Magazine Article | February 22, 2013

Rugged Computers Replace Consumer-Grade Laptops

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

By Brian Albright, Field Technologies magazine

Amica Insurance appraisers increase productivity by 27% with an updated mobile solution.

Mobile computers can improve productivity in the field, but if your employees have trouble accessing the network, or the devices are easily damaged in the field, mobility can actually impede efficiency. Dropped connections, broken computers, and sluggish data uploads can also quickly erode worker confidence in a mobile solution.

Amica Insurance is the oldest mutual auto insurance provider in the United States. The company began deploying consumer-grade laptops to staff appraisers at its 40 branch offices more than 17 years ago, but unreliable Internet connectivity meant that the appraisers often didn’t use the mobile computers while in the field. Instead, they spent several hours each evening uploading estimates and photos. The consumer-grade laptops also frequently were damaged in the field because of the vibration the devices experienced in the appraisers’ vehicles.

Unreliable Mobile Devices Send Workers Back To Manual Methods
"What they typically did was, they would go out with a pad and paper and write up the specifications for the estimates," says Larry Brown, senior systems engineer with Amica. "At the end of the day they'd go back home, transcribe all these notes, and then upload all of their digital photos. Then it could be a few hours waiting for all that data to upload. There was always a lag time between entering the estimate and when it uploaded, and there were a lot of inefficiencies built into that process."

The claims department began looking around for rugged, vehicle-mounted laptops, similar to those used by police officers, that would be durable enough to survive in the field and provide more reliable wireless connectivity. After extensive research, the company selected the Panasonic Toughbook convertible tablet, a device frequently used in law enforcement applications and with a reputation for durability.

According to Brown, the company selected the Toughbooks because they were sturdy enough to withstand the rigors of the road, but also because Panasonic maintains its design features when the devices are updated. Amica planned to invest in vehicle mounts for the computers and needed assurances that they would remain useful even when the hardware changed. The Toughbook tablets were also compatible with the company's estimating software.

"It's an expensive proposition to outfit a car with a mobile mount," Brown says. "You don't want the laptops to be re-engineered every few years. All the mounts we originally installed are still operational today, and we've upgraded the devices since then. The stability of the form factor has been huge for us."

Two-Stage Pilot To Evaluate Mobile Capabilities
Amica initially deployed the Toughbook 18 convertible tablet, which could be used as a tablet and with a keyboard. For the pilot, the company gave the devices to one tech-savvy appraiser and another appraiser who was less technical.

"We wanted a good overview of how the appraisers would adapt, because using a touchscreen and entering data with a stylus was going to be a big change," Brown says. "Both appraisers saw an increase in productivity and cycle times, so we knew we were on the right path."

The company followed that with a second pilot, which included ten appraisers and lasted for six months. The appraisers who participated in the pilots provided peerto- peer training for their coworkers on both the use of the laptop in the field and the proper way to install, lock, and disengage the laptop from the vehicle mount. "Everyone's natural inclination is to resist change, but in our training, our initial pilot appraisers served as champions of the idea," Brown says. "They told them not only that it would work, but also how it would work, and that they would love it."

Reseller TransCOR Information Technologies provided assistance with installation and procurement of the devices for the nationwide deployment. Gamber-Johnson and RAM Mounts provided the vehicle mounts and trays.

Amica currently has 50 Toughbook 19 devices in the field with embedded 3G mobile broadband capabilities. The company has also since changed its estimating software from its original provider to a solution from CCC.

When appraisers visit body shops or customers' homes to write up damage estimates, they can enter the estimate information directly into the tablet and can take photos and immediately attach them to the document. They print a copy of the estimate (using an HP printer mounted in the car) for the customer or body shop, then upload the entire package while they are on the road between appointments.

Mobile VPN Provides Reliable Application Access
The embedded wireless functionality in the Toughbook laptops has helped improve wireless connectivity performance. Amica also partnered with NetMotion on a wireless mobile virtual private network (VPN) solution that provides application persistency. When appraisers enter a dead spot, the application can suspend and then resume transmitting without the user having to log back in.

With more reliable hardware and wireless connectivity, appraisers can now complete more work per day; average inspections completed per day have gone up by 27%. Payment cycle times (the amount of time it takes customers to receive payment) fell by 24%. "In the past, because they knew they had to take the estimates home, transcribe them, and then transfer them, the appraisers could have several hours of work after getting home," Brown says. "Now their work can be complete after visiting their last assignment for that day."

The number of same-day inspections also increased because employees are more connected and can keep better track of their emails and inspection schedules. Appraisers can complete estimates with shorter notice and in less time. That means claims are settled faster, and customers are paid faster.

Replacement rates on the hardware have also dropped. According to Brown, standard laptops deployed for this application experienced a failure rate of 20%; only one Toughbook failed in the first two years the devices were implemented.

"The reliability of the device, combined with the new workflow, has allowed us to see some significant improvements," Brown says. "The inefficiencies have been eliminated and that ‘windshield time' for the appraisers has been turned into semiproductive time because they can upload while on the road. That's a big reason why we've been able to increase productivity as much as we have."