Opening lines of communication

Don't let having a mobile workforce break down your communications. As Stephen Withers finds, some organisations, through the use of wireless integration, have increased their lines of contact, and not just out in the field.



Don't let having a mobile workforce break down your communications. As Stephen Withers finds, some organisations, through the use of wireless integration, have increased their lines of contact, and not just out in the field.


Contents
Nurses streamline with tablets
Picking up tips from from NYK
Fighting fire with wireless
Eight points for wireless success

Just as there are several ways of integrating disparate applications, there are also various wireless technologies that can be used to deliver IT services to mobile workers whether they walk around a warehouse, drive around a metropolis, or travel throughout country areas.

T&B examines four cases where organisations have realised synergies from the combination of wireless and integration.

NCR customises its berries
Around 200 of customer services and corporate finance organisation NCR's field engineers in Australia and New Zealand are equipped with BlackBerries, but they don't use them for e-mail. Custom software, created by NCR in the US instead, hooks the tiny mobile devices into the company's dispatch system.

Kris Levickis, business operations manager for NCR South Pacific area, says the engineers, who service ATMs, retail equipment, and other hardware, can receive instructions and record their progress through the BlackBerries. Whenever one of them reads a message, the BlackBerry automatically generates an acknowledgement. A series of templates minimise the effort required by the engineer to send messages such as advising an ETA onsite or setting some other status for the call (such as "arrived at ATM, but security guard did not attend"). "It's about keeping our customers updated in real time," Levickis says.

Another benefit for the company is that it saves engineers phoning the call centre to update their status, as the dispatch system also taps into the data warehouse. This in turn frees up dispatchers, allowing them more time to produce call lists that will reduce travelling time. Similarly, the information is available for the internal reporting system, which (among other things) monitors compliance with service level agreements (SLAs). For example, managers can be paged to ensure the required action is taken within the contracted response time.

The information logged by the engineers traverses a direct link between Vodafone -- the company's global mobile supplier -- and NCR, and feeds a Teradata data warehouse. (Teradata is a division of NCR.) "The Teradata system is our main repository," says Levickis. "It's the central hub of NCR." From there, the field service data is accessed by various applications in addition to the dispatch system. One example is "NCR @ Your Service", a Web-based front-end that provides small to medium-sized customers with self-service access to NCR'S support services, including information about their service calls. Large customers can get a direct link to the corresponding data, allowing them to integrate it with their own systems.

NCR is testing an upgrade to the system that adds parts ordering. Orders are routed to the logistics group from the data warehouse, and a picking note is produced at the most appropriate local or interstate warehouse. This process will halve the human intervention needed to order parts, Levickis says. Logistics then updates the service call record with the part's expected delivery time, allowing the engineer to then update his ETA onsite accordingly. Engineers will normally collect parts from the warehouse, but in urgent situations they may be delivered directly to the customer site.

More than 85 percent of service calls are currently updated via BlackBerry, Levickis says. At present, the e-mail and calendar functions are disabled, pending thorough testing to ensure they do not affect the custom software. Levickis says NCR will deploy this BlackBerry-based system around the world.


Contents
Introduction
Nurses streamline with tablets
Picking up tips from from NYK
Fighting fire with wireless
Eight points for wireless success

Nurses streamline with tablets
Victoria's Royal District Nursing Service (VDNS) is the largest and oldest provider of home nursing and healthcare services in Australia. It is a company limited by guarantee with consolidated revenues of more than AU$72 million for 2003-04. It employs nearly 1000 district nurses.

More than 800 of the nurses employed work in the field and are equipped with a tablet PC. A district nurse starts the working day by connecting to the RDNS's host system via GPRS to download information about the patients they will visit. This allows nurses to drive directly to the first patient without first travelling to the RDNS base centre.

Payments from the Victorian Department of Human Services are based on the number of direct care hours delivered, so this may have a significant effect on revenue. Other financing comes from donors and patient fees.

When nurses do visit a RDNS centre, a wireless LAN provides faster and cheaper communication with the host. If additional information is required, the nurse can reconnect at any time. For example, if a patient needs an urgent visit, a nurse can attend without having to return to the centre or take detailed notes over the phone. Any new data collected (such as the date the next visit will be required) can be sent back to the host immediately or cached until the next connection is made. Case notes are still recorded on paper and remain at the patient's home.

