Mobile computing has become so commonplace in our lives that it's hard to imagine we ever did business without it. Sometimes it can take the form of a repairperson scanning bar codes or typing troubleshooting codes into a pocket PC to access repair information. It can also be a delivery person capturing a customer's signature electronically and printing an invoice via a Bluetooth-enabled printer. Or, mobile computing can be seen when physicians enter medical data into a PDA (personal digital assistant) and access patient records through an 802.11 connection to a WLAN (wireless LAN). Although ultimately it's the wireless device that gets much of the credit for mobile computing success, the technologies that support these solutions are equally worth understanding. Following are three examples of how mobile computing solutions are being used to benefit enterprises.
Sign On The Dotted ... Touch Screen
The first scenario depicts a delivery person trying to reconcile the quantity of goods delivered to a customer. "Before implementing a mobile data capture solution, the driver would drop off 12 pallets of dog food to the customer. But, after the invoice arrived a few weeks later, the customer would call and say he received only 11 pallets, " says Bill Roeder, senior VP of product development for LXE (Norcross, GA), a wireless solutions provider. "With a mobile computing solution, the driver was able to have the customer sign electronically that he had received the correct quantity of products ordered, and then the driver printed the invoice on the spot. Not only was the time that was wasted determining who was telling the truth eliminated, but the billing cycle was cut down from two weeks to one day, resulting in quicker payments."
The two technologies that make this first example work are electronic signature capture and a short-range wireless technology known as Bluetooth. To achieve electronic signature capture, some enterprises use wireless devices that have touch screens with built-in signature capture abilities. One other option is to connect a signature capture unit to a handheld device. If avoiding the finger pointing that occurs when a customer and delivery person disagree on how many products were delivered is important, this technology can calm the storm. One other benefit of this technology is its ability to reduce a company's liability, which may be a concern for delivering controlled/regulated substances that should only be received by authorized individuals.
The second technology used with the delivery driver application of mobile data capture is Bluetooth. Bluetooth is a short-range radio frequency that works within a 10-meter radius. This technology allows field workers to send captured data from handheld devices to mobile printers, for instance, to be able to print invoices the same day services were rendered.
Real Time Versus Batch Data Collection
Another popular use of wireless mobile computing is seen in field service work. Intermec's (Everett, WA) Mike Colwell, VP of solutions marketing, offers an example he sees on a regular basis. "A maintenance or appliance service company has a fleet of trucks that handle calls in a particular area," says Colwell. "A serviceman goes to his truck only to find he is out of a particular part, and he orders a new one. Meanwhile, just a few blocks away, another serviceman has a dozen of the needed parts in his truck." In this example, the customer and the company suffer. The customer has to wait for a part to be ordered and the company unnecessarily increases its inventory. With a mobile computing solution in place, enterprises can keep accurate records of how many items/parts they have in stock using real-time data collection and track where their inventory is located at a given time.
In this field service example, there are three important elements that contribute to a successful implementation: a data capture device, bar code labels, and a wireless communication medium.
By scanning bar code labels on parts or containers of parts (for smaller items), field service workers can keep accurate records of their inventory. Furthermore, if this information is scanned and transmitted back to headquarters in real time, the enterprise can have inventory that's always accurate. This kind of mobile data capture also reduces the chances for inventory shrinkage for employees who are prone to "borrow" company parts for personal use.
A second important constituent to this field service mix is the bar code reader. Besides the option of using tethered or untethered devices, organizations have to choose between pure bar code readers, which are typically shaped like a gun (and include a trigger), or more multifaceted PDAs (personal digital assistants) with bar code reading capabilities. The decision depends on where the parts are being scanned (e.g. in the truck or in the customer's facility) and how often parts are being scanned. For jobs that require parts to be scanned at the customer's site, the untethered bar code scanners are more appropriate. For situations that call for bar code scanning as well as data input, PDAs with bar code reading capabilities may be more appropriate.
