Wireless Technology in Today's Field Service Industry

(Originally published in the May/June 2002 issue of AFSMI's Sbusiness.)

By Judy Johnson

Wireless technology offers field service companies the opportunity to improve customer service, reduce operational expense, and create new revenue opportunities - all in less than six months.

A bold statement? Perhaps, because the field service industry has had far too many multi-year, high-dollar custom software projects.

But a solution is not just on the way; it's here and available today to field service companies looking to innovate for business advantage. New wireless and software technology, and a new approach to field service automation projects, can deliver big business returns to the savvy company.

Honeywell ACS
Honeywell Automation & Control Solutions (ACS) Service division is proof that it can be done. Honeywell has deployed what may be the most successful wireless project in the history of the field service industry.

  • 1,400 field service technicians in 150 offices in the U.S. and Canada were deployed on a new wireless system in a five month period;
  • Over 1,000,000 pieces of paper were eliminated from the field, a reduction of over 93%;
  • The billing cycle has been reduced from weeks to days;
  • Administrative steps in end-of-week reporting have been reduced from 17 to three.
How did Honeywell do it? With a new approach to field service automation, one that emphasizes smaller projects with rapid payback using standardized software and wireless technology.

"We didn't try to solve world hunger with our first project," said Santosh Patel, director of service operations for North America at Honeywell ACS, speaking recently at the Gartner Group's Wireless Access, Mobile Business Solutions executive conference. "We had a set of clear business objectives, and that's what we implemented."

Honeywell operates by the "Six Sigma Plus" methodology that emphasizes defined, repeatable business process and business metrics. That process approach helps Honeywell ACS's technicians deliver the same high quality of mechanical service and maintenance to 20,000 customers. The software the company selected for its wireless project, FX MobileĀ® from FieldCentrix, has a richly functional workflow design that embeds business processes in the software running on handheld devices. The "field-centric" approach of the mobile computer software was specifically designed to support and direct the workflow of Honeywell field engineers.

Honeywell ACS also took a pragmatic approach to its Field Automation Service Technology (FAST) initiative. Santosh said the company stuck to the "80/20 rule", using off-the-shelf software for the mobile system that did 80% of what was wanted at a fraction the cost of custom software, and in a much shorter time frame.

According to Santosh, a cross-section of opinion leaders from Honeywell's field force spent approximately four months initially defining system requirements and one month evaluating software. The principal focus used by the team to assess the new technology was "Is it real? Does it have some sort of track record, and does it support our key requirements?"

A Day in the Life
FieldCentrix is a technology-based software company that has been delivering wireless and Internet Field Service Automation (FSA) projects since 1998. While the projects are personalized for each field service company, they all work the same at a high level:

  1. A work order is entered on a dispatch board by the dispatcher. It is then sent wirelessly to the handheld device of the field engineer. Depending on the sophistication of the system, the software may automatically re-send the software if the technician is not initially in wireless coverage.
  2. The field technician receives the work order on the handheld device or PDA, with the information sent by the dispatcher and related information from a central database.
  3. The technician completes the service or maintenance work. Depending on the completeness of the mobile software, and the "horsepower" of the handheld device or PDA, the software may provide equipment history and other reference information on the handheld device and it may provide job steps for the technician to follow. Depending on the software and the device, the customer may sign the computer screen at the completion of the work.
  4. The completed work order, with a digital copy of the signature, is wirelessly transmitted back to the dispatcher; a central database is updated.
  5. During the workday, the field technician updates his status. This information is sent, automatically or through a "Send" operation depending on the automation of the software, back to the dispatcher throughout the day.
  6. Depending on the software, the technician may complete his time reporting on the handheld device or PDA.
Myths about Wireless FSA Implementations

If my field technician is out of the wireless reception areas, he can't do his work. This is one of the most common myths. Software that is designed to run on an operating system on the handheld device or PDA, a technology known as "thick client", allows the technician to continue accessing information stored on his device and to continuing recording his work activities. The data is transmitted when the technician is back in coverage. Systems using a "thin client", such as WAP phones, are far more limited in their value when out of coverage.

My service business processes are so different from anybody else's; I can't possibly use standardized software. This is another common myth. Most of the largest companies in the world, including Honeywell with their field service system, and IBM with its large SAP software deployment, have found that flexibility in evaluating your business processes can bring big benefits. Often an outside consultant can help by sharing experiences from other companies in your industry, bringing in new best practices that can strengthen your organization.

Custom software is the best way to meet my business needs. This view starting going out of favor in the early '90s, with the growth of ERP and CRM software, but there are still pockets of people who voice this opinion. It tends to disregard the high and ongoing financial costs of custom software, and what that means to business competitiveness. With custom software, you are forever saddled with the costs of maintenance, enhancement, documentation and training, plus the pain of experiencing your own technology mistakes. You are paying for all the R&D of custom software, not getting the cost spread among many users. Modern software often has "personalization" capabilities that can provide modification of the software, especially screen labels and colors, to reflect your company's style while you still pay standardized software prices.

A single software vendor is the best way to go. A recent myth, promoted by large consulting companies and mega-software vendors, is that the only solution is a single vendor providing "end to end" software. As Brian Jones, field service analyst for The Yankee Group, states, "The customer may want a Fiat, but the big consultants and software companies want to sell them a Jaguar." These solutions are usually more expensive than specialty software, and the user often loses the benefit of best-in-class software from companies that focus on a highly functional offering for a specialized market.

Incremental Value Approach
The Honeywell approach is a textbook example of the best way to deploy a wireless field automation system, according to John Sievila, Vice President of Braun Consulting. Braun is one of the few large consulting firms with a field service specialty practice.