This tablet-based system was awarded the inaugural City of Melbourne celebrating Melbourne' award for digital innovation. Information stored in the host system includes patient details, demographics, appointments and financial records. "As soon as you put in place the ability to [remotely] access the main system, it opens up other possibilities," Ian Cash, general manager or information services at the Royal District Nursing Service, says.

Take the changes to occupational health and safety legislation which mandated site inspections of patients' homes -- a task that was previously performed informally. A new module was added to the tablet software to collect the required information. "It's fairly quick to implement some new aspect of data collection," says Cash, but people realise this so they are also quick to request additions. Such requests are vetted carefully, as RDNS is concerned that non-treatment activities should not eat into the time nurses spend with their patients."

The GPRS-enabled tablets also provide nurses with on-the-spot access to Internet or intranet-based resources such as drug databases or policies and procedures manuals. This real-time access to information makes nurses more autonomous, Cash says, as they can collect information and make decisions on the spot.

Sydney-based Pen Computing developed the tablet software. RDNS has a long relationship with this company, dating back to an early trial using Newton MessagePads and more recently with Sharp handhelds.

Jade Software Corporation of New Zealand developed the host software, which runs on Windows Server. "We had a significant partnership in both development efforts," Cash says, explaining that the Jade software is now sold commercially and is used by other organisations in the health sector. "The partnerships have been very successful."

The programs running on the host tablets are independent systems that exchange data in the form of messages complying with the Health Level 7 (HL7) standard widely used for clinical and administrative data. This architecture avoids problems with communications black spots, and ensures essential data is available when it is needed. "Keeping systems online for a mobile user where there are dropouts ... does play havoc in terms of maintaining data integrity," Cash says.

GPRS is typically associated with full-time connections, but the RDNS system was originally designed around GSM links that are charged by time rather than data volume. The message-passing architecture means very little data is transferred over the air, so running costs are low.

The Jade software incorporates its own store-and-forward message gateway for communication with external software such as that running on the tablets. The ability to deal with peak loads was essential as everyone at RDNS starts at 7.30 in the morning. This was also seen as a high-risk area for the project. Middleware was thin on the ground at the time of the original development, hence the decision to build a messaging system from scratch. "We needed to put a lot of work in," Cash says, but these days off-the-shelf middleware is up to the job.

The combined system also provides better co-ordination with other organisations, such as referrals to Meals on Wheels or planning other activities around the district nurse's visits. PKI technology is used for encryption when exchanging data with other organisations. RDNS is about to start a formal evaluation of the system, but some of the benefits are already apparent. Data is checked for consistency as it is entered, and there is no need for rekeying. "There's been a huge improvement in the quality of the data," Cash says, and this has led to improved administrative decisions.

The information is also available to other people at a much faster rate. The tablet application is designed with simplicity in mind, and more than 80 percent of data entry is achieved by "point and click". For example, instead of writing down visit start and end times, nurses simply click an icon to record that data.

Cash notes that the increasingly complex care required by patients may absorb the time saved by the system, so the number of visits per day might not have increased. Avoiding the traditional visit to a centre at the start of the day clearly frees more time for patient care, but some contact with colleagues is important and even vital for some roles including mentoring.

Nurses' grades and the particular type of work they're doing may affect the best practice in each case. One centre recently went 100 percent mobile for about a month during a sudden move to new premises. "They just didn't look back," Cash says.


Contents
Introduction
Nurses streamline with tablets
Picking up tips from from NYK
Fighting fire with wireless
Eight points for wireless success

Picking up tips from from NYK
NYK Logistics provides third-party logistics (3PL) services from seven locations across the country, specialising in consumer electronics and whitegoods. Its main customers are large companies from the USA, Europe and Japan. The company also offers a full range of 3PL services from warehousing to national distribution, including value-added 3PL such as national reverse logistics, overflow inventory, and spare parts.

