Technology for Technicians: Doohickeys That Really Do Something!
It’s a great time to be a technician using technology. Work done in the field is getting easier, more efficient, and more accurate as the tools we use get smaller, faster, and more precise. And we can perform new functions in ways we might not have imagined 5 years ago. Of course, maybe in 5 years someone coming across this article might laugh at how old-school we were in 2011.
Because, if there’s one thing the technology world has taught us over time, it’s that predicting very far into the future is a dicey proposition. No one has a reliable crystal ball, and the only people who know what biggest surprises lie ahead… well, they’re not telling us ahead of time.
But in the short term, it’s possible to look into 2012 and see what’s coming -- and it’s exciting stuff. Here’s what I think will be some of the leading technological developments in the coming year.
The Next Level of Applying Technology
While there are holdouts still using pen and paper to work in the field, more and more organizations are already using mobile technology -- and many of them are in their second or even third phase of deploying advanced levels. Initially they focused on the obvious gains technology provides -- like field techs not having to do data-entry back in the office at the end of a shift -- but now that they’re comfortable with the tools and the technology, they’re looking around for what else they can accomplish with it.
The biggest opportunity for the near future may be the multi-functional capability of newer mobile devices. People started with simple handheld computers that let them jot notes or enter basic data. That’s akin to learning to use a screwdriver. But now a single device offers an entire toolbox full of capability! In 2012, users will explore what more they can do with their customized toolbox.
Today’s handheld devices offer Wi-Fi, GPS, barcode scanning, RFID, and a really good camera. Soon, people will be more fluent with those functions and find new ways to incorporate them into their work world. Before we know it, the horizon for technology in the field is going to get very wide.
Here are some examples of some advanced capabilities that many leading companies have deployed and others will add soon:
• Asset tracking: Techs take pictures of the condition of any asset, write up a maintenance or repair report and transmit the photos and report back to the main office instantly, using Wi-Fi. Or a field tech can use RFID or a barcode scanner to identify the asset and then send an associated report.
• Inventory: Real-time tracking is a huge advantage. When someone in the field consumes a part or other asset, a real-time report and inventory update can go back to the central office, which can react automatically by ordering a replacement.
• GPS: Advanced GPS functionality can be used for exact location information of workers or equipment, or for efficiency improvements such as route optimization.
• Wireless networks: Most devices are already solid in offering 3G-level wireless speed and access. When 4G modems come out, they’ll quickly be integrated into the mobile form factors. That will allow for faster transmission of bigger files in both directions. 4G is coming, and the leading products will have it.
• Cloud computing (software as a service) lets users deploy new functions quickly and at a low initial cost, because there’s no upfront expense of buying software.
• Machine-to-machine communication, where remote sensors on field assets can communicate with a field tech’s handheld device. The machine will let a tech know what to expect in advance, offering all sorts of efficiency improvements.
• Retail operations and other functions that involve payment processes are becoming easier to accept credit card payments on the fly. The time may come when techs process value-add orders for their customers as they install or repair service in the digital home.
These are just a few of the advanced capabilities that are available now and will soon be a part of providers’ 2012 road map.
Fig. 1: Field techs not having to do data-entry back in the office at the end of a shift is an obvious gain that technology provides.
Fig 2.: Today’s handheld devices can offer Wi-Fi, GPS, barcode scanning, RFID, cellular, and a camera.
Fig 3.: Technician tools, like the Handheld Nautiz X3 shown here, are getting smaller, faster, and more precise.
The Battle of the Operating Systems and Form Factor Changes
There’s no doubt that Windows Mobile is firmly established as the operating platform of choice for advanced handheld technology. On the flip side, when the iPhone hit it big, everyone making cellphone platforms rolled over and accepted that they couldn’t compete.
Just as with smartphones, there’s a lot of motivation out there to develop new and improved operating systems for handheld computers. One important development is that the U.S. military and the U.S. government are both moving to Android as their operating platform. That’s going to have a huge impact, because it forces suppliers to go to Android devices. No other players are that big yet, but there’s a lot of chatter out there. Windows still has the big base of usage, but they’ll be pressed to keep up with developments by Apple and Android.
We are all quite aware of the iPhone’s impact on the smartphone market. In 2012, the iPad will bring a lot of attention to tablets as a form factor. Historically, the problem with tablets was that they were heavy, unwieldy or fragile -- or all three. Plus they didn’t offer that much screen space.
