It may be hard to believe, but Apple launched its iPad less than a year ago - in April 2010. Since then, the tablet computer’s popularity has soared. According to an estimate from eMarketer.com, Apple sold 8.5 million iPads last year - and sales may double in 2011.
As the iPad has taken the world by storm, it has also made its way into the HVAC industry. Read on to learn how a contractor and a distributor are pioneering the use of the iPad as a key tool in their businesses.
COMMERCIAL COORDINATIONRalph Aguiar is the MEP coordinator in the CAD detailing department at Vision Mechanical Services Inc. (Simi Valley, Calif.). Aguiar has been with Vision for less than a year, but he has urged the company to move forward into the electronic world. He brings his personal iPad to the job with him, and he has found many uses for it. In a word, Aguiar said, the iPad is “awesome.”
So far, there is one other member of his team who has an iPad, and two who have iPhones. Aguiar is working with them to explore the benefits of these devices in their work on large commercial projects.
MOBILE CADSome of the best applications of the iPad revolve around the coordination efforts of Aguiar’s job. To upload CAD drawings to his iPad, Aguiar currently uses AutoCAD WS, a free application from Autodesk. He said the app is simplified and doesn’t offer as many tools as a full version of AutoCAD software, but it still enables basic drawing, editing, storing, and sharing.
Using the mobile CAD app on the iPad is improving communication between the field and the office when it comes to change orders and clash detections. Aguiar finds the commenting feature in AutoCAD WS to be particularly helpful because technicians in the field can put notes on the drawings showing him where the design needs to be revised.
For example, he said, “When I’m not there physically to see that I didn’t get a memo from the structural engineer changing the beam size, and all of a sudden we’ve got this huge duct running right into a beam, my technician can [use an iPhone or iPad to] put a note there [on the CAD drawing] and tell me he’s going to have to offset it down.”
Even after a technician has explained the situation in a comment, sometimes it’s still hard for Aguiar to picture what’s happening in the field. In those cases, Aguiar said, the technician can take a picture with his iPhone and e-mail it to him. The technician can also send dimensions to Aguiar, who can then “generate a new shop ticket, send it to the fab shop, and make a new fitting so they can go under the beam and continue working.”
Aguiar summed this up as one example of how using mobile CAD apps can make the job quicker and more accurate. “Maybe my iPad can’t handle the whole CAD program, but to be able to use it where you can is awesome.”
Aguiar also noted that accessing CAD drawings on a mobile device can help technicians when blueprints have “been ripped up and mangled.” Instead of trying to decipher the blueprints, the field crew can pull up the original file on an iPad and clearly see elevations, etc.
Now, when Aguiar gets a call on his way home from someone saying that a fitting was made wrong, he pulls over (at a Starbucks for free WiFi) and pulls out his iPad. “I find the shop ticket on my iPad and am able to say, OK, we didn’t make that mistake - the vendor did. So then I e-mail the vendor on the spot and boom, problem’s solved and I’m on my way.”
LEAVING PAPER BEHINDBut Aguiar’s iPad isn’t limited to CAD applications. When the iPad is applied to other work processes, Aguiar said, his fellow team members have found it to be a “huge, huge advantage.” He said, “It’s like night and day from trying to carry all these RFI books and logs and this and that.” Instead of hauling around books or going out to find them in a truck, Aguiar said people can download reference materials to the iBooks app and have them available as PDFs at all times. Aguiar is also using Apple’s MobileMe service to store all of his photos and documents on the cloud.
To eliminate paperwork and speed up a formerly slow process, Aguiar created a timecard form on the iPad for his foreman. Instead of filling out timecards by hand and faxing them into the office, the foreman now accesses the timecard document on his iPad and quickly enters the needed information, which is then e-mailed to the office. “Now all he’s doing is touch, touch, touch on the check-off form and e-mailing you right on the spot, and there in seconds we got it [back at the office],” Aguiar said.
A WORK IN PROGRESSWhen he talks to young technicians who are new to the trade, Aguiar always emphasizes that they should learn about new technology. “I try to explain - don’t sit back. You have got to get into technology.”
In the future, Aguiar believes GPS location-based services on mobile devices will provide field workers with more advantages to locate people and objects on the jobsite. But for now, he said, using his iPad is a “work in progress.”
He is determined to continue experimenting and sharing what he’s learned. Aguiar participates in Internet networking and posts PowerPoint presentations in on- line discussion boards to show how he is using technology to connect the field and office.
“There’s probably somebody out there that has it in a high-tech version, but I’m showing what I do that I think somebody else with minimal learning and technology could do - and could learn to operate pretty doggoned efficiently.”
