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Field Service

Beyond Brawn

When choosing a rugged device, there’s more to
consider than tough exteriors.

By Michelle Maisto

The military, the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) have thoughtfully done a good deal of the initial legwork for you, dropping devices, sloshing them in mud puddles, freezing and heating them, and then assigning letter and number designations indicating the amounts of wind, water, heat, cold, dust and general abuse each device can stand. And while the organizations’ regulations and standards for measurement vary, a look at their findings is certainly worthwhile.

Beyond all those laugh-at-the-elements exteriors, however, there are other factors to consider when choosing a rugged device. Will it easily mesh with the rest of your mobile solution? Does it have the connectivity options you require? What’s the support service like? Can features such as GPS be integrated later? Is a fully rugged device necessary, or will a less expensive semi-rugged device do the job just fine? To illuminate the process for you, we looked at a few real-world deployments and asked the decision-makers what their needs were, what devices they went with and—looking back with the clarity of experience—what advice they would offer someone in the choosing stages. Here’s what they had to say.

Customer: Tennant
- Panasonic Toughbook CF-18
- ServiceLINK field service application from Dexterra, with Afaria and iAnywhere
- Persystent Technologies Enterprise
- Sprint PCS network (in the U.S.)

To hear Tom Hayes describe the decision to include embedded modems in the Panasonic Toughbook CF-18s he chose to deploy to an international crew of 370 (and counting) mechanics and engineers, he could almost be describing the decision to go rugged itself. “It was really one of those things where you took the gulp and said, ‘Well, are we going to make an investment, or are we going to try and get away with the cheapest alternative?’ We went for the investment, and it was immediately obvious that we did the right thing.”

Hayes is the ServiceLink project manager for Tennant, a 135-year-old cleaning solutions company that began with street sweepers and scrubbers and has graduated to overall cleaning solutions. Tennant has 550 field technicians worldwide who repair equipment for customers—and not one of them was automated. The company’s processes were choked with paper and inefficiencies, and so it looked for a mobile solution that could enable its technicians to easily obtain dispatch orders, manage repairs, enter part orders, better handle project quotes and reduce customer reliance on call centers. It found all of that in ServiceLINK, a configured field service application from Dexterra that interfaces to Tennant’s SAP ERP system.

And because the solution would be in the hands of engineers and mechanics, says Hayes, he wanted to deploy it on a device that they could think of as a tool. “They do not come back to the office—they work out of their homes and their trucks—so it had to be something portable that was reliable and able to survive the environments and temperature extremes that they would be subject to.” A screen that could be viewed in bright sunlight was also a must, and because the devices would be mounted in vehicles, they needed to be tough enough to endure endless bumpy rides. And the requirements piled higher still.

“We used to give our representatives information on microfiche and paper ... so we wanted to give them a platform that was suitable to give them drawings electronically, as well as a system that could grow with whatever we wanted in the future, because we anticipate these will be out there for several years,” explains Hayes. “We went through a series of [demonstrations] and then field trials to find a device that was not only going to be good and high-quality in the short term but that from a hardware perspective was going to meet our needs, so that our total cost of ownership over time would justify the extra expense of the upfront cost for a hardened device.”

Worldwide tech support and a partner organization that was “going to be in the business for a while and that really understood the mobile environment and had a good service organization,” were also necessities. In the end, impressed with Panasonic’s understanding of its rugged niche, Tennant went with the Toughbook CF-18. But the solution still wasn’t complete.

“There’s less than a 5 percent failure rate on these hardware devices,” says Hayes. “So we didn’t want them coming back from the field unless it was a hardware problem. So our challenge was, what can we do to make this software as reliable as the hardware?” Tennant installed Persystent Technologies’ Enterprise software on every device, which performs instant repairs, patching and disaster recovery in the boot-up cycle. “Essentially,” Hayes explains, “every time you reboot the machine you have a fresh copy of the operating system.”

Hayes couldn’t be more enthusiastic about the deployment and the automation it has enabled. “It’s been just excellent,” he says. “We started our pilot in January 2005, and we began the rollout to our U.S. reps in September, in a phased approach over a 10-week period, because we have over 370 of them. … We deployed into the U.K. this week and will be deploying to Canada and the rest of Europe later this year, and then beyond that sometime in 2007.

“The [solution] allows us to automate the process of service orders, preparing orders and parts orders,” Hayes continues. “We were a totally manual system, and the reps would fill out paper and send it in to service centers, and people were entering the data and then resolving the issues. [Since deploying] we’ve significantly reduced our time to bill from seven to 10 days to one or two days. And our goal was to have 75 percent of our repair orders automated and 80 percent of the parts orders automated. We started at zero, and we’re up to 85 percent for both of them now.” Even beyond being able to handle more customers, the greatest benefit, Hayes explains, is the ability to offer a higher level of service. “It’s being able to handle more capabilities and more services for our customers, with the same amount of resources and with better accuracy. It’s about quality.”

Customer: Louis County, Wash.
- Ironix GoBook VR-1
- Spillman Technologies software
- Cingular EDGE network

“We had to answer the need of putting laptops into law enforcement vehicles, and we knew we wanted to do a county-wide deployment,” says Patti Prouty, director of central services for Lewis County, Wash. Prouty also had a mix of needs to take into account when it came to selecting a device. “They had to be taken in and out of the car, for detectives. They had to be under extreme conditions for people who do thing like canine units—we had dogs slobbering all over the equipment. And then we have the regular law enforcement officer, who would put a computer into a vehicle and use it for his shift,” she says.

