The Fine Print

— June 01, 2006

Business is heating up for Arctic Glacier, Canada's largest distributor of ice and a supplier, as well, to 50,000 U.S. accounts. When the company recently updated its mobile route accounting solution, Intermec PB40 and PB41 direct thermal portable printers were part of the fix. The compact printers are wireless, Bluetooth-equipped, rugged enough to survive winters in Canada and summers in Texas, and offer signature capture printing. Arctic Glacier customers now sign the screen of the driver's mobile computer, and the driver then prints a 4-inch receipt that also serves as the customer's invoice. The company reports that the new system has helped eliminate duplicate billing, keeps invoices organized and gets payments in quicker. Subsequently, orders are now processed and printed more quickly, which has allowed drivers to make about three more stops per day. Corporate-wide during peak summer seasons, that works out to an additional 1,800 stops per day.

Mobile printers are increasingly being recognized as integral elements of mobile solutions, and manufacturers are encouraging the devices' acceptance in the enterprise by lowering price points, slimming down form factors, improving ergonomics, increasing durability and developing features--such as Bluetooth, 802.11 and infrared connectivity, and built-in SDIO slots, credit card readers and bar code scanners--that complement the overall solution.

A 2005 white paper from printer-maker Zebra, titled "Improving Route Accounting with Mobile Printing Applications," describes a shift in companies' perceptions of their field service operations from cost centers to profit centers, and that one way profits are being grown is through the inclusion of printers in mobile solutions. "Receipts, invoices and other outputs from mobile printers help route professionals and their customers get transactions right the first time, which raises quality, efficiency and profitability throughout the enterprise. Typically, companies that have automated have been able to increase their service area and customer base without adding personnel," states the report.

One Zebra customer that would agree is Kentucky-based United Propane Gas, which deployed a solution from MoblTech that included mounting Zebra rugged printers into 168 of the trucks it uses to haul propane to customers. Previously, drivers handwrote receipts, but now, says Warren VanWyck, assistant general manager of United Propane Gas, "we're printing out invoices that explain how many gallons they received, the price of it, the tank serial number, the customer number, our plant information, the time of the delivery--all of that is on there."

Since the rollout in May 2005, not one of the rugged Zebra printers has failed in field, says VanWyck. "If you've ever ridden in a truck," he jokes, "they ride like trucks. There's a lot of vibration the printers have to withstand." The thermal printing capability is also a benefit, since it solved the problem of smearing that the company encountered when it tried out another printer brand. Thermal printers work by selectively heating coated thermochromic paper; when the paper passes over the printer's thermal print head, the coating turns black in the area where it was heated. Thermal printers are faster and quieter than dot matrix printers, they're more economical since all that needs to be replaced is the paper, and the resulting printouts are dark and sharp.

"The best thing it's done is eliminate any type of mistakes," says VanWyck. "So the customer's always going to be charged the correct amount, and all the metered information is printed [on the receipt]." Additionally, with its new mobile solution, says VanWyck, the company is now able to service 20 percent more customers in a set amount of time.

Citizen Systems America is another manufacturer of thermal mobile printers, most of which are point-of-sale focused and rank among the smallest and lightest in the industry (its PD22, for printing receipts or packing lists, weighs just over 9 ounces and runs on two AA batteries). Extech Instruments also offers thermal printers, which range from 2 to 4 inches wide. Sears Canada deployed Extech's S3500T, a 3-inch rugged thermal printer with Bluetooth and a built-in 3-track magnetic card reader, to its field service technicians for use in conjunction with Intermec 761 rugged handhelds. "The printer is used mainly to produce receipts either for credit card payments or possibly to confirm a follow-up appointment including listing parts that are on order to allow completion of the job," says Tony Revis, general manager of Extech. Among the printers' benefits Revis lists the elimination of cords made possible by their wireless connectivity to the handhelds and the ease with which workers can attach the 1-pound printers to their belt loops or shoulder straps. Plus, being able to accept a credit card payment to complete a transaction, he adds, "really helps with the cash flow."

