Mobile computing

0210Computerdriver

New technologies have come a long way toward making the office leaner

Story by Sean Fitzgerald

THERE’S SOME INTERESTING STORIES TOLD about the challenges of widespread implementation of fax machines into office environments during the 1970s – nearly 50 years after the technology was invented.

When the first commercial fax machines were marketed to businesses, managers were reluctant to bite at the large price tag and frankly didn’t see the point. Their company had functioned just fine for the past 20 years without a fax machine. Between the telephone, the postal service, or simply just running a few documents across town, business functions could be managed without spending hundreds of dollars on this new equipment that no one else had anyway, only to be stuck with the bill for another phone line every month. As well as buying special paper for the fax machine. And an occasional toner cartridge.

It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the fax machine became more omnipresent within small business culture, and even until the early 1990s when it was a normal fixture in the office.

Similar analogies are often told about the cell phone, which really didn’t explode in use until just more than a decade ago.

Today, innovations in mobile technologies have made it possible to conduct a majority of office functions and administrative field work functions while out and about and on the go. Such devices can help to streamline processes, cut down on paperwork and ultimately save time and money. In the same breath, the capital cost to buy or lease the most updated mobile equipment and utilize some of the most advanced software for such devices has made the return on investment generally less than one year.

Automating functions

ADVANCES IN MOBILE TECHNOLOGIES are occurring faster than they can be put into use in the office. Modern technologies allow a field representative to place an order for a client, process the order, and print out an invoice right on the spot and immediately place it in a customer’s hands with the assurance that their delivery is already making its way on to a truck for delivery.

“It’s about automating data collection, which is really about automating your process,” said Michael Kuhlman, a commercial sales representative for Intermec Technologies’ Wisconsin and Minnesota region.

As an example, consider a fire extinguisher distributor whose technician drives a route every day to inspect and potentially service up to 25 different fire extinguishers located within its clients’ facilities. Each day, the job involves physically traveling out to each fire extinguisher, handwriting an identification number unique to each fire extinguisher, writing the date, writing some details about its location and status after testing it, then moving on to the next fire extinguisher and repeating the same process on a separate but identical form. After completing a 7-hour route of traveling around to 25 different fire extinguishers, the technician drives back to the central office with the stack of service order paperwork and spends an hour manually typing all of the handwritten data from each service form into the computer to update the digital record of each fire extinguisher.

Worse yet, the technician hands the stack of paper work off to a data entry clerk back at the office – who everyday inputs the service records from a fleet of five different technicians – and generally has a difficult time reading some of the more sloppy technicians’ handwriting when the weather gets colder and their fingers are less nimble.

In this same example, Kuhlman explained, a mobile computer with a wireless Internet connection and a bar code scanner could travel out to each fire extinguisher and scan the bar code unique to each fire extinguisher, saving the time of filling out a service ticket and virtually eliminating the error of writing down the identification number wrong or illegibly. As soon as the inspection and service work is done, the data is wirelessly uploaded through the Internet to the central office computer system, where all applicable information about the site visit to that particular fire extinguisher is updated in a matter of seconds. No paperwork to lose or keep dry from the rain. The inspection visit to each fire extinguisher takes one minute less by scanning a bar code as opposed to handwriting it into four different fields of information.

At the end of the 7-hour route, the technician doesn’t need to go back to the office to input their data from the day – it’s already done. There’s time to inspect four more fire extinguishers during the last hour of the day. Or that data entry clerk back at the office manually typing in the results of each technicians’ service tickets – that job function can be eliminated and the employee can be moved into a much more productive role.

“Automating all of these processes together comes with a lot of hidden benefits,” Kuhlman added.

Intermec manufactures and sells several lines of rugged hand-held computers. Some of its more recent product innovations have integrated more traditional hand-held computers with cell phone capabilities, external bar code scanners or radio frequency identification – known as RFID for short – tag scanners, and mobile printers.

Because of their durability, the devices can cost as much as $2,000, but most manufacturers provide an option to lease equipment for as little as $50 a month. Kuhlman said many of his customers have discovered a return on investment in six to nine months.

Bringing it to the masses

SUCH MOBILE TECHNOLOGIES AREN’T completely new to most of us – anyone who’s ever signed for a package from UPS or FedEx has likely signed their name digitally into an electronic signature capture device attached to a mobile computer.

Companies the size of UPS and FedEx have deeper pockets and the IT resources to develop the software to drive these kinds of mobile devices for its delivery drivers out in the field. That’s not the case, though, for a small, 10-employee vending service, as an example.

“To the average user, they could never dream of having anything like this,” said Todd Gottel, vice president of sales and marketing for 2GO Software Solutions. Gottel’s less than 2-year-old firm created an enterprise class software that’s sold as individual subscriptions to a wide variety of clients using mobile computers to streamline their businesses data processes.

The use of 2GO software is widespread, Gottel noted, indicating customers come from fields such as transportations and logistics, vending, repair, field service work, government inspections and even for use by a sales force. About three-quarters of 2GO’s clients are small enough to not have their own in-house IT department, Gottel said, making the plug-and-play utility of its software so appealing to smaller companies. The software integrates with most standard back office systems – everything from applications like SAP used in larger companies to the QuickBooks software used by mom-and-pop shops.

Gottel said the company’s software – combined with mobile computing hardware – has been able to make its customers so lean, that it promotes a return on investment of just two months. One early client of 2GO saved enough to match their mobile technology expenses in less than one month.

“In three months you’re going to get full pay back on this investment – and look what it will do for you,” Gottel said.

Implementing such technology doesn’t work if staff is reluctant to use it. But with just a small amount of time in training – and a significant amount of research and design placed into making such applications intuitive to the user – clients have discovered even the most reticent of users eventually find these mobile technologies a fun and rewarding innovation in their work routine.

“Our goal is to eliminate system processes – to eliminate steps in the day,” Gottel said. “The whole goal is to make our customers more productive.”