“The very first thing I did was a series of ride-alongs with each type of officer. A day shift, a night shift, the different types of law enforcement, to get a feel for what they needed. … The [biggest] difference between day shift and night shift needs were screen brightness changes, because if you’re on a stakeout, you don’t want to give away your position. GPS devices were also really important to us, as something we could integrate into our dispatch system. … And it had to be ruggedized, but not so ruggedized. It needed to able to withstand normal temperature changes in the county, be able to go back and forth from an office setting to the vehicle, and to take the normal wear and tear of an 8- or 10-hour shift, which includes a lot of typing, so we wanted a durable keyboard, where the keys didn’t fall off or the paint didn’t rub off the letters. Those were all things we considered, above and beyond normal memory and hard drive space and things like that,” explains Prouty.

“We considered Gateway, Compaq, Dell, Panasonic, etc.,” says Prouty. “I had a list of absolutely have-to-haves and a list of nice-to-haves, and Itronix is the only one that integrated everything that we wanted, even on our wish list, at a price that we could afford.” Lewis County began its deployment in October 2005, and today 127 officers—the entire county—have Itronix GoBook VR-1 semi-rugged notebooks.

“Overall, the benefits of these devices are just incredible,” says Prouty. “Before we were all radio based. The officers had nothing in their cars. They couldn’t run a check on people, they couldn’t write reports, they had no idea where the other members of their crew were, other than calling them on the radio and trying to figure that out. They had no way of knowing where an address was, other than asking dispatch. All of that is at their fingertips now. They never have to go back to the office. [The police car] is a mobile office for them.”

Semi-rugged also proved to be the right decision. “My officers, unlike my building inspectors or appraisers, didn’t have a need to cover every port. If they have to take it out in extreme weather conditions, the worst things they would probably face are rain and wind, and the semi-rugged can withstand that. ... To me it’s fine, and my officers love it.”

Prouty estimates that each officer saves two hours per day with the new solution (a task like a DUI previously took three hours of office paperwork —whereas now an officer can complete the work in his car and email it in). “We’ve saved so much time and money, that every single police department has been able to hire at least one additional officer,” says Prouty.

Not only has the success of the deployment inspired Prouty to expand its uses (“We’re using EDGE/GPRS technology, and I’m incorporating a barcode evidence system into our mobile units, so that law enforcement can do evidence management right there at the crime scene,” she says) but she has been asked to expand it to other agencies. “We’re moving toward encompassing fire, ambulance and hospital services together into this project to create one county-wide emergency management infrastructure, if you will.”

Prouty’s advice to new deployers: “Don’t go out and buy equipment because you think you know the business. The best thing I did on this entire project was riding with the officers to understand their needs. And the needs in my county could be different than the needs in other counties, probably based on size and weather and location, etc. The best way to really know what your people need is to get your hands dirty and really work with the people who will be getting the equipment, so that you can run through all of the scenarios. “The other is ... I have one tech-support person for the entire county that deals with all of this, and I would recommend standardization. Don’t go off and buy eight different kinds of ruggedized equipment. Keeping it all together in one standardized base has been really helpful for me. And talk about TCO and ROI—it’s made it really efficient for me to have one person to support the whole county because we went with one brand.”

Customer: Tube Lines
- Symbol PPT8800
- Syclo SMART Suite
- Orange GPRS network

When the London Underground began a massive overhaul and modernization of its tube system, Tubes Lines, a maintenance company that works with the Underground, went looking for a solution that could help it improve its maintenance processes and enable its engineers to work more efficiently. “It was quickly ascertained that we needed a device that could withstand oil, water and impact, and that was easy to use and easy to carry,” says Martyn Capes, Tube Lines’ technical assets systems manager. Tube Lines consulted with its users and union, and then it invited several vendors—iPAQ, Compaq, Symbol, Casio and Husky among them—down to its train depot. “We dwindled it down to three devices—the Casio, the Symbol and the iPAQ,” says Capes, “and then we put it through a real-life scenario. We did a drop test. We dropped it from approximately 15 feet, if not higher. The Casio fell to bits, the iPAQ fell to bits, and the Symbol bounced. We chose Symbol for a number of reasons, though—one of which is that it’s so ruggedized, and the second is we felt the technical support was outstanding. They came out to the depots, they helped us work through the EMC safety case, they were there all the time, every time we wanted to go train a user, work with a user, demonstrate the device and see what it could do. We also felt that the Symbol had the longest battery life. And the qwerty keyboard is a much easier to use keyboard.”

Capes also liked that if the battery ran out the memory wasn’t lost. Shifts are 12 hours long, says Capes, “and I wanted to be able to change out the battery without losing the application or having to reset it. … I also wanted a wireless device, an Ethernet device and a Bluetooth device, and the 8800 did all three. That was one of the other big points—that the 8800 series gave me everything.”

The rugged Symbol handhelds were paired with Syclo’s SMART Suite of field service applications, which enables technicians to access information and offers managers a complete view of asset performance. Work orders are now updated in real time, says Capes, “whereas before, it could be days and days. It’s about improving our process. We had the opportunity to engineer it from the bottom up, rather than the top down, and by reengineering the process we were able to take, in some instances, 11 manual steps out of it. So for example, to prep a train before would take 13 steps. Today, there are only two tasks involved. So we’ve reduced considerably the amount of time we’re handling paperwork.”

Capes pauses, then adds: “It’s not just about the work orders, though, it’s about the quality and the process. We run a safe, critical business here, and the ability to capture data quickly and analyze data quickly—the device has given us that.” The deployment is now in its second year, and approximately 230 PPT8800s are now shared amongst 800 users. When asked what advice he would give someone beginning a deployment, he responds, “It’s about choosing the right device. … We wanted a ruggedized solution where we could have a mobile work bank on it, we could have it for inventory issues, we could have GIS applications, and we wanted to have the security of tying it down.” Illustrating how far the company’s come, Capes quips, “These guys—previously they had a belt to hold their trousers up. Today they have one tool that fits all.”

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