Magazine Article | December 20, 2006

Field Force Automation Bolsters Service Techs' Efficiencies

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

A provider of reverse vending machines improves service request response times by 25% using a mobile communications solution.

Integrated Solutions, January 2007

If you've ever returned empty beverage or other containers to a supermarket or other store by inserting them into a machine, chances are that machine was manufactured by Tomra North America, a Shelton, CT-based provider of equipment and solutions for the recovery of recyclable materials. More than 13,000 of the company's reverse vending machines, which are used to collect soda bottles, beer bottles, cans, and miscellaneous plastic receptacles and return a small deposit to consumers, have been installed throughout New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, Michigan, and Iowa. A team of more than 65 technicians service the machines and handle all necessary repairs.

Five years ago, Tomra decided it needed to automate its field service operations. "We wanted to know how long it was taking for technicians to service machines and what problems they were encountering," says Jerry Daniel, regional vice president, service. "We also wanted real-time communication with our fleet."

At the time, the company used a rudimentary home-grown system for dispatching technicians, along with paper work orders and manual methods of recording data pertaining to service calls. Communicating with personnel in the field was difficult, if not impossible.

After evaluating about 10 options, Tomra engaged Nexterna, a solution provider headquartered in Burlington, Ontario, to implement a technology suite comprising its Clearview real-time field service management platform and mobile communications software, along with a schedule optimizer tool from Click Software, a data transmission and global positioning system (GPS) from Wireless Matrix, and Q-100 handheld mobile communications devices from Itronix. "One reason we went with Nexterna was that Clearview contains all the platforms we need to run the field service business in real time, including dispatch, service order, logistics, and service contract modules," Daniel asserts. "We also liked the fact that the company could provide all of the solution components in an integrated package; most importantly, the schedule optimizer already interfaced with Clearview."

System rollout began in the third quarter of 2003 with deployments in New York, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont; deployments in Michigan and Iowa followed about 16 months later. Each day, personnel at the company's dispatch center use the schedule optimizer, which resides on a Dell server, to build technicians' routes. The software takes into account the work to be done, where it is to be performed, and factors like technicians' skill sets. Assignments are refined and routes are changed as service calls are received, in line with the initial variables used to create the original schedule.

Electronic work orders are sent to technicians' handhelds one at a time via the Verizon Wireless network. After completing each call, technicians sync their devices with the Clearview software, uploading all information about assignments they have finished and downloading their next assignment. The handhelds are also used to communicate any difficulties to dispatchers or managers. In most cases, data transmission occurs over the wireless network, but technicians also have Wireless Matrix satellite mobile base station communications devices in their vans so that they may communicate with headquarters in areas where cellular coverage is spotty or absent.

The system has decreased the amount of time it takes for Tomra to respond to calls for technician assistance by an average of 25%. Technician productivity is up by 12%, thanks to more efficient routing coupled with the real-time data access afforded by the technology. Improved routing capabilities have also sparked a 12% reduction in technicians' fleet mileage during the first year of operation and an additional 6% reduction spread over the following two years, resulting in fuel and maintenance cost savings.

"Things naturally run more smoothly when technology helps you determine which technicians should be dispatched to which job," Daniel notes. "And, of course, productivity is going to improve if you send someone whose skill set includes working with particular components on a call that involves those components, rather than someone whose expertise lies elsewhere."