Magazine Article | July 1, 2005


Source: Field Technologies Magazine

A natural gas company adopted a rugged mobile computing and communications system to improve its field service performance and reduce maintenance costs.

Integrated Solutions, July 2005

Nicor Gas in northern Illinois was faced with increasing downtime for repairs of its aging mobile communications systems, but it wasn't just keeping the company's customers satisfied that led it to investigate new systems. As a public utility, the company is required to meet minimum response times on its service calls. In addressing the basic need to update the company's mobile communications system, it looked to its software provider, Mobile Data Solutions, Inc. (MDSI), for help in selecting state-of-the-art hardware.

"We were experiencing a 20% failure rate with our previous hardware," explains Jim Nadolski, Nicor Gas' workload administration coordinator. "Repairs on the units took three to six weeks, and we didn't have enough spares to keep all our field personnel online." This level of failure meant Nicor's field technicians had to stay in touch with the office via radio, which not only delayed the staff's ability to respond quickly, but also required additional attention to detail in order to avoid duplication of efforts or missed responses. In addition to increasing repair costs, the old systems didn't have enough memory capacity to accommodate the updated software releases from MDSI. Nicor Gas chose Itronix' GoBook III laptop computers to replace the old systems.

The new laptops solve several problems for the company because they combine a number of functions. Nicor's old systems consisted of several components cabled together, making it impossible to take the unit out of the vehicle and into the field. By contrast, the GoBook III combines wireless networking, GPS (global positioning system) receiver, and radio in a rugged, portable computer. "We were told that because Itronix makes its own equipment, these units have exceptional radio reception, even in the vehicles. And our experience bears that out," says Nadolski.

Nicor is planning to integrate GPS into its operations, since the combination of MDSI software and the GoBook III already supports the functions. "Being able to know the location of our field staff without making a lot of radio or phone calls helps reduce our response time," says Nadolski. With GPS locators, dispatchers can find the vehicle closest to the caller in seconds.

Nicor's field staff and IS (information systems) department have been quick to adapt to the new systems. Users benefit from larger color displays and keyboards, as well as faster performance. They also get instant access to detailed maps of the company's entire coverage area, which the old units didn't have enough disk space to accommodate.

The IS department likes the units because they have dramatically reduced the number of repairs it has to handle, and updates to the software and data are handled automatically. When the vehicles enter the company's parking lot, the GoBooks automatically connect to the company's computer network via Wi-Fi networks. Software is updated and data is backed up during the night.

In addition, the reduced number of repairs has allowed a reduction in the number of spare units the company needs to hold in readiness. According to Nadolski, "We've gone from a 20% failure rate to about 1.5% and reduced our average time to repair from five weeks to three days. And even though Itronix recommended we keep a 3% spares capacity, we've found that we only need 1.5%." Based on Nicor's experience, the company is able to use the excess spares as live field units, which will save approximately $70,000 in inventory.