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Fixing Field Service - VSR Magazine

Long mired in paper, pens, and clipboards, field service organizations are fast gravitating towards technology for use at job sites and in the back office.

June 15, 2015 via VSR Magazine, By Julie Ritzer Ross - Long mired in paper, pens, and clipboards, field service organizations are fast gravitating towards technology for use at job sites and in the back office. In fact, more than 80 percent of participants in the recently conducted Technology Services Industry Association (TSIA) “State of Field Services” study said they are using mobile or other technology to improve the productivity and profitability of their field services operations. To help VARS identify the best opportunities in the market, VSR took a look at what end-users most want in field service solutions. Here’s what came out on top:

Internet of Things (IoT)

By 2020, 26 billion devices other than smartphones, tablets, and computers will be connected via the Internet of Things (IoT), according to Gartner, Inc. (www.gartner.com). In field service, this is a big deal because connecting equipment with technicians’ mobile devices and the back office is critical.

“Until most recently, field service has been a reactionary field —meaning something will break, then the technician responds by correcting the problem, then the machine will run smoothly for some time, then the cycle repeats,” says Hari Subramanian, founder and chief technology officer, ServiceMax (www.servicemax.com). “With IoT, field service will become proactive, such that technicians will be able to use the data emanating from the machines in order to stay ahead of the problem, before it even happens. Because technology will be able to alert technicians or problems or replacement needs preemptively, field service organizations will become more streamlined, eliminate unnecessary trips, and become revenue-machines for their companies. And this is only the beginning.”

ISVs are starting to roll out field service software solutions that incorporate IoT functionality. CoreSystems (www.coresystems.net) represents a case in point. Service providers that utilize the company’s cloud-based CoreSuite field service platform can include a QR code or other tracking mechanism on the equipment whose maintenance and repair they handle. When assistance is required, customers of these operations can request a service visit by scanning the QR code or its equivalent with a smartphone, in essence using the device as a “bridge” between the equipment and the service provider. In addition to faster scheduling than may be possible via telephone or a web page, the IoT-enabled interface gives service providers insight into the equipment’s maintenance history, and what the problem may be before they even arrive on site. The potential to complete any necessary work in a single visit is consequently higher, and there is also a savings of labor, fuel, and time.

“For many companies, field service is just part of the operation, but it is still a profit center,” notes Harry B. Lerner, CEO, Janam Technologies (www.janam.com). “The IoT can have a great impact on profitability, so any field service solution that brings it within reach will go over well in the market.”

Feature-rich Hardware

Over the past few years, field service organizations and companies that otherwise employ field service technicians have been transitioning from paper-based to automated methods of issuing work orders, tracking parts, capturing signatures, and recording information while on the job. The latter necessitates the deployment of mobile technology, and as mobile devices are increasingly being used for a multitude of purposes, demand for feature-rich hardware continues on an upswing.

Bruce Stubbs, director, industry marketing, Honeywell Scanning & Mobility (www.honeywellaidc.com), cites louder cries for mobile computers with WWAN radio, signature capture, GPS, and Bluetooth/NFC communications capabilities. With these capabilities in place, Stubbs explains, technicians can communicate with dispatch in real time for dynamic routing and to accept emergency or “hot” jobs. Such features allow for seamless printer interface in situations where paper copies of documentation are required, the use of mobile document imaging to electronically capture/ store vital paperwork, and for access to detailed task completion instructions “pushed out” to devices from the back office.

“All directed work tasks improve productivity,” Stubbs observes. At the same time, “directed routing using GPS for dynamic capabilities that monitor traffic and send optimal travel path information reduces fuel consumption and results in fewer miles traveled, thereby reducing required maintenance.”

He adds that future enhancements to mobile devices will include the incorporation of technology through which field service technicians will be able to view schematics, drawings, and the like on demand.

John Pomerleau, field mobility principal, Zebra Technologies (www.zebra.com), also points to heightened demand among field service players for mobile devices with a more comprehensive feature-set. “To improve productivity and invoicing speed, workers need to be able to capture any type of data in the shortest possible amount of time,” Pomerleau explains. This spurred Zebra to integrate 1-D and 2-D scanners into its TC-55 Touch Computer. Other features of the device include an 8MP camera, NFC capability, and SimulScan Document Capture (for capturing images, bar codes, text fields, and phone numbers in one pass). A 1-D/2-D ring-style Bluetooth scanner is optional.