DISTRIBUTOR TRAININGComfort Supply HVAC (Nashville, Tenn.) is a Ruud distributor with five branches. Billy Jobe is district manager of sales and operations, and he’s passionate about his company’s drive to be at the forefront of new technology. Comfort Supply is determined to set a progressive example for its contractor customers, so the distributor has outfitted six sales representatives and one service technician with iPads. “Our salesmen have had them in the field for about a month now, and they really like them better than their laptops,” Jobe said.
Accessibility to information is key. “With the iPad they can pull up all of our consumer literature that tells about all of our equipment,” Jobe said.
“They are able to pull up a remote site from Ruud that gives all of the product specification information, including wiring diagrams, and how to match systems together to get certain SEER ratings.
“Along with that, they can pull up any marketing programs that we offer. And they can pull up another site with all of our parts information.”
In addition to accessing this general information, Comfort Supply’s team is also using the iPad to train contractors on Design Star, a new program designed by Ruud that estimates heat loads for houses.
“Design Star was made specifically for the iPad, so it’s easier to use on the iPad,” Jobe explained. “It gives a contractor a proposal that they can print off for a homeowner.”
Comfort Supply is also working to set up an ordering system so that its salespeople can order equipment through their iPads. “Our IT department is trying to get them all linked up so salesmen can do an order on the spot,” Jobe said. “It will cut down time. It will cut out one or two phone calls and needing a person to handle the calls.”
MOBILE SOLUTIONA mobile solution like the iPad is exactly what his sales team needs, Jobe explained, because they are on the road all the time. Jobe has been impressed with the iPad’s ability to connect to the Internet. “The iPad gives you a little more versatility with the wireless card,” he said. “It seems to react better with WiFi cards than laptops do. Plus, they allow so many more options. With iPads, you can get the apps for every type of HVAC equation.”
The durability and size of the iPad have also been beneficial. “We bought a hard rubber shock case for each one, and we haven’t had any issues as far as damage or breaking,” Jobe said. “And they’re smaller and easier to carry.”
The iPad is also aiding the team to become more organized. “They’re just learning that it’s a lot easier to keep track of everything,” Jobe said. “They’re not carrying files or a box full of quotes. We’ve cut down their time some so far, and I expect that to get better.”
IN THE FIELDRocky Cothron, a service technician at Comfort Supply, said that so far he is tickled with his iPad. It has made his job easier and is more rugged than his old laptop, he said, adding, “I had it out in the rain the other day.”
For Cothron, the iPad is more about accessing the web and keeping track of his notes than downloading the latest apps. “Mainly, it’s the access to the Internet and the manufacturer’s website that really helps me,” he said. “Most of the apps they have out there are for general contractors, and you can wind up with a hefty bill if you download a bunch of them. I use the Internet more than anything because it doesn’t cost you anything.”
For instance, Cothron explained, he saves pressure charts and wiring diagrams from the web to make them readily available on his iPad.
“It’s just like you picked up your desk and carried it with you, only it’s in a little bitty black pad,” Cothron said. The iPad has a notepad app included that “looks like a legal pad and logs in [notes] by the day.” Using this feature, Cothron said, he can type whatever notes he needs - and he doesn’t even have to carry a pen.
He said that when he first pulls out his iPad to take notes on a job, “It kind of scares the contractors sometimes. But it’s actually just helping me out in the field.”
Cothron also finds the iPad useful for presentations. “It’s really been helpful to me to use it for a presentation. You can show the customer’s website, and you can pull up the parts they need.” As a natural salesman, Cothron always wants to make the sale right then and there. When he can pull up the information he needs to complete the deal on his iPad, it’s that much easier for him.
Cothron added that he’s only had his iPad for about two months. “I’m still learning about it. There’s a lot that thing will do that I haven’t tapped into.”
PASSING ON THE iPADJobe repeatedly stressed the importance of training contractors on use of the iPad. “If I can prove it works for me, they will follow,” he said. “If we can prove it’s making our job easier, they know that if it works for us, it will work for them.”
He admitted, “We use our sales guys as guinea pigs sometimes to show our contractors that we can do this, and so can they.” Initially, according to Jobe, many contractors look at a device like the iPad as a newfangled thing that’s “not going to work right.”
To counter this attitude, everyone at Comfort Supply tries to be forward-thinking and open to change, according to Jobe. He added that the company’s purchase of seven iPads is just the beginning. “Our use of iPads will be increased in the future. We do see it growing and coming to inside sales staff and branch managers.”
He continued, “We can’t wait until we get the iPad fully operational with everything we want to get on it. I feel through 2011 it will be a key tool for how we get our dealers training on all the programs we offer.”