Magazine Article | June 20, 2007

Rugged Mobile Computing, Printing Reduce Errors

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Replacing manual paper processes with mobile data capture and printing solutions helps a large dental service provider reduce parts ordering and receipt errors.

Integrated Solutions, July 2007

If you have a large mobile workforce that produces even a small amount of manual paperwork (e.g. handwritten receipts, invoices) per customer, it doesn't take long before an overwhelming amount of paperwork is generated at your headquarters. In addition to the physical space files take up, there is always the challenge of creating a management system for retrieving files. And, if that isn't enough, there's the reality that manual data capture leads to human error. Patterson Dental Supply, a division of Patterson Companies Inc., experienced all of these business challenges previously. Patterson Dental Supply is a $2.1 billion, value-added distributor (VAD) of dental products throughout North America. The company has a mobile workforce composed of more than 1,500 sales representatives and equipment/software specialists. Despite its size, Patterson Dental Supply relied on manual paper processes to deliver parts orders and customer service receipts. Field service technicians used triplicate forms to reduce duplication, but this still didn't address data entry inaccuracies and lost forms, which according to Angie Koester, field systems product support manager at Patterson Dental Supply, occurred approximately 10% of the time. "If a form was lost, there was no way to retrieve the lost information," says Koester. "Considering that our technicians visit approximately 25 customers per week, this adds up to a significant number rather quickly."

To improve field worker efficiency, Patterson Dental Supply looked into several mobile computing options. Based on its mobile field technicians' work environment, the VAD knew it needed a rugged mobile computing solution. "Field workers spend a considerable amount of time in their vehicles, which are prone to jarring, vibration, and temperature extremes," says Koester. "And, when workers aren't in their vehicles, they are exposed to additional computing challenges such as dust and liquids."

After evaluating several options, Patterson Dental Supply chose a rugged laptop from General Dynamics Itronix (GD-Itronix), a rugged mobile computing company the VAD had worked with previously on other projects. "We chose the GoBook III because it can survive drops, and it's even waterproof," says Koester.

Equally important to Patterson Dental Supply was its mobile printer selection. At GD-Itronix' suggestion, the VAD purchased rugged mobile printers from Extech Data Systems. "We selected the S3750THS Series printers, which are battery-operated, three-inch [media], thermal printers that communicate with the laptops via Bluetooth," says Koester. "The printer also can receive print commands via a built-in 802.11b radio that is protected by WPA [Wi-Fi protected access] security." The S3750THS is equipped with a flash-based CPU memory, which enables Patterson Dental Supply to add logos and bar codes to its receipts. The printers can be clipped to technicians' belts or carried in one hand, and include built-in sensors that alert users when the units are running low on paper.

Patterson Dental Supply currently uses more than 700 Extech printers to accompany its fleet of GoBook laptops. "We supply one receipt per customer, which includes the details of the equipment services, parts used, and the technician's time spent at their office," says Koester. Even though the VAD wasn't able to provide specific metrics, it did state that worker productivity has increased and virtually no information — billing or otherwise — is getting lost.