The world of mobile devices is expanding rapidly, with new offerings coming on the market every day. Just consider the number of tablets that are now available from Apple, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Samsung, Microsoft, and Google. Add in the vast array of smartphones, netbooks, and laptops that are continually being introduced, and it’s no wonder that contractors may have a hard time deciding which mobile device(s) to choose for their field personnel.

Robert Champe, president, Shearer Heating, Cooling, and Refrigeration, Washington, Pa., is in the process of deciding which mobile technology to use, and as he noted, “Sometimes I think we’ve looked at too many options, although we’re getting close to making a decision. We’ll probably go with iPads, because they can be moved around easily. We’re hoping that they will cut down on the amount of paperwork we seem to be chasing all the time.”

Champe has been very deliberate in making a decision, because he has heard some horror stories from fellow contractors who were quick to adopt mobile technology. “We want to be very careful about the devices we choose, and we want to get as much training on them as possible. Our thought is whatever they tell us we need for training; we’re going to tell them we want twice as much.”

Apple Fans

Eric Knaak, vice president of operations, Isaac Heating and Air Conditioning, Rochester, N.Y., made the decision to go with iPads for most technicians and supervisors, although a few use laptops. All technicians have cell phones, and supervisors, managers, and salespeople utilize smartphones. To date, the company has paid for 20 iPads, six laptops, and 15 smartphones.

“We are very happy with the Apple product line, and while they do cost more than other products, their reliability has been very strong,” said Knaak. “Our technicians do not currently use the iPads for invoicing, but they are able to access client records and equipment information. Our energy auditors use them for everything from doing calculations to filling out paperwork, and that area of the business is working toward a 100 percent paperless environment.”

In looking for mobile devices, Knaak was most concerned with reliable connectivity, as he wanted employees to be able to access the information that they needed to do their jobs. “The iPads have saved time and helped reduce the number of forms and copies that we need to make. They also make information available in real time, which is critical for a professional organization. This allows us to have faster responses for our clients, and to fulfill orders more quickly.”

Knaak plans on adding additional devices in the future, although those choices will hinge on a new software system the company is exploring. Until more is known about the compatibility issues of the new system, the company will hold off purchasing any other smart devices.

David Torbert, engineered services manager, Capstone Mechanical, Waco, Texas, is also a fan of Apple products. Torbert first experimented with tablet PCs, but found them to be bulky, not very rugged, and lacking battery life. “We felt that the future of mobile technology was going to look more like an iPad type of tablet, so that’s what our service techs use.”

Technicians at Capstone use the iPad for every aspect of their jobs, including accessing work orders, driving directions, customer histories, invoices, the Internet, voice dictation, email, Skype, and troubleshooting tips. Technicians also use the tablets to fill out editable PDFs that include vacation requests and start-up sheets. They can also fill out work-order details, capture customer signatures, track their time, and update truck inventory.

Foremen at Capstone use their iPads as their primary source of information. “In the past, looking at plans, specs, and submittals required a trip to the office for a paper copy, but now the foreman can stay at his job site where the files can be downloaded from the company servers directly to his iPad for his review,” said Torbert.

Administrators may also use the tablets to complete general administrative forms for requests, or to submit required job information.

While Torbert noted that the cameras on the iPad 2s are somewhat grainy, he is very pleased with their compact size and long battery life. In addition, he stated that mobile technology has eliminated 98 percent of paperwork, streamlined company processes, and increased technician productivity. “It’s also improved communication between the office and the field, made our employees look more professional, and given us a better ability to measure key performance indicators.”

Compatible Technology

Two years ago, when Mike Atchley, president, Atchley Air Conditioning and Heating, Fort Smith, Ark., started to seriously consider mobile technology, he wanted something that would work seamlessly with his existing Successware21 software.

“We were happy with the software, as it has always been able to do everything we needed it to do, so changing to something else was never really considered,” he said.

At the time, the only hardware options compatible with Successware’s mobile solution, SWRemote, were Motorola ES400 hand-held devices, so that is what Atchley chose. “SWRemote and the ES400 devices allow our technicians to receive service calls, look at customer history, enter equipment information, check warranty coverage, invoice service jobs, and collect a customer signature when the work is complete.”

The ES400 also has a Web browser that allows technicians to access manufacturer websites to look up part numbers or technical bulletins. Wireless printer/credit card scanners connect to the ES400 devices via Bluetooth, allowing technicians to scan credit cards and give receipts to customers.

Compared to current mobile technology, the ES400 devices are somewhat large, and even with an extended-life battery, the phones must be charged in the vehicle at least once a day, said Atchley. He added that they are also significantly more expensive than devices that can be obtained through wireless carriers, however, he likes how rugged the devices are, as well as their three-year parts and labor warranty. SWRemote recently released beta versions of apps for both Apple and Android devices, and Atchley has been testing the iPad app with good results. He will consider purchasing new Apple devices once SWRemote rolls out its final version.

One of the reasons why Atchley was interested in utilizing mobile technology was that he hoped to go paperless in the field, but that did not work out as planned. “We thought we could do away with preprinted service tickets altogether, but it caused a few issues with customer service. Technicians were spending too much time pushing buttons and not enough time making eye contact and communicating with the customer. Additionally, the tickets that the wireless printer generated were only about 3-inches wide, and the small text was hard for some of our customers to read. After a few months we decided to go back to the preprinted service ticket as our primary written communication with the customer in the field.”

That being said, Atchley is pleased with how the mobile devices have worked. Over the past few years, his service and maintenance departments have grown significantly, and the mobile devices have allowed them to handle the growth without adding office personnel. “There is less data entry for the accounting department, and customer payments are processed faster. And technicians are no longer calling the office multiple times per day asking for warranty information or previous service history, because this information is available in the palm of their hand.”

As can be seen, mobile technology has changed the way companies do business by streamlining processes, increasing productivity, and reducing overhead. With the vast array of mobile devices available, now may be the perfect time for contractors to figure out which technology works best for their employees in the field.

Publication date: 2/4/2013