Lighting the Way
Posted: 10.01.05 - By Kassandra Kania


For Electrical Safety Authority (ESA), the organization responsible for electrical safety inspections in Ontario, Canada, the third time was indeed the charm.

Prior to implementing FieldWorker, which went live in February 2005, ESA had two different mobile solutions for its 200 inspectors, who travel the province of Ontario inspecting electrical installations and recording their findings on laptops. The first solution, implemented in 1995, was an in-house Windows-based mobile inspection program called MEPS. In 2000, ESA migrated to SAP’s CRM mobile solution.

But as ESA’s IT director explains it, the system did not meet the company’s needs. “There were a number of issues,” says Mark Taylor. “We had data integrity problems, and synchronization was slow.” As a result, employee morale was low. In the time it took an inspector to synchronize his laptop at home in the morning, he could have a cup of coffee and eat breakfast, says Taylor. If he was lucky, the synchronization might be completed by the time he returned to his computer. When it came time to upgrade the system, Taylor decided it was also time for a complete overhaul.

After conducting extensive research, Taylor sent out RFPs to software vendors and received about 10 responses. Five of the vendors were invited to give two-day demonstrations of their products, after which the field was narrowed down to two companies. Both companies were given a list of
performance criteria and four weeks in which to develop a proof-of-concept solution. Project criteria included faster synchronization times, reduced search times and smaller file sizes. At the end of the four-week period, the contract was awarded to Toronto-based FieldWorker Products.

Craig Tyndall, business development manager for FieldWorker Products, describes FieldWorker as a rapid application development tool that connects any type of backend system, application or database for mobile deployments. “We can develop a solution in a quarter of the time of a custom-developed solution,” says Tyndall. Because ESA continued using SAP in its back office, it was imperative that the new software synchronize with the
existing SAP environment. FieldWorker teamed up with integration partner Illumiti to work on tying FieldWorker Enterprise with SAP.

FieldWorker runs on HP servers, explains Taylor, and sits on a Sybase database. iAnywhere provides the mobile link. Information is sent to Business Connector, the SAP middleware that connects FieldWorker to SAP, using a Java tool called Tomcat. The inspectors use Panasonic CF-51 semi-rugged and CF-29 fully rugged laptops with Sierra Wireless 555 cards running on Telus 1X or Sony Ericsson EDGE cards on Rogers GPRS. There is a split between the two networks to test which one is better, explains Taylor. With the new wireless element, inspectors can now synchronize throughout the day from their vans.

One of the greatest challenges, say both Taylor and Tyndall, was ensuring that the data conversion went smoothly. “The amount of data per user was high for a mobile workforce,” notes Tyndall. Taylor adds: “There was a huge volume of data that had to be converted in a short period of time, so there was a lot of night and weekend work.”

ESA adopted a train-the-trainer methodology with joint IT and functional trainers deployed geographically to convert existing data, configure laptops and conduct Q&A checks on the new devices. They were also responsible for training users on the new mobile application, synchronization procedure and business processes, as well as the new hardware. It was important for inspectors to quickly familiarize themselves with the new solution, says Taylor, as they were taken out of the field for a two-day training program. ESA also ran two pilots, in November and December 2004, and ironed out some of the software bugs that came up.

According to Tyndall, inspectors are ecstatic with the new solution. One of the reasons it was so successful, he says, is that inspectors were involved in the project from the beginning. “Not only did they have great ideas on how to lay out the forms and what worked and what didn’t work, but they were also able to sell the ideas back to the inspectors they worked with,” he says. The screen layout was redesigned to be more intuitive. Instead of toggling through multiple screens, the inspectors are now able to input data on one screen. The introduction of data entry macros has also helped to speed up input for new work orders. Custom reports, real-time queries and quick searches help save time and improve productivity.

Taylor is pleased with FieldWorker’s flexibility, which allowed ESA to develop its own applications. “We could pretty much do anything we wanted from a graphical user interface or configuration standpoint,” he explains. It was also important for ESA to be able to maintain the software. “It needed to be easily understood and something we could continue to modify ourselves,” Taylor adds.

The doubt factor was high for this project, admits Taylor, considering it was the third attempt at implementing a mobile software solution. But he is pleased with the outcome and says that all of his goals have been met. “What we needed to do was save 30 to 60 minutes per day on data input and synchronization,” he says. Data input time has been reduced from 30 minutes to 15 minutes a day. Search times have been reduced from 20 seconds to less than 10 seconds. Prior to FieldWorker, synchronizations were taking 20 minutes; now they are down to only two minutes. That translates into increased windshield time, says Taylor. “Inspectors can now make one to two extra calls a day.”•
Kassandra Kania is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.

 


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