, staff were not coping with the workload.  One aspect of their work that consumed an inordinate amount of labour, both clerical and, inevitably senior-supervisory, was that of balancing the contract repair ledger and the preparation of reports required by HQ 2 EME Gp.  The prime cause of the problems were usually simple mathematical errors of addition and subtraction.  Added to that, staff had to prepare a series of graphs for HQ 2 EME Gp showing the amount of funds that had been committed by way of approved contracts and the amount of money that had actually been expended by way of paid invoices.  The difference between these two summations was called the "Outstanding Liability" or OSL.  In the interests of stable financial management, it was necessary that a set amount of OSL was carried from one financial year into the next so keeping control of OSL was deemed to be quite important.

The Solution

In an attempt to reduce this workload, I decided to develop a simple ledger database system using a DEC 7 minicomputer owned by the Faculty of Engineering at the Royal Military College.  I wrote the program in FORTRAN 77.  In the past I had written programs to perform finite element analysis and the resolution of such things as simultaneous equations for the purposes of performing engineering design or operations research.  This was my first experience of designing and writing a database.  In those days graphing machines were very expensive and so I decided to write code that would provide the necessary graphs using a line printer, with the graph being made up of printable characters.  For example, the origin was an "O". The Y axis was made up of letter "I"s stacked vertically on top of each other with every 10th character being a "-". On the X axis the line was made of "-" with week delimiters being a "I"; the objective being to represent 52 and a bit weeks in a calendar year. The line that showed the "Obligation", ie, the funds that had been committed by way of an order to carry out Contract Repair, was indicated by a series of "O"s whereas the line that showed the funds that had been expended by way of paid contractor invoices was indicated by a series of "E"s.  Each afternoon, the one remaining Production Control Clerk, Cpl Chris Cole would drive up to the computer labs and input the figures, print out the new ledger and create the reports, including graphs, for dispatch to HQ 2 EME Gp.

The Result

This software was fairly revolutionary in its day and it allowed the workshop staff to cope with the clerical workload associated with the administration of contract repair.  Not only did the software application save clerical and supervisory manpower, it improved control over expenditure of trade repair funds.  The software prevented clerical errors in arithmetic and allowed collation of data into a form required by HQ 2 EME Gp in Sydney.  Extracting and collating the data by hand and then putting it into the required format used to take one person 4 days of the week to do (using a mechanical typewriter! with photocopiers being a limited and expensive resource.).  This system eliminated that task and so effectively saved two persons worth of work when calculated over an entire month.

The work came to the notice of Lieutenant Colonel John Skinner, the officer to whom I reported, and was conveyed to the Director General of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering, Brigadier John Faulks.  Of interest, John Faulks was my first commanding Officer at the 3rd Base Workshop Battalion. (Click here for more details.)  It also came to the attention of the Commandant of the College, Major General A. Morrison.  I demonstrated the software to both these officers and as a consequence of my work in this area, my next posting was as Staff Officer Grade 2 in charge of EME Systems Development.(Click here for more details.

As a further example of how small the world is, 8 years later, in 1987, I was seconded to the British Army to serve as the Production Manager of 27 District Workshop, Warminster.  Colonel John Skinner, as he was then, was my Commanding Officer. (Click here for more details regarding the systems I introduced at 27 District Workshop, Warminster, UK.)

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