By Jim Hilton, Senior Director, Motorola Enterprise Mobility Solutions
Mobile work management solutions are increasingly being used by utilities organizations to extend back-office tools beyond the four walls and improve the productivity of field service professionals. Rugged mobile computing devices often referred to as Enterprise Digital Assistants (EDAs), can offer several key features that considerably improve the productivity of a field service workforce. We suggest and explain seven of these key features in this article.
Multi-functional EDAs with wireless connectivity, voice, data capture and GPS functionality provide pronounced benefits for companies where installation, maintenance and service restoration activities are carried out by field engineers who necessitate real-time access to information and communications tools while on the go. More importantly, the use of mobile computing solutions is quickly becoming a critical factor in solving some of the industry’s largest pain points, as smart grid initiatives gain more traction, government and industry compliance regulations become stricter, and accurate billing and quick service restoration remain paramount.
Mobile Broadband Connectivity
Modern field service workflows require real-time data and voice communication between headquarters and field operators, allowing for constant connectivity to the Internet and other enterprise systems. An EDA with mobile broadband connectivity can connect to the Internet and enterprise systems via local wireless hot spots and cellular networks. This provides an extra level of reliability because the device can switch from one connectivity option to another depending on network availability and performance.
GPS allows engineers to manipulate interactive maps and obtain extremely detailed information on the area in question. Alone, GPS functionality helps provide technicians with relevant map sections depending on where they are – helping them to navigate new areas so they can reduce transportation time and costs. GPS can also be integrated with other systems to provide transactional validation by location, bread crumbing, asset tracking, route optimization, geocoding or site localization. In addition, GPS provides an increased level of safety by providing location of field workers that often are working alone in remote and potentially hazardous substation locations.
Mobile Office Accessories
Mobile solutions help improve response times to customer inquiries and create higher levels of customer satisfaction. For example, accessories such as mobile payment modules and specialized keypads (such as QWERTY, AZERTY, or numeric) enable the most efficient interaction between user and device so service representatives can execute customers’ bill payments while visiting with a customer at their homes and businesses. Additionally, when work is completed on site, automatic alerts or data feeds can update the enterprise system so headquarters is aware of changes to a customer’s supply, demand or account information. In the case of outage restoration activity, the ability to capture customer signatures after restoration aids in the reporting of regulatory agency required SAIDI and CAIDI compliance data.
One important accessory for those visiting customers at their homes or place of business is thermal print functionality. While mobile printers can be many times smaller than their desktop counterparts, they provide the convenience of office systems — on the road.
Mobile computing technologies are designed to reduce paper-based processes by digitizing work orders, status updates and reports. But paper records, such as receipts to prove work completed often remains a necessity for some customers. Hardware such as thermal printers help field service professionals process invoices on site to reduce, instead of redistribute, paperwork. They produce clear, condensed, itemized receipts to document a service or product delivery so customers no longer have to wait for receipts by snail mail.
Data and Image Capture
Even the smartest devices for the field provide multiple logistical features including scanning and imaging technologies. Advances in mobile computing allow companies to select a single, multi-function mobile computing device to meet all their data capture needs, including any combination of 1D or 2D bar codes, direct part marks (DPM), RFID tags and image capture. Bar codes and RFID help field workers identify and categorize an asset (such as a meter), while a camera can be used to capture images and/or video of an observation. Data entry methods, such as clickable image control, can be used to identify problem areas, speeding up the process and providing uniformity to the inspections data. In addition, the ability to share information with centralized technical experts via video and still images while in the field helps workers immediately institute corrective actions for improved enterprise productivity and customer satisfaction.
By using a multi-functioning device, workers get more done using one computing solution, and moreover, capital as well as operational costs are reduced for greater overall return on investment.
Battery Life Always”on connectivity and continuous data entry throughout the day can quickly deplete battery power, requiring your employees to spot”charge the device or carry a spare.
It is critical to select a mobile computing device that provides adequate power for the duration of your employees’ shift. A quality solution will conserve battery power by reducing the need to process unnecessary broadcast traffic and operating in sleep (low-power) mode without missing data transmissions.
In a field environment, workers do not always have the use of their hands to bring up information on a mobile device or make a phone call to a team member or headquarters. Voice-activated commands drive efficiencies in challenging environments where workers wear heavy gloves or thick outerwear, making it difficult to manipulate full keypads. Current generation ruggedized devices incorporate voice-directed applications that provide an outdoor”readable screen and can be worn on a belt or jacket to keep workers’ hands free and their mind focused on navigating challenging conditions.
Companies in the utilities space are quickly adopting mobile technologies to help drive efficiencies in the generation, supply and delivery of essential services, such as electricity. To achieve a high return on investment from EDAs, it is most important to ensure the mobile tools you deploy are easy to use, versatile, durable, and can be customized to offer the features described above depending on the needs of your field service professionals. So, think strategically about mobility as a part of your overall IT infrastructure and always seek advice from mobile specialists. Their years of experience can help differentiate your mobile platform from one that “just works” to one that generates substantial and quantifiable benefits for your workers and your business.
Author: Jim Hilton is a member of Motorola’s Industry Solutions group, leading a team of seasoned professionals from strategic verticals with solutions around the world and across the enterprise and brings a unique perspective around the real-world use of technology in the industry for more than 30 years.