Fit to Print Barcode printing is a bit of a different ballgame. Thermal transfer (TT) printers are more commonly chosen for this purpose (a visit to Wikipedia explains that this is because TT printing offers a longer-lasting result than direct thermal). The difference between the two is that while direct thermal printers heat a portion of coated paper to reveal print, TT printers melt a coating of ribbon (which can be wax, wax-resin or resin) that's essentially glued down and becomes the print.

Toyota recently found itself choosing between the two for its operations in Puerto Rico, where 300 to 400 Toyota vehicles arrive each day en route to dealerships across the United States. Workers at the docks inspect vehicles for damages during shipping, identify VIN numbers and attach a Fleet Management System label to each vehicle. The labels contain the VIN, any damages information and help the workers to group the vehicles for transport to their final destination.

When it came to finding a labeling solution, Puerto Rico's intense heat, significant rainfall and the fact that the labels could be exposed to the elements for as many as 10 months all proved to be challenges. Workers were initially given TT printers, due to their reputation for long-lasting
barcodes and labels, but the printers were bulky and had a short battery life that forced workers to also carry spare battery packs. Plus, because the label rolls the printers held contained less labels than a worker went through in a shift, they were additionally lugging extra rolls. And adding to the inefficiencies further still, the wand-style barcode scanners initially deployed with the printers were wearing with time and misreading barcodes.
Toyota had worked with solutions provider Caribbean Technical Services (CTS) before, and it was CTS that put together a new winning solution for the dock workers, thanks in part to an innovation from Packaged Sales Company. Its owner, Alfred Doi, developed and patented a technology called self-contained thermal transfer label (SCTTL) media. While most labels are made of paper, the SCTTL are synthetic and have a negative that pulls away, leaving a label that's as sharp in contrast and long-lasting as a TT label, but with the lighter-weight and ribbon-free convenience of a direct thermal form factor.

After testing numerous printers, Toyota selected the Printek MtP400, a rugged, direct thermal printer it will use in conjunction with rugged Intermec handhelds containing integrated scanners. The MtP400 cut printing time in half, can print up to 500 times on one charge and holds rolls containing 120 labels--up from the previous 80.

"Toyota is so pleased, we are now in discussions on adding automation at the other end of the delivery routes. There, Toyota adds options and accessories to the vehicles, which is done under tents in a large automobile lot," says Rafael Perez Cole, CIO of enterprise applications at CTS. "We could try employing a laser printer for documentation needs and hope that the toner doesn't cake up too much in the heat, but I think we would rather stick with the proven mobile printers from Printek."

Driving Efficiency
For those jobs where a larger format is necessary, HP offers a series of 4- to 5-pound mobile printers that offer full letter-size printing with features such as USB and CompactFlash card slots. The City of North Las Vegas Code Enforcement Division uses HP 450s to print inspection reports of sub-standard housing, rental units and apartments. Or at least, Rod McDaniels, a senior code enforcement officer, does. "We're going through a transitional period, where we're going to a new online system," says McDaniels, which has made him the only person in the field now with a completely mobile office. All that is set to change, though, as a number of additional employees will soon also be equipped with their own HP 450.

During inspections, McDaniels uses his printer--which he says has "held up quite nicely" in the Las Vegas summer heat--to provide instant notification to property owners, in compliance with the Uniform Housing Code. "In the past," he says, "if you didn't have access to mobile printing technology, what you'd have to do is: go out, inspect the property, take detailed notes, go back to an office location and create a notice, send a copy via certified mail and then come back out to the property sometime later and post the notification onto the property itself. With the printer I'm using now, I'm able to post multi-page notices right on the property instantly, which helps get the enforcement process moving a little more efficiently. It's definitely a huge benefit--I can just print while I'm already on site, and then I'm done." //

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