Rugged mobile computers curtail back-and-forth trips for estimators at Mike Rose's Auto Body shop.
Walking to the back lot four or five times to write an estimate may be a good way to stay in shape, but for estimators at Mike Rose's Auto Body, it was an exercise in frustration. Throw in distractions and interruptions along the way, and efficiency and accuracy went out the window.
"The problem was note-taking," explains Rick Rehm, the shop's IT manager. "An estimator would go out, look at the vehicle and write down notes. Then he'd come back to his workstation and enter the information in the estimating software program based on his notes and his memory." As the software prompted the estimator for information or reminded him of various components that needed to be repaired, more often than not that estimator would have to return to the vehicle to verify or obtain additional information. Depending on the extent of the damage, the estimator might have to return to the vehicle multiple times. The process was time consuming, and the likelihood of introducing errors was high.
Mobile Tools of the Trade
With the goals of increasing efficiency and writing more accurate estimates, the body shop approached Micro Tech Resources, its IT solutions provider. Roberto Baires, Micro Tech's owner and a consultant, implemented the Panasonic Toughbook Mobile Data Wireless Display (MDWD) at five of the company's seven locations throughout the San Francisco East Bay area.
When it comes to choosing a hardware solution, insurance customers have common needs, says Baires, including portability, long battery life, affordability and a sunlight-readable display. The Toughbook MDWD meets all of these requirements.
Workers use the same estimating software programs as before--Mitchell's UltraMate and CCC's Pathways--but they are now able to complete their estimates vehicle-side. "By taking the Toughbook to the vehicle, they can write the estimate or supplement on the spot," says Baires, "thereby eliminating the need to take notes and translate their own chicken scratch when they get back to their desks."
The displays are especially useful for vehicles that have sustained significant damage, adds Rehm. "Estimators can take them out to the back lot and work with their teardown kit. As they're disassembling the vehicle they can start entering parts we need to order."
Estimators access the software programs remotely using an 802.11 wireless network. "Because there's so much electricity and machinery running in the shop, there are a lot of electromagnetic fields that can interfere with the wireless connection," says Rehm. "So we did have to run extra Ethernet cable out to certain parts of the building and put in wireless access points." In addition, Micro Tech upgraded the wireless equipment to 3Com or Linksys equipment--depending on when each location was connected--to increase coverage.
Recently, the auto shop upgraded its Fremont Street store in Concord, Calif., to the Panansonic Toughbook CF-19, a Notebook PC that converts to a Tablet PC. Estimators like having a physical keyboard as well as improved resolution and antiglare features, says Rehm. The laptops are being used on a trial basis with plans to implement them at the company's remaining locations sometime in the future.
While Mike Rose's Auto Body has not calculated its exact return on investment, the benefits of the solution are significant. "If an estimator saves 15 minutes on a big hit, and he has 10 to 15 big hits a month, we're going to save 150 minutes on his salary," says Rehm. And with fewer trips to and from the vehicle, estimators are better able to focus on the task at hand, resulting in more accurate estimates.
"It's a benefit to the customer because the estimator can write a more thorough estimate up front and not have to explain to the customer why there's such a huge supplement to the repair," says Rehm. The estimator can fill in administrative details before going out to the vehicle with the customer and write the estimate in the parking lot. He can also print it on the spot and hand it to the customer when they return to the shop. "That's a time savings for the customer as well," says Rehm. "And at least 60 percent of the time, that estimator can get the customer to schedule the repairs right then and there."
Kassandra Kania is a former editor of Field Force Automation magazine.