Magazine Article | June 22, 2006

Tablet PCs Take To The Field

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Slate form factors, coupled with advancements in wireless technologies, make tablet computers a viable option for field service workers.

Integrated Solutions, July 2006

In the September 2005 issue of Integrated Solutions, we featured an article (Healthcare Data Collection Prescription: Tablet PCs) that discussed how well tablet PCs worked for data collection applications in the healthcare industry. “Healthcare was early to adopt tablets because the users in the industry rely almost entirely on forms-based applications and need to do a lot of reference and lookup, all in a client-facing, walking- and standing-intensive setting,” says Paul Moore, senior director of mobile product marketing for Fujitsu Computer Systems. “The main benefit of tablet PCs is that they replicate the look and feel of paper forms, often at the same size as the original forms.” Tablet PCs are not just a fit for healthcare, though. The devices are finding their way into numerous field service applications as well.

Field service workers, from service techs to building inspectors, access and input data at the point of work. The workers are standing, crouching, and walking around when they do their jobs; they record the work done at the same time, often on  paper forms. Then, workers either key the information into a database via a laptop in their service vehicle or base office, or send the paper forms to regional offices to be input by data entry clerks. Either way, the data that eventually ends up in companies’ back end systems — the data that is used to collect money for services rendered — is secondary and susceptible to inaccuracies. Also, the duplicate order entry wastes time. Tablet PCs can be used in the field to solve these problems.

Tablet PCs, which can range in size from 16 inches (length-wise) to 8 inches and weigh 3 to 5 pounds, replace the clipboards and bulky binders of schematics and parts lists technicians commonly carry. Tablets are as mobile as smaller devices such as PDAs and rugged handhelds, but have larger screens. “Workers whose jobs require them to perform complex computing on their feet can benefit from tablet PCs,” says Matt Gerber, senior VP of sales and marketing for Itronix. “In field service, many job functions require a specific OS or more screen size and computing power than a handheld can offer.” Handhelds are appropriate for some applications, though. For a worker delivering beer who needs to simply check boxes on a screen verifying a delivery, a handheld works great. But if an insurance adjuster is conducting an estimate on a vehicle and needs to access databases and graphics, a tablet is a better choice.

Tablets, being actual PCs, have much more processing power and storage capabilities than handhelds. Also, Microsoft released a tablet version of Windows XP OS, so companies that have standardized on Microsoft Windows can easily extend applications to tablets in the field. Notebook computers also are PCs with these features, but notebooks aren’t as mobile as tablets — a worker can’t walk around and type at the same time, and in field service situations, there isn’t often a place to set a notebook down to type. This doesn’t mean notebooks don’t have their place in field service. On the contrary, many companies use them. You have to consider the working environment and the feasibility of typing. The touch screen and pen input functions of tablets create a more natural feeling of data input for field workers who are used to paper. “The tablet can be carried in one hand, and the worker can check off boxes, access pull-down menus, and even handwrite annotations to work orders while standing or walking,” says Debbie Crosek, director of product marketing for Motion Computing. “For example, on  a service call, a refrigerator repairman has to visually check what needs to be done and then input that information. He might also need to access back end databases to view parts lists. He can take his tablet on the call with him and do all of this while standing right in front of the refrigerator, and he can send the completed order back to his home office right away.”

Sometimes, workers are reluctant to use tablets because of the absence of a keyboard. You should be able to overcome this with training and a trial period for workers to become adjusted to using the tablet. Give them a tablet with just an OS to “play with” so they can become familiar with the pen-based input. Keep your traditional method of collecting data in the field during this time, and spend the trial period integrating the mobile solution at the back end. Then, when you’re ready to deploy, your workers already have the tablets and are prepared to use them.

Tablets aren’t completely without letter-based (like a keyboard) input, either. “The Tablet OS includes a virtual keyboard as well as handwriting recognition, where the handwriting is converted to data in the back end,” says Patrick Gray, director of product marketing for Xplore Technologies. “Some application vendors have created a form that, as users enter information via handwriting recognition, automatically converts the writing to text and allows the user to correct and verify the form before sending it.”

The pivotal piece of field service automation applications is a wireless connection. Without it, mobile workers can’t send and receive information in the field in real time or near-real time, and real time is becoming a necessity in the field service industry. Tablets offer wireless connectivity so your field force can work in real time, and your company can reap the benefits of instant billing, opportunities for more work, and a possible reduction in data entry headcount.

Almost all tablets are equipped with WLAN (wireless LAN) — or Wi-Fi — radios. These networks are becoming more prevalent at businesses across the country; techs in the field also will be able to access the burgeoning citywide Wi-Fi networks. Having only Wi-Fi capabilities won’t enable real-time communication, but the tablet can be programmed to update (that is, communicate with the back end or Web-based server) every time the radio picks up a signal. Unless the technician is in a very rural area, this could happen several times a day.

To achieve real-time communication, the tablet needs to have a WWAN (wireless WAN) radio. Some tablets have a WWAN card integrated within the tablet that can access a range of data networks, from EV-DO (evolution data only) to UMTS (universal mobile telecommunications system) to CDMA (code division multiple access) — all of which are high-speed data networks offered by the major wireless carriers. If the WWAN card is not integrated (which is more common, since integrated WWAN cards are fairly new), workers can access the high-speed data networks via external WWAN modems that fit in the tablets’ PC slots. However, an external card is just that — external — so it can be damaged in the environments of some field service work. Again, you have to consider the environment your workers are in when you consider tablets.