Magazine Article | January 17, 2012

Scanning The Field Service Landscape

By Brian Albright, Business Solutions magazine.

Bar coding can improve inventory and asset management for customers, while providing new revenue opportunities for VARs.

Mobile computers are becoming standard issue equipment for many field service operations. But, although most of these rugged mobile devices are equipped with bar code scanners, not all companies leverage this scanning functionality in the field. That presents an opportunity for resellers and integrators to help customers further improve productivity, while giving VARs a chance to expand their solution set with their existing customer base.

The primary application for bar code scanning in field service applications is tracking parts and inventory on a truck. These mobile inventory applications can save time and improve accuracy. Scanning can also improve the accuracy of invoices by providing an accurate parts list for billing. This can further improve inventory operations on the back end. “Best-in-class parts management systems will use this information to update the technician’s vehicle inventory and order replenishment stock,” says Roger Cresswell, director of industry marketing for field service at Intermec Technologies.

There is also a significant asset tracking advantage for bar coding in field service. Companies can track their own tools and equipment using bar codes, as well as providing access to maintenance data on large pieces of installed equipment or machinery that require regular inspection and repair. This way, technicians can scan a bar code at the job site to access equipment history, while providing up-to-date inspection and maintenance records to customers. “Bar codes provide a fast way to collect complex pieces of information when time matters most,” says John Pomerleau, field mobility principal, Motorola Solutions. “The net result is a more complete and accurate work order that is able to be billed on-site, turning cash around faster.”

So why don’t many companies use this technology in the field? “The truth behind why field service organizations don’t take advantage of bar code functionality for their trucks is that they believe it’s expensive to implement,” says Gregg Anderson, director of mobile business at Psion. “There are a lot of parts in the trucks, and it’s also difficult to manage the process to ensure the inventory is properly supervised — especially if you have a lot of contracted employees.”

While cost has inhibited smaller companies, many larger organizations are making the investment. “The return on investment on tracking all the parts is astounding compared to all the money lost from missing and lost parts,” Anderson says. “Hopefully, smaller companies soon will be able to utilize the technology and reap the same benefits as the larger organizations.”

Bar Codes Enable Multiple Applications
If you have field service customers, you must first determine which business processes can benefit the most from bar coding. From there, additional applications can always be implemented later. In addition to part and asset tracking, bar codes can be used for activating equipment (like set-top boxes for cable television), tracking substation equipment for utilities, maintenance and inspection schedule tracking, and even premises monitoring. Bar codes also have utility in timekeeping (employees can clock in and out of a particular job using a barcoded badge), or even signing out specific tools and equipment.

“Tool and equipment tracking is a simple way to start bar coding if none is being used today,” Pomerleau says. “Tools can get lost between workers, left at customer sites, in trucks, or even be stolen. Tools can be very specialized and expensive to replace. For example, safety inspections of equipment like harnesses, ladders, and lift equipment provide an opportunity to quickly inspect and easily fill out a compliance checklist on the handheld. This provides a time and date stamp and builds a history and check for what equipment is out of compliance.”

Tracking parts inventory on a truck can be a challenge, depending on the type of items being tracked, but these systems can easily pay for themselves through improved visibility and time savings. “Field service organizations are starting to see the advantages of systems that track parts usage in real time and maintaining an accurate accounting for vehicle stock,” Cresswell says. “Companies making use of these types of systems can enable technicians to view each vehicle’s parts inventory. If they don’t have a part they require, they can search for the part on a colleague’s truck who might be in the area or be able to make a stop at their location.”

Bar coding forces inventory accuracy. This not only helps enable the truck-to-truck transfers described above, it also all but eliminates the need for regular inventory counting. Reconciliation is automatic, and it’s easier to see actual parts usage in the field. This helps enable better replenishment ordering both in the field and at the depot.

Focus On Customer Business Benefits
Adding a bar-coding component to a field service automation deployment provides additional revenue opportunities for VARs. There are opportunities to deploy multiple software modules, sell consulting services, and even provide additional hardware and consumables to companies that have to do their own bar code labeling.

The key is to focus on the business benefits for the end users. “The opportunity to better manage the service delivery component to the end user is a huge deal,” Anderson says. “With the use of mobile computers, field workers can increase their visibility into what is occurring while they are out on a job. Some great targets include electricians, contracted mechanical field workers, plumbing and heating workers, and cable installation crews.”

If you don’t have the asset management or inventory management expertise in-house, partner with a software provider that can easily provide this functionality for a field service solution. “Productivity savings for these solutions are big and amount to huge cost savings,” Cresswell says. “The accuracy of bar code scanning alone will easily pay for itself in the back office by eliminating the need to cross-key data into the system.”

It’s imperative to recognize the need for bar coding early in the initial deployment so that you provide customers with the right equipment up front that can grow with their application. “Most field service organizations start with work order management as their primary solution for workforce automation,” Cresswell says. “Down the road they decide to engage in bar code scanning to manage parts or track assets and then realize they must replace their mobile computers or ask their techs to carry an external scanner to do so. This becomes costly. They avoid this cost by making an investment in a mobile computer with an integrated scanner.”

Because many field service organizations are considering using smartphones instead of traditional rugged computers, it is also important to engage them on hardware selection. The types of cameras in typical smartphones are not optimized for enterprise-grade bar code scanning. Imagers designed to read 1D and 2D bar codes are critical for highvolume scanning applications.

“Lighting, bar code symbology, the surface, and direct sunlight/darkness hitting the bar code all impair a smartphone camera’s ability to decode an image,” Pomerleau says. “The camera and lens in a smartphone is optimized for picture and video taking, not bar code reading. When a field technician is out in the field and has to scan tools, parts used, a vehicle, and maybe safety equipment, they will be doing up to 50 or more scans a day. Smartphones are not robust enough for those environments.”

For end users that are new to mobility, VARs should keep initial bar code applications simple and focused — address inventory or asset tracking first, then gradually expand bar code usage over time. This avoids “scope creep” and can simplify the ROI message. It’s also important to plan ahead; hardware should support both linear and 2D bar codes and have the option to support RFID tags or even direct part marking in the future.

“The field service industry has a lot of opportunity,” Anderson says. “It’s imperative that the resellers understand they need to develop a full-circle plan when they sell to the end user. Work with the customers to manage the change, and understand that employing technology does have a learning curve that needs attention. By having a project manager from start to finish, the chances of a successful install and a happy customer will greatly increase.”