March 23, 2006
 

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Posted: 04.04

Small Deployment: Firing Up Mobility

Since British Columbia's Bartec Fire Safety Systems put Tablet PCs in the hands of its inspectors, business is rapidly heating up.
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By Barbara A. Laurencio




For more than 20 years, Bartec Fire Safety Systems, Burnaby, British Columbia, has been an expert in the fire safety industry, providing inspection service to local companies and the Canadian government.

The British Columbia provincial fire regulations require detailed reports be compiled and filed for all fire safety inspections, which are distributed to property managers and commercial building owners. As a result, the majority of Bartec’s workforce spends most of its time out of the office conducting fire code inspections. If inspectors find any safety deficiencies, they report them immediately and corrective action is taken.

Prior to 2003, Bartec’s 15 fire safety inspectors began work each morning with a visit to the head office to download information about that day’s inspections from the central database onto their laptops. Despite using laptops, paperwork was still a large component of the job, as all reports and documentation required handwritten signatures, which could not be captured electronically. Furthermore, the laptops were heavy and awkward to use on the job site and did not provide wireless access. After a day on the road, inspectors were required to go back to the office, upload test results and finalize their reports.

This inefficient approach resulted in a backlog of administrative duties and a significant amount of inspectors’ time wasted by traveling to and from the office—time that could have been better spent servicing customers. Bartec needed to find a way to send and retrieve real-time information to and from the central database, while ensuring the information was reflected accurately in the final reports. Yet the concept of real-time access to information seemed a distant dream.

The Right Solution
Robert Barrett, owner and operator of Bartec, looked at several competitive Tablet PCs to determine the best model to take center stage in his mobile solution. While laptop computers enabled teams with mobility, they were bulky, lacked wireless accessand were quickly becoming obsolete. Barrett knew that there had to be a better solution available that fit both his budget and his business.

The first priority was to choose the best possible Tablet PC, as the entire wireless solution would revolve around the hardware. When conducting research on the various tablet PCs on the market, Barrett was intrigued by the thought of a lightweight and mobile, yet fully functional PC—especially the pen and speech capabilities that his teams could use when managing their inspection schedules, taking notes during each job and capturing signatures. His research quickly led him to ViewSonic’s Tablet PC V1100.

“ViewSonic’s V1100 is much more robust than the competitive convertible models, which is imperative in our field. We needed a tablet that is built like a tank but compact and light without any moving pieces,” recalls Barrett.

Barrett also decided to combine the V1100s with Telus Mobility 1X phones and 1X data cables and to upgrade the field technicians’ cell phones to Audiovox 8300 phones with a Velocity Wireless data cable kit to turn them into modems.

Going Paperless
With ViewSonic and Telus on board, Bartec had the hardware and communications components it needed. Adjusting their software systems from paper to electronic proved to be the simplest part. In putting all the pieces together to seamlessly evolve the solution, Barrett determined that everything could be “printed” electronically and sent over the Internet as attachments. Because field inspectors were used to having paper to hand out and retrieve, Barrett converted the company’s tangible in and out bins to virtual in and out bins, allowing the process to remain the same.

With the exception of the expected training sessions necessary to change the way people do their work, little education was necessary. Bartec’s inspectors found writing on a tablet and sending documents over the Internet, as opposed to writing on paper and placing it in an “in basket” was the greatest hurdle. But after that critical readjustment in routine, there was almost no difficulty in the implementation of the V1100 Tablet PCs and the entire wireless solution.

“Transferring information from the office to field inspectors has been simplified,” explains Barrett. “Now, when we receive an emergency job order, we send our field inspector all the details electronically. After the job is completed, the technician sends us the completed work order with the customer’s signature. It’s just that easy."

A Healthy Return
The heart of the solution is the ViewSonic Tablet PC V1100. With its slate design, it is compact and lightweight at 3.4 pounds and its wireless capabilities provide the mobility that field inspectors need, while the digital ink technology allows them to write directly on the V1100’s screen with a stylus, meaning that all signatures can be captured on the reports at the time of inspection, completely eliminating multiple trips to and from the office. “This benefit alone paid for the V1100s in just one year,” notes Barrett.

The cost for each of the five V1100s was approximately U.S. $2,000 and the additional cost for the cellular phones was U.S. $75 per phone, making the total start-up cost under U.S. $2,100 per field inspector or U.S. $10,500 in total. The cell phone usage is a standard cost that the company would already incur, so the only additional ongoing cost was the data transmission, which costs about $65 per month.

Bartec’s charge-out rate is $55 per hour. Therefore, Barrett determined that he needed to save $2,880 per year ($2,100 + $65 X 12) or about 53 man-hours per Tablet PC ($2,880/$55). In other words, the company set out to save one man-hour per week for sufficient ROI. After a review at the end of the first three months, Barrett estimated that they were saving on average about 45 minutes per day per V1100. That is about $206 per week or $10,725 per year—3.7 times what Barrett had projected.

“Because we’re more mobile now, we can serve more customers easily and efficiently. I forecast a sharp increase in business for Bartec,” says Barrett. Additionally, the V1100 has become one of the company’s most effective sales tools, thanks to a considerable “wow” factor with new clients.

Field technicians are now able to transmit inspection reports and work orders directly from the job site back to Bartec’s database over the mobile Internet. “With the ability to receive inspection results from the field in real-time we have significantly reduced the turnaround time for our annual inspections from an average of two weeks to less than one working day,” says Barrett.

“In fact, we are saving one to two hours each day as a result of the reduction in paperwork, increasing efficiency and enhancing productivity. This really gives us a competitive advantage, as the industry standard is still three weeks or more. We are now able to bid on jobs we couldn’t even consider before.”

Moving Forward
Implementing the Tablet PCs has greatly impacted for the better all segments of Bartec’s business. The solution has enabled the company to expand into the Toronto market, which is estimated at 10 times the British Columbia market. Perhaps most notable is that employees feel they can get their jobs done better and faster and that they are on the leading edge of technology in their industry, all of which adds up to be an incredible motivator.

“Now that we have one year with the V1100s under our belt, we all feel that the devices have become an indispensable part of our operation. The savings go beyond the direct time saved by our technicians using the tablets—our office and administration system is more efficient; work orders and reports are being processed faster; and the time from the completion of a job to the time the invoice is sent has been reduced from an average of three to four days to within 24 hours,” explains Barrett.

“Our customers see a more efficient operation, which is a tremendous asset. Our technicians are better equipped with the information they require to do their work so their productivity is higher. From a financial perspective we can easily prove the direct savings and know there are countless other benefits beyond dollars,” concludes Barrett. “My management staff and technicians believe that the tablets have been the single most important change to our operation over the past 20 years"
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