When KN Network Services migrated its field technicians from a paper-based process to a mobile solution using Tablet PCs, productivity improvements weren't the only goal.
The company also saw the technology as a way to differentiate itself from competitors, a bet that has paid off with new contracts in excess of $350 million, according to Darren Kelly, Project Support Consultant with KN Network Services.
"One of the biggest things for us was the image it gave us as a company," says Kelly. "The board signed off on this because we would look professional and be the only company in Northern Ireland using this kind of technology. We've used the Web DT in negotiations [for new business]. Clients are impressed. We've probably won two to three contracts already just on the back of the technology. It's a brand differentiator."
In business for more than 25 years, KN Network Services provides outsourced construction, maintenance and other civil engineering services to a wide range of customers in Northern, including Irish Rail, the Dublin City Council, telecommunications companies such as Eircom, British Telecom, 02 and Vodafone.
Among its jobs, the company builds cell towers and other structures and lays cable for telecommunications companies. It has clients requiring servicing within a 125-mile radius around Northern Ireleand.
KN Network Services' field technicians were relying on a paper-based process that required them to drive from various points throughout Northern Ireland to the company's headquarters each day to pick up instructions and work packs, and return the paperwork for the previous day's jobs. "We were losing three to four hours in productivity every day," says Kelly. "We tried putting broadband Internet access into each of their homes, but that didn't work for issues that cropped up throughout the day."
Field techs would be stopping at hotels and service stations along their routes to send and receive faxes with updates.
About three years ago, when the company won a big services contact with BT Ireland to provide asset assurance, cable installation and civil engineering throughout the region, it realized it was time to step up its game.
KN Networks began investigating wireless options with U.K.-based mobile solutions provider Xperience. They liked what they saw in the WebDT tablet PCs from DT Research, a San Jose, Calif.-based company.
The company took a data connection package with Vodafone and deployed 40 WebDT 310 tablet PCs.
The WebDT 310 features the integration of a 10.4-inch touch display over an efficient AMD Geode processor within a thin, light, durable package. It's light and rugged, with protective bumpers and screen cover and fan-less operation, with no moving parts and flash-based storage. It offers support for windows CE.NET, Windows XP Embedded and XP TabletPC Edition. It allows for comprehensive and easy remote device administration through server-based WebDT Device Manager software.
Vehicle-mount brackets keep the devices charging between jobs, and add-on USB keyboards enable full functionality while the techs are in their trucks.
It All Started With Email
At first, the devices were used for simple applications: headquarters would email each technician his job packet for the day, and the technician would email back his time sheet at day's end. Within months, the applications team began looking at other ways to use the technology.
"We started looking at the .NET framework and that allowed them to directly upload timesheets to our server," says Kelly. The company's in-house programming team in Dublin developed applications for the field workers.
With the addition of a USB keyboard, workers can use the devices for remote secure VPN connections into their terminals, which enables the tablets to operate as a full-blown PCs. "Each guy can get into their own "My Documents" folder," says Kelly. "It saves us administrative time."
Next set was creating a Web-based customer service interface, which enables the technicians to capture signatures and other data from customers at a job site and upload it to the server in real time.
"They're using a remote desktop connection through XP and using a full-blow SQL databases in their vans," says Kelly. "Everything they do is in real time."
In addition to saving time and fuel costs for field technicians, KN Networks is also saving on administrative costs. In the old process, administrative staff would have to take handwritten paperwork and input into the database and then send the information to accounts receivable for invoicing. The process meant that it could take upwards of 30 days for the company to collect on its billings.
"Now, when the technician enters the information in the field, it goes straight to accounts receivable and generates an invoice. Now, we get paid in seven to 14 days," says Kelly.
So far, says Kelly, the company has invested approximately $350,000 in the devices and the wireless data modems, and another $350,000 in applications and programming, which required an overhaul of the company's SQL database.
"We've won in excess of $350 million dollars in contracts" since deployment, in part because of the "wow" factor the devices lend the company. "They feature heavily in our presentations, and whenever we were awarded contracts, there were stipulations that features of the program would be used."
The biggest challenge has been getting reliable data coverage throughout the areas where KN Network's techs roam. It has since added contracts with O2 and Orange to its existing data contract with Vodafone in an effort to improve coverage, but is still only getting about 75% coverage, says Kelly.
Still, the solution is such a vast improvement over the previous process, that Kelly says the company can work around the coverage limitations for now. "Seventy five percent of Ireland is pretty good," Kelly says. "The regulators have the telecommunciations companies on tight leashes, and by 2015 they're supposed to have 100% coverage," he says.
For now, KN Network Services is waiting for technology to catch up with its ideas. For example, an upcoming project may prompt the company to develop an application that enables the use of the WebDT tablets to physically record GPS data on-site and incorporate into a database. This project involves laying 1,000 meters of ducts that carry fiber optic data cables.
"Right now we have to draw the locations on CAD systems," says Kelly. "As the ISPs get better degrees of accuracy on GPS, now we can get within one meter of accuracy" to define where the cables are being laid. "If we could get to within a couple of inches with GPS, then our technicians could drive the length of the road and automatically record the GPS data and track where the cables are located. Within the next six months, GPS accuracy will be where it needs to be."