March 23, 2006



February 01, 2006


Company X is a package delivery company. To remain competitive, it not only needs to ensure accurate, on-time deliveries but also provide its customers with real-time information about delivery status.
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Company X is a package delivery company. To remain competitive, it not only needs to ensure accurate, on-time deliveries but also provide its customers with real-time information about delivery status. So Company X began working with Vendor Y to provide its drivers with wireless voice and data communication between trucks and the back office.

Then there’s the case of Company A, a large manufacturer of heavy equipment. It had been using wireless notebooks for years and was happy with the increase in productivity, but the notebooks just couldn’t withstand the rigors of the day. Company A turned to Vendor B, a manufacturer of mobile computers so tough they can brave the harshest work environments, meaning less downtime for the computer and techs and increased ROI.

These are true scenarios, pared down to make a simple point: Companies do not invest in technology for its own sake. Technology has been adopted by the enterprise to fulfill real business needs. When we talk about mobilizing applications in the field or about putting data in the hands of field workers, we’re talking about mission-critical tools—tools that are as necessary for field service personnel as gasoline in their trucks.
Even when the economy slumped and enterprises slashed spending (making “technology investment” a dirty phrase) the field force automation market consolidated and then actually grew, in part because integrating technology into fieldwork has been going on for years and the benefits are well established. Many enterprises have been using mobile and wireless tools in the field for years now, so let’s look specifically at what trends are shaping the changing face of field service.

Ease of Info
Rich Sherman, director of product marketing at Intermec, sees the amount of information one can get and store in the field to be a major development. “How much you can store in your hand is a big concern,” he says. “Customers really want handhelds with 1 GB of storage.” Besides the various uses of more data in your hand, Sherman believes bigger drives in the field will reduce downtime when and if networks hiccup. 

Deployment and integration are also major sticking points when it comes to investing in new systems. Intermec is currently working to ease that pain point with its SmartSystem, a suite of tools that works to simplify deployment, integration and management issues. SmartSystem promises easier device deployment and management with an easy one-view console. The system automatically configures equipment, downloads security patches and performs routine maintenance. Deployment should be so easy that when a customer purchases a new device, he or she simply turns it on, and it connects and configures itself.
Initial device setup and configuration, software maintenance, device management and software version control have been available since September 2005. Future versions of SmartSystem technology will monitor network traffic, VoIP and telecom querying. SmartSystem also hopes to ease backend integration with developer toolkits and time-saving wizards.

The Diversity of Devices
As field service tools arrive in different areas of the market, devices need to be more specifically tailored to the tasks they’ll be used for and the environments they’ll be used in. One area that’s seeing this change is the rugged device market, which has come into question over the last year. Sure, there are instances when tools have to be run-over-by-an-ambulance tough, but there are other situations when something less than mil-spec will do. That, at least, is what Fujitsu was going for when it introduced the FTP 628WSL110 2-inch thermal printer.

“We saw a niche between commercial mobile printers and heavy-duty mobile printers,” says Jim Harrison, product manager at Fujitsu. “We saw a need that we believed we could satisfy with a medium-duty product. We call it a semi-rugged product.” (Semi-rugged meaning it’s drop resistant to 1.5 meters and it’s water resistant, or spill-proof.) Fujitsu has been involved in thermal printer mechanisms for 20 years, but this is its first stand-alone product and officially its first product targeting the field service market. Harrison says Intermec has been focusing on target applications such as delivery, service techs, healthcare, hospitality and point-of-sale. “We’re not the first guy in the market on mobile printers, obviously,” says Harrison, “so we’re trying to offer something different and hit a size point and a price point that is attractive.”

