Magazine Article | February 1, 2002

Field Service Solutions: All For One And One For All?

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

If you're in the market for a field service solution, you can be sure that there's no better time than the present. And, one size does not fit all.

Integrated Solutions, February 2002

For the first time since its inception, we're seeing a decline in traditional desktop PC sales. It isn't because enterprises are abandoning traditional desktop computers altogether. It's because we've moved beyond the enterprise and out into the field with portable computers in the form of WAP (wireless area protocol) phones, PDAs (personal digital assistants), two-way messaging devices, and H/PCs (handheld PCs). According to a 2001 Venture Development Corporation (VDC) (Natick, MA) market study, sales of rugged mobile computers, which play a major role in field service applications, are expected to jump from $3.1 billion in 2000 to nearly $6 billion by the end of 2005.

Besides just affecting the way people talk and check their day timers, these devices are being used by many enterprises to update inventory in real time, empower field workers with anytime access to critical data, shorten the sales cycle, and positively impact the bottom line. Buyer beware, however, because the wireless devices that are hot today may be the technology equivalent of the AM transistor radio tomorrow. And, equally as bad as buying the wrong handheld device is waiting for that utopian moment when an all-in-one device is invented that meets all your field workers' needs, requires only one wireless service provider, and offers anywhere coverage. By following a few time-tested tips, you can wirelessly enable your field employees and realize a payback on your field service solution within a year. Now more than ever you can't afford to turn your back on this opportunity.

Choosing Wireless Wisely
The type of computer used in a field service solution is an integral part of the success or failure of the overall deployment. Choosing the wrong kind of device can dramatically lengthen your payback period window and reduce the return on your investment. According to Glenn Lundgren, VP of sales, commercial group at Itronix (Spokane, WA), enterprises need to take a hard look at how their field service equipment will be used to send and receive data. "An appliance repair person may require a unit with an alphanumeric keypad for entering customer data related to an appliance, whereas a route salesperson may be better served with a device offering more single key functions with drop down menus." Because the data collection methods vary considerably, this will have a direct impact on the type of device used. For instance, in the first example with the appliance repairperson, an H/PC would be the appropriate device compared to a PDA for the route salesperson. Four questions that can help narrow your choice down to the right device are: 1) How will data be input? 2) How will data be collected? 3) Do I need voice capability for communication and/or for data entry? 4) Are graphical displays, color, and/or schematics important to my job?

After choosing the right category of device for your field service solution, it is necessary to choose the right level of device ruggedness. There are three choices to make within this category: non-ruggedized, ruggedized, and ultra ruggedized. The first category is the least expensive of the three categories, but it also comes with the greatest risk - the risk of dropping and breaking the unit. The second category is better able to withstand getting banged around and can even be dropped from about four feet off the ground without causing damage to the unit. The third category, ultra ruggedized, goes beyond the requirements of normal ruggedization in that it must also be waterproof and able to withstand temperatures ranging from about -20°C to as high as 60°C.

Another factor to consider before settling on a field service device is the operating system that the device supports. "Given the fact that most enterprises are Microsoft-based, it is not surprising that most users are choosing a device that has a Windows CE operating system as opposed to a Palm OS," says Tim Shea, senior analyst at VDC. "The fact that companies like Palm originally built their devices and operating systems with consumers in mind puts them at a disadvantage with the enterprise."

Middleware - The Next Important Step
Even though most of the advice we receive tells us to eliminate the middleman and save a few bucks, middleware is the exception to the rule. Field service solutions bring together all key components of an enterprise and make information available to field workers. Because of this enormous task, middleware is necessary for bringing the data to a central repository, translating the data to a common language, and displaying the information according to the type of device that is requesting it. Because wireless devices have limited "real estate" to accommodate many different applications, the role of middleware to integrate components of many back-end applications into a seamless front end with the smallest possible footprint is essential to provide the highest level of productivity, according to Dale Gonzalez, VP of research and development at Air2Web (Atlanta). Middleware also has to handle security issues related to wireless data transmissions.

Because enterprises have field workers with different needs that require different devices, it is important to have middleware that can handle multiple devices and won't lock you into just one. Additionally, it is important to find out how the middleware accommodates different devices. "Some middleware providers boast of offering a product that is device agnostic," says Gonzalez. "But, this implies that the application does not care about what kind of device is being used to access the data. This typically means that the vendor chooses one device shape and size as its ideal and all other devices are left out of the equation. A better solution is to select a middleware product that optimizes the user's interaction with every device, taking advantage of the unique features of each wireless unit. It is also important to deploy wireless applications in a way that allows your company to adopt new devices as they become available with improved features and lower price points."

In addition to tailoring the application to the device, middleware also plays a role in how data is transmitted. For instance, the middleware used in a field service solution may enable one device to use CDPD (cellular digital packet data) while another can use GSM (global system for mobile communications), CDMA (code division multiple access), TDMA (time division multiple access), Mobitex, iDEN (integrated digital enhanced network), or Motient. In some cases it may be necessary to switch between services to get the required coverage.

"The challenge for many wireless deployments is the lack of coverage, which can significantly impact the enterprise's ability to achieve its performance goals and ROI," says Al Milligan, vice president of the mobile unit at Wireless Matrix (Reston, VA). "A wireless service selection should focus on the availability of the field technicians to send and receive data from wherever they perform their work. A communications device providing satellite, terrestrial, and wireless LAN offers the enterprise complete availability."

Wearable Wireless And GPS - The Future Of Field Service?
According to Shea, the next important trend in the field service arena is wearable wireless. "Vendors such as IBM, HP, Symbol, Compaq (in development stage), and Psion Teklogix are already looking at this space and developing various hands-free products," says Shea. "I predict that the wearable wireless market will grow by more than 40% CAGR (compound annual growth rate) over the next five years." A second important trend we are likely to see is an increase in the use of GPS (global positioning system) tracking. "Being able to track a vehicle/field service worker has clear advantages," says Shea. "But, there may be employee resistance, especially in union environments where the technology could be seen as a Big Brother initiative." The key for this technology to become adopted by more enterprises is for companies to offer incentive bonuses for employees who use the technology to set up one more customer product demonstration per day or close one more sale per day.

No matter how enterprises and employees feel about GPS, field service solutions will become more pervasive as more companies discover the value of extending their enterprise applications to their field workers. And, as for companies who are waiting for the perfect time to implement a field service solution...the time is now.