The final element that completes the repairperson's mobile computing success is wireless connectivity. This example raises the issue of batch data capture versus wireless data capture. For some enterprises, the benefit of mobile data collection is being able to just capture customer information at the point of service. For others, the ability to transmit captured data over a wireless network and update a centralized database in real time yields additional benefits. For instance, if your enterprise operates in a just-in-time environment, the extra cost of wirelessly transmitting data from the field may be outweighed by the benefit of being able to reorder products quicker.
Besides being able to just send captured data back to the host database, many mobile solutions - taking advantage of wireless communication services such as CDPD (cellular digital packet data) or two-way text messaging - allow the data to flow both directions in real time. Another use for wireless technology in this scenario is a customer-facing application called supply chain visibility. Enterprises that update their data in real time can put their inventory or customer information on an intranet and enable partners or customers to access the status of inventory levels or find out where their order is at any given time.
Because of the current limitations of wireless technology, however, wireless mobile computing solutions often require more than one wireless data network provider. "No one carrier offers complete wireless coverage throughout the United States," says Mike Marsh, director of mobile computing marketing for Psion Teklogix (Mississauga, Ontario), a provider of mobile computing solutions and devices. "End users may be forced to carry either multiple devices that utilize different kinds of wireless signals or devices that offer access to multiple types of data transmission via middleware." Wireless data transmission technologies such as CDMA (code division multiple access), AMPS (advanced mobile phone system), or SMS (short message service) may be necessary to cover all areas within a service person's route. Middleware can then be used to transparently switch to the wireless service with the strongest signal in order to send or receive data.
In the above example, wireless connectivity is used to not just transmit data to and from a host database, but also to assist the enterprise with tracking drivers and inventory. This technology, referred to as AVL (automatic vehicle location), employs GPS (global positioning system) satellites in a triangulation format to pinpoint the exact location of the GPS-enabled device or GPS-equipped vehicle.
802.11 Gets A Second Opinion
The final mobile data collection example comes from the healthcare profession. Instead of carrying around manila folders of patient's records, a physician can carry around a PDA that links to an 802.11 network and access patient records electronically. Now when the doctor visits a patient with a heart condition in a hospital and he needs to write out a prescription, he can call up the patient's name via built-in search tools on the PDA. After pressing the "prescription" button on the touch screen, the physician sees a drop down menu that allows him to scroll down until he finds and selects the proper medication along with choices for number of refills and the strength of the medicine to be prescribed. The request is sent electronically to the patient's pharmacy and the medicine is filled and ready to be picked up at the patient's leisure.
In this situation, the physician saves time by not having to retrieve paper records, and also eliminates concerns about his questionable penmanship by trading handwriting for its electronic counterpart. Additionally, if the patient needs to make a follow-up visit to a specialist, the specialist doesn't have to track down the first doctor to get the patient's records. For this kind of mobile data collection deployment to be successful, end users have to consider a few points about wireless connectivity. Unlike the other two scenarios, this example makes use of a particular wireless standard, namely the IEEE (Institute Of Electrical And Electronics Engineers) 802.11 standard. This standard, which has been in effect since 1997, uses the 2.4 GHz (gigahertz) band and is ideal in a hospital setting because it does not interfere with medical devices such as pacemakers. "Even though the 802.11 standard eliminates the confusion and choices that other wireless protocols present, it still requires a few important choices," says John Gibson, director of mobile computing at Symbol (Holtsville, NY), a data capture, mobile computing, and wireless solutions provider.
"For instance, within the 802.11 standard there are various 'flavors' of the standard such as 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g." For more in-depth information about the tradeoffs associated with choosing one flavor over another, check out www.802.11-planet.com.
Overall, end users have many options to weigh when deciding to go wireless. They have to choose the best tradeoff among 802.11 flavors, which wireless service(s) to use, which devices to implement, which middleware to incorporate, and they have to decide whether to use Bluetooth technology or not. In fact, with all the benefits to be realized from wireless technology, the only question that enterprises won't have to ask is, "Should we go wireless?"