Magazine Article | July 21, 2009

Rugged Mobile Computing Improves Field Performance

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

By deploying convertible notebook computers, ArborMetrics Solutions automated its field operations and achieved payback in seven months.

Integrated Solutions, July/August 2009
Overgrown trees and shrubs are the scourge of utility companies. Heavy vegetation can prevent maintenance crews from accessing gas or electric lines, and stray tree limbs can interrupt service. The massive Northeast Blackout of 2003, in fact, was caused in part by overgrown trees coming in contact with high-voltage lines.

In order to keep their vegetation management programs running smoothly, utilities sometimes turn to outside contractors to help design effective programs and direct the work of arborists and other personnel. One such company is Hendersonville, NC-based ArborMetrics Solutions, a wholly owned subsidiary of Asplundh Tree Expert, which provides professional contract services to electric and gas utilities and municipalities for vegetation management. The company recently deployed new rugged mobile computers to help automate its field operations.

ArborMetrics relies on a widely dispersed staff of 65 field personnel (as many as 80 can be employed during the summer months) to not only help design and coordinate its customers' vegetation management programs, but to physically inspect utility lines and collect data that will help in the coordination of work planning and tree removal or trimming.

In the past, personnel had to work with the existing paper-based processes in place at each utility. Typically, utilities provided maps that had to be highlighted and marked, as well as multipart carbon forms, to obtain landowner permission for tree trimming. Employees relied on interoffice mail couriers to deliver field notes, call logs, and work plans. In order to look up landowner information or send an email, they had to travel back to the customer's offices to use a desktop computer. "With employees constantly on the move, relying on pen and paper for job schedules and updates proved to be inefficient and time-consuming," says Henry King, supervisor of business development and corporate planning at ArborMetrics.

Using technology to improve efficiency for its customers is part of ArborMetrics' value proposition. The company has developed its own proprietary vegetation management software application and initially tested rugged tablet computers with the hope of streamlining operations and reducing paperwork. "Managing people and making them more effective while using a limited number of resources is really our niche," King says. "Mobility is a big part of that."

While the tablet computers served their purpose, King says the field staff found they needed a notebook-style computer, which would make it easier for them to generate the necessary reports without having to use a separate docking station. ArborMetrics needed a rugged computer that could withstand extreme weather conditions, and because the company wanted to improve worker efficiency with real-time communications, the device would have to have embedded 3G wireless and GPS capabilities. The company also needed a way to share documents with their clients using collaboration software.

ArborMetrics selected Panasonic's Toughbook 19 rugged convertible notebook computer, which not only met the company's wireless needs, but also could be easily converted from tablet mode to a fully functioning laptop. The Toughbook computers are also rugged enough to withstand the diverse weather conditions in which ArborMetrics field workers have to operate. "We get the benefits of a tablet for data collection and signature capture, but we can go back to the office and use the device in laptop mode so that our employees can type reports, send emails, and complete their other tasks," King says.

After a successful pilot, the company began deploying the computers in waves by region, starting in the fall of 2007. Employees can now provide real-time information related to vegetation type, density, GPS location, access routes, and detailed work orders to clients. Remote workers have instant connectivity to online resources, email, and databases, which has increased employee productivity, improved reporting time, and helped the company keep its competitive edge. Using the built-in GPS system on the Toughbook notebooks, ArborMetrics' employees can also easily find the quickest routes between jobs. This saves time and fuel (by reducing wrong turns in remote areas) and allows the company to complete more jobs during the day.

ArborMetrics uses a proprietary, GIS (geographic information system)-based data collection and reporting application for its vegetation management activities, and the forms on the new Toughbook notebooks replicate the paper spreadsheets employees previously worked with using Microsoft Excel. The system achieved a return on investment in just seven months. "Far more valuable than the time saved, though, is the strategic advantage of a mobile and efficient workforce," King says. "A crucial challenge in operations is maximizing limited resources; technology allows us to better optimize these elements for success."