Symbol, traditionally a manufacturer of hard-knock handhelds for the service market, has also been exploring the idea of medium-duty tools. Last year Symbol launched the MC50 EDA, or enterprise digital assistant, as its in-between offering. Chuck Dourlet, VP of product marketing for Symbol’s mobile computing division, sees the MC50 as a continuation of the field service market’s form-factor-driven trend. “EDAs target different hands within the same customer markets we’ve always served,” he says. Symbol really believes that mobile business is the wave of the future and wants to have products ready to meet the various requirements of the mobile enterprise. Configuration options are key for the different needs of the field service set. Dourlet understands this and says that Symbol’s decisions for future products “are not technology-driven but customer- and application-driven.” 

These lighter-duty products aren’t meant to imply that the market has less of a need for tough-as-nails products. Dourlet understands that “ROI is not about the cost of hardware. ROI comes down to having a driver not be able to be productive. These tools are mission-critical, and if a driver can’t do his job without this tool and it keeps breaking down, that becomes expensive.” Intermec’s Sherman surely agrees with this statement, explaining, “There’s a threshold of pain that an enterprise is willing to put up with before there’s too much disruption if the products aren’t durable enough. The consumer market makes some great products, but guys in the field need mission-critical tools.” In line with this, Symbol has followed the success of the MC50 with the recently released MC70, a more rugged version, but with the same performance and perks (data capture options, flexible voice and data communications capabilities, as well as various wireless options) as the MC50.

Itronix also understands the future of mobile computers as need-driven. With even more data accessible in the field and more variable applications, workers will also want to conduct business in more places. Matt Gerber, senior VP of product line management at Itronix, believes “this will result in more devices working together in different environments based on the workers’ needs.” The way Gerber explains his vision, one worker may need a laptop sometimes, possibly a tablet at others and even a handheld in some cases. “But the same functionality will be required. So we would expect to see that individuals will have more than one device, and that multiple, varied devices will work together seamlessly as a system tailored to support individual needs in any situation and environment.” Which seems antithetical to the one-device movement, but as we begin to understand the ways workers’ needs change and how rapidly they change, the idea of multiple, interchangeable devices becomes an interesting model. Gerber admits, though, “We’re two to three years away before the technology matures enough to allow devices to work together and share data that seamlessly.”

Connecting with Technology
Data sharing is another pivotal advance of the mobile enterprise market. Mike McMahon, director of workforce automation at Panasonic Computer Solutions Company, sees wireless connectivity as the most important development in mobile tools. “Mobile workers have always been on the forefront of automating paper-driven processes,” he says. “The greatest shift over the past few years has been the adoption of wireless technologies, allowing workers in the field to expand beyond data collection to real-time data access. This trend will only continue as wireless technologies continue to evolve.” Real-time information access is a major shift in business processes, industry experts agree. This is a two-way advancement; the benefits of data access to field workers is a continuation of the benefits originally proven from automating field processes, but giving the back office access to up-to-the-minute field data is a fairly new model and an important factor in the ways technology is shaping how we do business.

Paul Manson, GIS market development manager with Trimble, agrees that one of the most major developments will be the movement toward real-time data access. “Over the next few years, the proportion of field workers that is ‘always connected’ to the enterprise will increase dramatically with the assistance of high-bandwidth wireless communications. And the proportion of field systems incorporating technologies like GPS (for routing and asset relocation) and RFID (for database lookup) will increase.”

Part of This Complete Solution
From major improvements in device reliability, expandability, integration and management to the evolution of wireless technologies, the tools that field forces rely on continue to improve, effectively changing the way business is conducted. “We’ve come a long way in terms of real-time connectivity,” says Kevin Burden, program manager for mobile devices at research firm IDC. “Companies may invest for the effect, but we still don’t know the ramifications of how mobility will affect the way we work.”

Burden makes the analogy to the early days of the PC, when people were excited by the prospect of this new technology but few predicted the extent to which it would dramatically shift the face of business. “Once you start mobilizing one data set, then other sides of the organization need to follow suit. Over the next two or three years there will be a ripple effect and no one knows how it’ll change [the way we] work. Right now the mobile space is all about specifics—applications, worker types. But we don’t know what else it’s going to reach out to.”

Teresa Von Fuchs is the former staff editor of Mobile Enterprise magazine.

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