Magazine Article | June 22, 2006

Connect, Automate, And Empower Mobile Techs

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

This industrial cleaning device manufacturer automated 85% of its service order completion and saved more than $600,000 in data entry labor costs by implementing a wireless solution for its 400 field techs.

Integrated Solutions, July 2006

For 10 years, Tennant Company’s service division planned to develop and deploy a field service automation solution. Every year, the group heard that the solution couldn’t be justified, or the project (which would require integrating a mobile application with SAP) was too complex. After hearing for so long that an automation solution was on its way, Tennant’s 400 field techs were skeptical, at best, that they’d ever get it. So, when Tennant finally announced the automation project was approved, the news was met with disbelief, rather than cheers. No matter what type of workers you oversee, you know the success of a new technology initiative depends on user acceptance. And disbelief is not a positive sentiment with which to begin any deployment.

Tennant, which manufactures industrial and commercial cleaning equipment (e.g. street sweepers for municipalities, vacuum cleaners for hospitals), now has a successful field service automation solution in place that its techs value and use every day with no reluctance. Though the road to the solution was bumpy, Tennant overcame the initial skepticism of its workers by designating a spokesperson for the service (or line-of-business) side and a spokesperson for the IT side of the project. As a result of this cooperation, Tennant was able to automate 85% of its service orders and save at least $600,000 in reduced data entry headcount.

It was clear to Tennant’s service division that it needed to automate its field service work. The field techs, who work in set geographic areas across North America, handle more than 110,000 planned maintenance (PM) calls and 90,000 breakdown calls (unplanned) a year. The old field service process was 100% paper-based and inefficient. Every month, the company’s SAP system filtered all of the PM work for that month, and regional office staff sorted the work by technician; the techs received paper service orders for that work by mail. When they completed the jobs, they sent the forms to regional offices for processing. For breakdown calls, Tennant’s customers called into a dispatch center, and the dispatchers sent pages to the techs’ phones. The pages included the customer name, contact information, work order number, and codes for the problem that needed to be fixed. The tech then filled in a blank service order with that information, completed it at the job, and sent it back for processing. “At any given time, we could have had 10 days’ worth of mail waiting to be entered into our system that represented uncollected revenue,” says Ron Everitt, service project leader during the project, and current new business development manager. “And because of this lag time, we didn’t have up-to-date information on completed jobs.”

Obviously, the service division of a company does not suddenly decide it wants mobile technology and then go out and purchase it — the management of that business unit must get approval from the IT department and C-level management (e.g. CFO, CEO) to purchase it. That approval can come more easily by presenting a plan with a cost justification and, most importantly, by working closely with IT. When Tennant finally implemented a successful field service automation solution, it was because the service side worked with the IT side to fully state the requirements and restrictions of the technology. “When we began the process of getting a mobile solution, Tennant firmly stated that we needed an IT leader and a line-of-business leader,” says Everitt. “Otherwise, the field techs would get exactly what IT wanted them to get, and the solution would not have solved all of the field techs’ needs. ”

Indeed, Tennant had already experienced what could happen without the communication between the line-of-business side and IT: a failed mobile project. Approximately four and a half years ago, Tennant decided to move ahead with a field service automation project, and Everitt’s boss suggested he take part in the project. When Everitt joined the project, IT had already decided to deploy the mobile version of SAP available at the time. After several months of research and analysis, the team realized SAP’s solution wasn’t the right fit for Tennant. “The mobile application was too complex, and the user interface was, frankly, awful,” says Everitt. “I knew it wouldn’t work in the field. The way the field techs would have had to decipher it, we’d still be training them now.” After realizing that solution wouldn’t work, Tennant chose another application vendor and spent two years working with that vendor, only to find the solution wouldn’t properly integrate with SAP.

In July 2004, shortly after canceling the first project, Tennant again decided to look for a mobile solution. This time the company hired an outside consultant, who took the requirements for the project from Everitt and his IT counterpart and searched for an appropriate solution. Of the several options the consultant suggested, Tennant chose the Dexterra Field Service mobile platform, which, after customization, was renamed ServiceLINK (SM).  The platform could quickly integrate with SAP and be programmed to send only relevant information from SAP to the field techs.

Once the software was chosen, Tennant evaluated the mobile devices the techs would use in the field. When it comes to mobile devices, many companies look at price only and don’t consider how the devices will work in the field. This is why having someone from the service side who could not only represent, but also defend, service’s requirements is essential.

Everitt always felt the techs needed a device with PC-like capabilities in the field because they need to access technical documents with 6 GB of data, and a PDA/handheld device doesn’t have that storage or processing capacity. Some members of the project team thought PCs took too long to power up, so they argued for handheld devices. The IT department took these specifications and presented two devices to the team: a $500 PDA and a rugged handheld with processing power approaching that of a PC, but with a price point of $3,200. “I knew the PDA was out of the question because it wouldn’t meet our needs and would probably break the moment it was dropped in the field,” says Everitt. “But I also knew the rugged handheld’s price wouldn’t go over well with the final decision makers, and I still wanted the large screen size of a laptop or a tablet PC.” Everitt did some of his own investigations into available devices. He found that he could get a rugged tablet PC that met service’s requirements at a price point that was more acceptable, especially after considering TCO (total cost of ownership) configurations.

Tennant tested two manufacturers’ rugged tablets in the field, one a slate form factor (a rugged screen with touch and pen-input capabilities) and the other a convertible form factor (a slate coupled with a keyboard that can be folded under the screen). The failure rate of the slate devices in the field was rather high, and the techs weren’t comfortable using them, so Tennant finally decided on the convertible tablet, which was the Panasonic Toughbook CF 18.

Tennant ran a pilot project of the solution with 20 field techs from January through March of 2005, then extended the solution to all 400 of its techs. Now, SAP runs the same PM orders every month, but the service orders that are generated are sent directly to the field techs via the ServiceLINK application. Breakdown calls are still received by the dispatch center, but the workers there enter the information into an electronic service order, which is also sent to the techs through the ServiceLINK application.

In the field, the techs run ServiceLINK  all day and send and receive information over the Sprint Nextel wireless data network via the Toughbook’s integrated WWAN (wireless WAN) radio. The information is not sent in real time, but only when the techs actively initiate the data exchange (i.e. they click a button called “update,” and the PC communicates with the Dexterra server, and the Dexterra server communicates with SAP). The techs complete the service orders electronically, which are routed back to SAP. Using the electronic forms, 85% of orders go from the techs to invoicing and then to billing without human intervention. The other 15% are unusual customer requirements (e.g. the customer requires a specific form to be attached to the invoice) that must be handled by office staff. Still, the automation enabled Tennant to close three of its eight regional offices, reducing headcount and redistributing some employees.

The bottom-line benefits of a solution are at the core of measuring a project’s success for any company, and Tennant is no different. But, that doesn’t mean Everitt doesn’t take special pride that his company was able to deliver a solution that both saved his company money and met the needs of its field technicians. “It was very important that the techs were comfortable with the solution we deployed, especially after hearing for so long that they were going to get a solution that never materialized,” says Everitt. “They needed the right device, the right application, and the right information in the field. Sometimes it wasn’t easy, but in the end what we delivered was exactly what the service reps needed.”