The 21st Century Mobile Field Force: Hyper-Connected

By  Ellen Muraskin — September 05, 2012

Field service managers in 2012 have access to an arsenal of tools that integrate their team’s field activities, vehicles, inventory and payments into one coordinated nervous system. Handheld computers made for the mobile workforce now sport all the cameras, GPS, scanners, accelerometers and connectivity options of their consumer-grade, smartphone counterparts, becoming the data input and display devices for countless field service applications.

The rich, two-way flow of data between handheld and field service office works like the brain, spine and nerve endings. So tightly integrated, these tools make impressive gains on the traditional efficiency goals of field service.

Time Matters
In field sales, instant connectivity to the warehouse enables a salesman to be more responsive to customers. Equipped with a handheld computer and sales order software, a sales person can place an order at the time and place of sale, supplying a customer quickly. The distribution center gets the instant order replacing a slow, error-prone paper and phone process.

In consumer field service, an important goal is narrowing the service window. A customer who stays at home all day waiting is increasingly rare and predictably disgruntled. A morning or afternoon commitment is fairly expected, but a two-hour or even a one-hour window is loyalty-winning service and an attainable goal if stops can be reassigned on the fly.

Today, inbound GPS and work order data from technicians comes in from the field and gives the dispatcher a view of the entire day and the entire force. Workers no longer have to get a day’s worth of assignments on clipboards in the morning and call the office throughout the day to report in.

Dynamic Dispatch
With an enterprise-wide view and “dynamic dispatch” software developed by such companies as Servigistics, Click Software and TOA Technologies, dispatchers can “trickle feed” assignments to whoever has the most time, the right skills and equipment and the shortest travel path. They can even execute these assignments through a map interface, dragging and dropping new assignments to the color-coded icons representing their technicians. Routes are automatically revised and pushed to employees’ handhelds.

Another goal is reducing truck rolls. According to John Pomerleau, principal of the Industry Solutions Group at Motorola Solutions, it costs an average of $250 to send a technician out. Field service technology helps cut down on truck rolls by making sure the right parts are loaded on the truck at the start of the day, achieving more first-visit repairs.

These solutions start with the customer phone call. Increasingly, smart chips installed in appliances do some of the diagnosis themselves and call center staff uses the information to troubleshoot and enter the correct replacement part on the service ticket. This skips a step usually performed on site.

“At companies like Sears, call takers try and isolate the problem, and once they do, they order parts and have them shipped directly to the customer’s home,” says Pomerleau. “Once they know the part has arrived, then they schedule the technician to come on site.”

Wireless interfaces allow technicians to diagnose and reprogram more devices in less time. Roger Cresswell, industry marketing director at field service automation company Intermec says, “We developed a custom Bluetooth interface to our CN50 [handheld computer] for a customer in elevator repair. It enables the technician to run diagnostic checks and reprogram the elevator without having to make a serial connection.”

Like a Swiss Army Knife
Although they typically come with built-in bar code scanners, field service computers today are progressing to photography and video. With its EA 21 imager, Intermec packs the equivalent of a flatbed scanner in its CN50 handheld, allowing repair or inspection confirmations, or any other documents, to be sent straight to the central office as soon as they’re signed.

Motorola’s Enterprise Tablet, introduced in October 2011 for field service merchandising, has a bar code scanning peripheral, but its cameras and larger screen size introduce new application possibilities. The ET1 can take and display panoramic shots of a whole supermarket aisle, showing deliverymen how product should be arrayed on a shelf or an endcap. These pictures can be annotated with stylus and even with voice clips. Rear-facing cameras support live video chat a la Apple’s Facetime.

Cameras also enable on-the-spot payment. Demonstrated at Field Service 2012, an Intermec CN70 handheld computer running Verdex software can photograph a check, recognize bank and account numbers, send it to the bank and clear the payment, all while the service person is still on site.

Similarly, Motorola has just released a camera application that can read bills of lading in tricky outdoor environments. Pomerleau says this solves a common problem that occurs when drivers pull up to the loading dock at three in the morning, the form is wrinkled and damp and lighting is suboptimal.

Handheld computer cameras are even beginning to stream video to help expert technicians advise and coach less experienced staff in the field. Using software developed by Reality Mobile and Motorola’s MC75, stumped field service techs can make a voice call while they stream live video of any repair job over 3G connections. On the other end, the guru can pull up the relevant schematic on his PC, circle the relevant wires or relays and share it with the handheld.

Tablets Return to the Field
The 7-inch ET1 runs a locked-down version of Android that Motorola developed with Google. It can be clicked into a vehicle-mounted connector and works with a snap-on barcode scanner, credit card reader and signature capture device.  With the larger screen and pinch-to-zoom, it’s the right form factor for downloading schematics and repair manuals. Docked in the truck, it’s good for maps and navigation.

While consumer-grade tablets and smartphones can also read barcodes, Cresswell points out that the purpose built imagers of field service mobile computers have a far greater range, better accuracy and better speed than a smartphone’s camera app.

This introduces a larger question: With smart phones and cloud computing taking power to the street, how will traditional mobile computer manufacturers hang onto the field? Indeed, the same ISVs developing field service software for CN60s and MC75s on Windows Mobile are also coming out with versions for Android, iOS and Blackberry, and software-as-a-service (SaaS) offerings.

SaaS and BYOD?
Pomerleau only sees good news here.  The advent of SaaS has put field service applications once limited to GEs and Fedexes within reach of plumbers and snowplowers. Replacing expensive custom programming efforts, monthly subscriptions now allow Mom and Pop to automate. Smartphones allow them to run apps on devices they already own.

But, Pomerleau says, having sampled the benefits of automation, "They’ll learn what technology is appropriate and what’s not. They’ll learn by losing their smart phones to breakage, dust, spray -- the environmental hazards that created the market for ruggedized equipment in the first place."

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