Technology for Technicians

By Dale Kyle, President, Handheld US — February 18, 2013

It is a great time to be a technician using technology. Work done in the field is getting easier, more efficient and more accurate as the tools we use get smaller, faster and more precise. Task can be performed in ways not imagined five years ago.

 
Technology Toolbox
While there are holdouts still using pen and paper in the field, more and more organizations are using mobile technology — and many of them are in their second or even third phase of deploying advanced levels.
 
Initially they focused on the obvious gains technology provides — like field techs not having to perform data-entry back in the office at the end of a shift. But now that they are comfortable with the tools and the technology, they are looking around for what else they can accomplish with it.
 
A big opportunity is the multi-functional capability of newer mobile devices. People started with simple handheld computers that let them jot notes or enter basic data; that is like learning to use a screwdriver. Now, a single device offers an entire toolbox full of capability.
 
Today, you can easily find a handheld device that offers Wi-Fi, GPS, barcode scanning, RFID and a really good camera. When people understand those functions and take some time thinking about how they can be used for their tasks, the horizon is going to get very wide.
 
Here are some examples that go beyond the first phase of technology in the field: 
  • Asset tracking: Techs take pictures of the condition of any asset, write up a maintenance or repair report and transmit the photos and report back to the main office instantly, using Wi-Fi. Or a field tech can use RFID or a barcode scanner to identify the asset and then send an associated report.
  • Inventory: Real-time tracking is a huge advantage; when someone in the field consumes a part or other asset, a real-time report and inventory update can go back to the central office, which can react automatically by ordering a replacement.
  • GPS: Advanced GPS functionality can be used for exact location information of workers or equipment, or for efficiency improvements such as route optimization.
  • Wireless networks: Most devices are already solid in offering 3G-level wireless speed and access; when 4G modems come out, they will quickly be integrated into the mobile form factors. That will allow for faster transmission of bigger files in both directions. 4G is coming, and the leading products will have it.
Other developments to watch — cloud computing (software as a service) lets users deploy new functions quickly and at a low initial cost, because there is no upfront expense of buying software.
 
Machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, where remote sensors on field assets can communicate with a field tech’s handheld device, will let a tech know what to expect in advance, offering all sorts of efficiency improvements.
 
And for retail operations and other functions that involve payment processes, several mobile payment companies are making it easier to take credit card payments on the fly.
 
Smartphones are the New Computers
Another interesting development is that more people are doing their jobs with their smartphones. There is a generation of workers coming up that thinks nothing of running their lives on a little phone. So besides seeing a move toward the larger tablet form, there is a surge to the opposite end, with demand for smaller rugged handhelds and rugged smartphones increasing.
 
In the world of wireless, the capabilities that 4G networks make possible are going to change the way field techs work. The speed will let you do everything wireless faster, and the quantity of information you can send will be so much larger.
 
Things that would have taken too long to send before — database files, schematic, maps, photos — will not slow you down now. This can be extended to streaming video and other rich media, so there is a wide variety of ways to communicate, troubleshoot and solve a problem in the field that were not options before.
 
Collaborative Workflow
Enterprise-collaboration apps offer the ability to connect employees across all levels of an organization and these are being widely utilized. Field technicians can discuss problems with colleagues not only with words but also with photos, internet links, videos, chat functions etc.
 
Plus, these types of tools can leverage the collective knowledge of every person in the organization to cut problem solving time. The apps can also extend beyond enterprise-facing communication as smart companies find ways to use these tools to engage directly with customers.
 
Bringing it all together, the right combination of reliable and rugged devices, applications and overall integration is bringing work in the field to the next level.

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