Magazine Article | September 1, 2002

Wireless Eliminates More Than 'Just The Fax'

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Are your field workers capturing data on paper or calling in? Consider yourself a candidate for mobile computing.

Integrated Solutions, September 2002

It's Monday - 7 a.m. Before the office lights are turned on, the fax machine is already hard at work spewing out pages of manually recorded data from your field employees. Before this myriad of meter readings, inventory levels, and price quotes can be input into your ERP (enterprise resource planning) system, someone has to decipher the handwritten data. By the time this step is completed and reports are generated, there is already a four-day lag from the time the information was received. Behind the scenes, field workers needed an extra day to complete their assignments because they didn't receive needed supplies in time. Sales reps had to place daily calls to customers assuring them their orders would be arriving soon. Some irate customers even received additional discounts because of the delays. If only there was a way to more quickly process field workers' data.

The aforementioned scenario is common at enterprises in many different vertical markets - especially those in the mid-tier (i.e. annual revenue less than $1 billion). More and more, however, enterprises are overcoming these business challenges by empowering field workers with mobile computing devices and enabling them to tie into the enterprise. While you search out the field solution that is right for your business, there are a few tips that will help you choose the best fit.

Choosing A Mobile Computing Device
The first decision enterprises must make before purchasing a mobile computing solution is the kind of devices field workers will use. Devices come in various sizes and have a wide range of functionality. However, these tools can be divided into four general categories: PDAs (personal digital assistants), H/PCs (handheld personal computers), tablets, and laptops. To determine which device is right for your enterprise, Bob Wright, product manager for Melard Technologies (Armonk, NY), a B2B mobile data systems provider, suggests considering how the devices will be used. "Will the devices be used primarily in or outside a vehicle, for data capture or data entry, to access data or graphics [e.g. diagrams, maps, schematics]?" he asks.

The answers to these questions will point you to the type of device you will need. For instance, if your field workers will mainly be using the devices in their vehicles to receive dispatch information or to view maps, then a vehicle-mounted laptop would be a good fit. On the other hand, if your field workers will be carrying the devices outside the vehicle and inputting data, a ruggedized PDA would be a better match. Perhaps your field workers don't fit neatly into either of these scenarios, but are somewhere in the middle. Perhaps they will use the devices in their vehicles sometimes and outside at other times. Additionally, they may need to input data and access diagrams. The hybrid H/PC or a tablet would be more appropriate for these situations. An H/PC, for instance, has a screen size that is half as large as a laptop yet twice the size of a PDA. Additionally, it may have a keyboard that is about 75% as large as a full keyboard, which can more easily accommodate data entry compared to a touch screen keypad or miniature keyboard on a PDA.

If your workers need to carry their devices around for most of the workday, and they need access to diagrams or schematics, a tablet computer may be the best choice. Tablets offer larger screens than H/PCs, they weigh about half as much as a laptop, and they use touch screen functions for data input.

Computing In Harsh Environments
After determining the right kind of device(s) for your mobile workers, you will have to determine how rugged of a device is required. For instance, if the devices are going to be used in vehicles that primarily drive on highways, the extra cost of ruggedization will not be justified.

But, if the devices will be exposed to potholes, vibration, dust, rain, cold, or be dropped, that's another story. "Some companies try to save money up front by deploying commercial-grade mobile devices," says Jeff Thomas, marketing communications manager for Itronix (Spokane, WA), a manufacturer of ruggedized, wireless-enabled notebook and handheld computers. "But, if they look at the big picture and think about total cost of ownership, they can see the value of ruggedization." Ruggedized devices are typically about twice as expensive as commercial-grade devices. But, in a harsh environment, a non-ruggedized device will break down and be out of commission far more often than its ruggedized counterpart. "When you consider how much it costs to fix or replace a commercial-grade device and the lost time and productivity of your field workers, buying ruggedized devices makes sense," says Thomas.

The Real Time Versus Batch Debate
Once the device issue is settled, the next issue that arises is connectivity. "Will your field workers need constant wireless connectivity to be able to access corporate data in real time, or is periodic or one-time batch processing right for you?" asks Dayakar Puskoor, CEO of JP Mobile (Dallas), a software developer that extends corporate data and data management to handhelds. "For instance, in the delivery business, companies such as FedEx and UPS use real-time wireless connectivity to upload package data so customers can track their shipments every step of the way from pickup to delivery," says Puskoor. "Because some packages are delivered in less than 24 hours, end-of-the-day batch data collection cannot provide the level of supply chain visibility that customers demand." On the other hand, field workers who use handheld devices to capture meter readings on gas wells can upload their data at the end of the workday and realize all the efficiency needed without ever having to wirelessly access an enterprise application.

If real-time access to data is necessary, enterprises will need multiple wireless carriers and multiple access channels from the field to headquarters. Multiple carriers will be necessary to maintain consistent wireless access to the enterprise because one carrier may have excellent coverage in a metropolitan area, but will have poor coverage outside the city limits.

Even with multiple carriers, however, enterprises cannot be assured of 24/7 connectivity. That is why Nelson Carbonell, president and CEO of Cysive, Inc. (Reston, VA), a provider of interaction servers, recommends enterprises provide mobile workers with multiple access points to the enterprise. "If a field worker is in an area with poor wireless coverage, he should be able to call in to headquarters and upload or access data via an automated call system," says Carbonell. "The call system can use voice technology similar to a call center, which enables the user to upload and access data without requiring live help from a customer service representative [CSR]. Additionally, if a customer places an order on the Web and has a question partway through the ordering process, he can call the company and complete his order without having to start the ordering process over again."

Plan For Divergence
A final point to consider, before investing in a mobile computing solution, is the future growth of the solution. Unlike some technologies that are converging, mobile computing solutions are diverging. Unless you know for sure that your field workers will all use the same devices, pay special attention to building your mobile solution around industry-accepted standards. Puskoor recommends building your mobile solution on a J2EE (Java 2 Enterprise Edition) platform. "J2EE is a standard that allows enterprise applications to communicate without the need for special programming," says Puskoor. "By using this standard, enterprises don't need to buy all their hardware from one vendor or use the same operating system throughout the enterprise."

By planning ahead, choosing the right devices, and building your solution on industry standards, you will enjoy a solution that provides a quicker payback and built-in flexibility to grow with your enterprise.