Enterprise Capabilities, Fused with Consumer-Style Form Factor and Functionality

Despite the growing popularity of feature-rich mobile hardware, a majority of field service clients do not want to sacrifice benefits derived from consumer-grade products.

“For the most part, customers do want the mission-critical key features that enterprises need, such as ruggedness, sealing, integrated 2D barcode scanning technology, and the like,” Lerner says. “However, they would rather not send technicians into the field with devices that look like 10-pound bricks, and they favor the advantages offered by consumer-grade devices, such as more viewable screen space than can be enjoyed using traditional PDAs and hand-held computers.”

Janam’s XT1 lightweight ruggedized mobile tablet is the first of its products to support the Android operating system. It combines technologies found in consumer-grade smart smartphones, such as small size and generous screen real estate (in this case, provided by a 5.9-inch WVGA TFT capacitive touch screen) with enterprise-oriented perks, such as UMTS/HSDPA/HSUPA/GSM wireless WAN communications, 802.11a/b/g/n dual-band WLAN, IP54 sealing and the ability to withstand repeated three-foot drops to concrete.

Annette Manias, president of VAR Oasis Solutions Group (www.oasisky.com), notes that customers’ desire for consumer-style attributes and simplicity typically transcends hardware form factors, extending into the software end. Solutions that allow technicians to log in and out on a mobile device when they arrive at and depart from job sites—with the push of one button on the screen rather than by following a series of steps—are a priority for many Oasis end-users, Manias states.

Of equal importance to certain Oasis’ field service customers: The ability to limit information accessible by technicians in accordance with that particular job assignment and other factors. For example, one of the VAR’s clients dedicates different personnel to servicing different equipment. Accordingly, its management wanted each staff member to be able to view only data pertaining to the parts they utilize on their assigned equipment, rather than an entire company-wide parts list. The client also requested that upon logging into the field service management software, technicians be able to see only their own jobs rather than a list of jobs for multiple individuals headed onto the road.

A Complete Customer and Resource ‘Picture’

Field service management software that only allows technicians to enter service information is no longer sufficient; customers want solutions that provide technicians with extensive background and product information, which equips them to solve problems when arriving at the customer site the first time around, according to Subramanian. End-users prefer that warranty information, billing, customer histories, and part histories be easily accessible and stored in one place, allowing technicians to approach the job with all the information they need.

Organizations in the field service vertical are demonstrating comparably strong interest in field force management software that yields detailed insight into resources available, says Mike Pandl, vice president, marketing, MSI Data (www.msidata.com). This includes, but is not limited to, which field technicians with a particular skillset are available to handle individual jobs, who is within physical proximity to arrive at a site in a prescribed period of time, and whether a given vehicle is carrying the right parts to perform the service.

“The goal is, in part, to meet or exceed customer expectations, and that is impossible without this type of information in hand,” Pandl emphasizes. Both ServiceMax and MSI claim to offer solutions that meet all of the above requirements.

Easy Interface with Other Systems and Peripherals

In addition to the ability to transmit data from the field to the back office in real time, end-users are placing higher priority on the option to interface field service management solutions with accounting, enterprise resource planning (ERP), and other modules. “Customers know that the more information flows automatically from the field service management side to accounting, ERP, etc., the greater the accuracy and back-office efficiency because it eliminates the need to re-key invoice data, parts usage data,” Manias explains.

Mitec (www.mitec.com), a fire and property protection company that inspects, services, and repairs fire alarm, access control, monitoring, and video systems installed at commercial properties, is harnessing an interface between its field reporting solution and the web, notes Bryan Shaver, president and COO. The company’s field inspectors collect device-level inspection data using Janam handheld devices and BuildingReports (www.buildingreports.com) software from the company of the same name. Mitec customers can access reports online within minutes of the inspection. “From here, they can review all pertinent data, approve any necessary repairs online, and distribute reports to their fire marshal, insurance company, etc.,” Shaver states. The information-sharing facilitated by the interface has upped the customer satisfaction ante and benefitted the bottom line, the executive says.

Seamless interface with mobile printers has become an important consideration as well, observes Thad Szymanski, national sales manager, Seiko Instruments USA (www.seikoinstruments.com). VARs need to work with vendors to ensure complete compatibility between mobile printing technology and field force management solutions, and to ascertain that the format of all documents generated in the field matches the format in which the printer can print, Szymanski concludes. VSR