"The incremental value approach identifies a strategic set of business objectives for the field service organization, then transforms those objectives into a series of projects, each three to six months in length. Each step delivers business value on its own, with measurable return on investment."

"There is no reason," says Sievila, "that any field service company cannot deploy a wireless field service automation project on time, on scope and on budget, if they use a focused approach of incremental value."

Return on Investment from a Wireless Project
What business benefits can be realized from using an incremental value approach? Customer experience is the best guide.

FieldCentrix has provided the software for more than 40 wireless field service projects since 1998, in industries including HVAC, electrical, boilers, chillers, property management, materials handling, and utilities. Projects have included integrating FieldCentrix wireless software with an installed dispatch system, FieldCentrix dispatch and mobile software standalone, and integrations to back-office systems including Clarify, J.D. Edwards, Great Plains, and Maxwell Systems.

These diverse customers have realized business benefits in many areas, depending on their business priorities. Among the benefits have been:

Improved customer service - Dispatchers are able to tell customers instantly the status of open work orders, including time arrived on the job and completed actions. This was previously a callback situation. A technician has access to the complete service and maintenance history of the equipment from his handheld device, using wireless communications. Documentation of the entire service or maintenance action is typed and detailed, and can be immediately faxed or emailed to the customer at the end of the service call.

Improved dispatcher productivity - The amount of time the dispatcher spends communicating with the technician can be reduced threefold or more because of the mobile system. Eventually, a company may double the ratio of technicians supported by a single dispatcher, while the dispatcher role may be redefined to focus on proactive customer communications as the reactive work decreases.

Improved back-office productivity - FieldCentrix customers have seen the time/cost required to prepare maintenance kits for technicians reduce by two to four times due to the ready access to information in a central database and the ability to auto-dispatch PM work orders to the handheld devices of the technicians. Payroll processing has improved because the handheld automatically time-stamps the technician hours on a work order and can assign the time to the proper payment classification.

Streamlining of field engineer activities - Payroll processing occurs automatically during the workflow of each service action, eliminating the need to fill out a week's time sheet at week's end. With a handheld computer and a software system that provides workflow for the technician, paperwork in the field can be reduced to only 10% to 20% of the previous level. This improves efficiency throughout the entire field service organization.

Faster invoicing - The technology of a wireless system allows bills to actually be sent the same day the service is performed. Practically speaking, most companies are sending bills the same week, which is often a two- to three-week improvement over their previous systems.

Additional service revenue - While in the field, engineers often find additional service work that needs to be performed for an additional fee. With a mobile system, those service requests can be instantly transmitted back to the office for quoting, or even create job orders instantly. The work can then be performed on the spot. Customers focusing on this value element have seen their quote acceptance rate double, their time to quote half, and their total billings from additional work quadruple or more.

With the proper system, the hard dollar return on investment typically ranges from nine to 12 months, although many companies believe "soft dollar" benefits such as improved customer service and competitive differentiation are equally important.

Wireless FSA Components
Most wireless FSA systems have the following four components:

  1. A wireless network - There are a variety of communications networks to select from, if the software provider supports multiple options. Primary networks are CDPD (cellular digital packet data), typically available from telephone companies and their affiliates, such as ATT Wireless; and WAN (wide area networks) such as the Mobitex system from Cingular. Satellite networks, plus such standbys as wireless LANs and dial-up, broaden the choices. A nationwide or international company such as Honeywell must usually use several different carriers in order to get the coverage required. Honeywell uses a combination of WAN and satellite in the U.S., and an additional carrier in Canada.

  2. Handheld devices - The handheld devices available to the field service company depend on the operating system of the software. Among the operating system choices is Microsoft CE, which supports the HPC (handheld PC). That was Honeywell's choice, as it offers the most performance and storage capacity of any handheld operating system. Other choices include Pocket PC, Palm, and RIM; these support less expensive PDAs but have reduced screen size and computing power, requiring a tradeoff in software functionality.

  3. Application Software - The software drives the capability of the mobile device. Some wireless FSA systems, including FX Mobile for CE used by Honeywell, have a complete operating system and database that works even when out of wireless coverage. Other wireless systems offer essentially a remote view of a host-based application, which may inhibit the ability of the field engineer to use the handheld device when out of wireless coverage.

  4. The wireless software also determines the wireless network capability, such as concurrent support for a variety of networks, the level of automation in sending and receiving wireless data, and the ability of technicians to work when out of wireless coverage. As stated by William K. Pollock, president of services consulting firm Strategies For Growth, "Some wireless solutions simply outperform others."

  5. The Internet - Although Internet capability is not a requirement for a wireless FSA system, a wireless system is significantly enhanced when coupled with an Internet-based call center/dispatch system. The reason is that wireless communication links the mobile technician with the central data base, while an Internet-based dispatch system also feeding into and out of the same database allows access not only to the dispatcher, but also to office personnel, sales reps, operations managers and other personnel regardless of their location. With the instant status of the technician now available to them, the linkage between all field service company employees becomes complete. Business benefits such as reduction in paperwork and acceleration of billing are closely tied to these real-time communication capabilities.
The result of such a system, for Honeywell and other companies, is the business advantage that comes from being in front of the competition. As Santosh summarized, "We're thrilled to be a technology leader. There's a lot more that we can do with this. We've thought of dozens of additional things we can do now that this platform is in the hands of the technicians."
Judy Johnson is senior vice president of marketing for FieldCentrix, the leading provider of standardized wireless and Internet software for field service companies. She spent 19 years in software sales, marketing and operations at IBM before joining FieldCentrix in 1996. Comments may be sent to Judy at jjohnson@fieldcentrix.com or via the company Web site, www.fieldcentrix.com.

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