The current iPad is not a viable tool to use in the field, for two reasons: 1.) It’s not rugged, and 2.) because it’s very hard to create enterprise software solutions within the Apple operating system. But the new generation of lighter-weight tablets using other platforms offers larger screens that display more information without the burden of a heavy device. Some of them are even rugged enough for use in challenging field environments. Undoubtedly, tablets will give handheld PDAs a run for their money in the coming year; they’ll take a hefty share of the market.
The second interesting development here is that more people are doing their jobs with their cellphones. There’s a generation of workers coming up that thinks nothing of running their personal lives on a little phone. Their logic transfers to using smartphones for their jobs, too. In 2012, there will be more and more demand for devices like the Nautiz X3, which is a rugged handheld computer about the size of a smartphone. Interestingly, we will see growth in both technology form factors. Besides seeing a move toward the larger tablet form, we may also see a surge at the opposite end: to devices even smaller than traditional handheld computers.
The Wireless World
It gets dizzying trying to keep up with the latest big news in the wild world of wireless. But let’s try to sort out 2 important things that will definitely impact technicians in 2012.
1. WiMAX: The proliferation of WiMAX is the next big thing coming. Municipalities in many areas are building citywide or even regional wireless networks that blanket the area with Wi-Fi hotspots anyone can access from just about anywhere. Handheld devices are already capable of using WiMAX. In fact, this is one case where the devices are ahead of the technology implementation.
2. 4G: The capabilities of 4G networks will change the way field techs work. The speed will let them do everything wireless faster. And the quantity of information will be that much larger. Things that take too long to send -- database files, schematics, maps, photos -- now won’t slow techs down.
Here’s an example: A repair technician is fixing a wireless network in a customer’s home. But the problem is more complex than he usually deals with, so he needs the service manual to identify the proper repair procedure. Rather than having to carry a paper manual for every device he’s likely to encounter, he can download the one he needs online, on demand, on the spot. This solution can be extended to streaming video and other rich media.
When bandwidth and speed are limitless, there are a wide variety of ways you can communicate to troubleshoot or solve a problem.
The Role of Collaboration in Workflow
For many, social media makes you think of people posting photos of their pets on Facebook, or maybe of companies marketing to their more tech-savvy customers in a new way. In 2012, applications called enterprise-collaboration tools -- essentially, social media within an organization -- will offer the ability to connect employees across all levels of an organization. Today’s examples include salesforce.com’s Chatter, OfficeMedium, and Jive.
Consider a field tech making a call to a colleague to discuss a problem. They use only their words to describe, mentally form a picture, and hopefully solve the situation. But what if they were communicating on the work equivalent of their Facebook pages? The first guy could send a photo of the problem. The second guy could instantly send the first guy a link to a video showing a repair technique. The first guy could type in a quick question, and then read the answer while keeping both hands engaged in the repair.
In essence, these types of collaborative tools will capture the collective knowledge of every single person in your organization and make it available to everyone, virtually anytime.
Imagine those capabilities extending beyond inter-organization communication. Smart providers will soon find ways to use these applications to engage directly with customers. Consider if customers could react to real-time updates on appointment times.
Bringing It All Together
One of the biggest challenges of all these new technological functions and capabilities will be to get all the pieces to work together effectively. Faster transmission speeds are great, but speed by itself won’t make applications work, or work better. What you’ll need is a combination of devices, networks, applications, and overall integration. The burden here will fall on your organization’s IT department to connect it all effectively.
The key here will be to choose your technology products wisely, keeping in mind the need to integrate everything effectively. With the complexity of today’s technology configurations, the cost of deployment and downtime is so high when something breaks down. It also impacts multiple areas of your organization. Therefore, it is critical that your upfront planning and product choices be forward-thinking. The upfront cost of a piece of mobile technology pales in comparison to the potential cost of that downtime and redeployment. You want devices that are rugged and reliable. So, be sure to buy good tough products the first time.
Of course, just as it’s impossible to see too far into the future of technology, it’s also not possible to cover every technology trend that may impact you in the coming year. This article touched on several areas that will impact all of us in the telecom workplace in 2012. What the year ahead holds is only for those with a crystal ball to know.
Dale is the President and CEO of HHCS Handheld USA, Inc. Prior to coming to Handheld, Dale spent 5 years with Tripod Data Systems as the Marketing Product Manager for the entire line of the TDS rugged handhelds. Prior to TDS, Dale has worked for 15 years in the field of GPS at several firms. For more information, visit www.handheld-us.com.
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