NYK Logistics holds the bulk of the stock for customers, which calls for integration between A MARC warehouse management system (WMS) used by NYK Logistics and the customer's ERP or WMS. This was originally achieved by customising the warehouse management system, IT manager Wayne Robinson says, but that strategy was abandoned because it made upgrades more difficult and was unsupported by software vendor MARC Global.

The company now uses vanilla installations of packages wherever possible, relying on Mercator middleware to handle the interfacing. "It give us a more seamless integration," Robinson says. He says it allows NYK Logistics to effectively become part of its client's organisation. This can be seen by the lack of training requirements for either company to access data held by the other. NYK Logistics and its customers exchange data in batches at least every 20 minutes. In some cases the update interval is as brief as two minutes, which is close enough to real time for practical purposes.

A typical workflow is that an order arrives from a customer, and MARC issues picking instructions to warehouse staff via WLAN to their Symbol portable data terminals or wearable scanning system. Greater accuracy is obtained with scanners compared with entering codes manually -- a recent stocktake at one warehouse revealed a discrepancy of just AU$187 out of AU$5 million in stock.

The picking information flows directly into the WMS, allowing the progress of an order to be followed at line-item level. The successful implementation of this feature at NYK Logistics Australia is being studied by other parts of the company and may be used as a model internationally.

The customer's system is notified once picking is complete, at which time it replies with a transport confirmation. This triggers the transfer of the job from MARC to NYK Logistics' transport system, which manages the consignment through to the posting of a scanned image of the proof-of-delivery note on a tracking Web site accessible only by NYK's customers.

The transport system also complies with Coles Myer's and Woolworth's delivery requirements, including EDI notification. This approach allows customers to track progress from the time an order is placed right through to delivery. The Web site is typically used by sales teams tracing orders or checking stock levels, with other information being obtained using their ERP or WMS.

"About 12 months ago, the market saw this integration as a differentiation from our competitors," Robinson says, but it is now considered a baseline feature.

Plans are in progress to equip the trucks with wireless scanners that will log the goods on and off, and possibly capture receiver's signatures electronically. This data will be transferred to the transport system when the truck returns to the warehouse, allowing the tracking site to be updated within a few hours of delivery rather a day or two with the current paper-based process. A possible enhancement involves GPRS connectivity, allowing deliveries to be logged in real time.

XML is used for all integrations. "It's made things a lot simpler," Robinson says. "It allows us to use our systems in the most efficient manner without having to customise the customer's system or rely solely on their system -- again increasing efficiencies."

Take the customers who use SAP, which has its own XML interface. New customers with a limited product range can be brought online in two to four weeks, though it can be a six- to nine-month project for large customers running it.

Robinson says one customer is in the process of moving from an old WMS to SAP. NYK Logistics has been closely involved with this project and is already benefiting from more efficient integration. "We are effectively a native part of the ERP system for the warehouse," Robinson says. This efficiency also means data can be exchanged every two minutes rather than every 20. "It's really live," he says.

Robinson counsels his peers to spend extra time working with customers, not only with their technical staff but particularly with senior executives in order to manage their expectations. If they only become involved at the last minute there is a risk they will either ask for something that hasn't been included in the plan or they'll be dissatisfied with the result. He also recommends modifying data to suit the applications at each end rather than customising the software, and using the relevant standards.

In addition to the truck-based scanners, Robinson's agenda for the year ahead includes improving the integration between MARC and NYK Logistics' financial system to remove the manual processes currently required, and moving the Mercator middleware from a Windows 2003 Server to the AIX-based system currently running MARC and Oracle 8 (an upgrade to 9 is also planned) to simplify the transfer of data between MARC and Mercator.


Contents
Introduction
Nurses streamline with tablets
Picking up tips from from NYK
Fighting fire with wireless
Eight points for wireless success

Fighting fire with wireless
A new product developed in South Australia provides an answer to the problem of accurately monitoring the position of fire-fighting vehicles and could be applied to other organisations that use two-way radio for their mobile communications.

WARPS (Wireless Automated Response Positioning System) is simple in concept, but that's often the case with the good ideas. The WARPS unit is connected to a two-way radio (government radio network, trunk radio network, and public mobile networks operating on UHF, VHF and CB frequencies are all supported) and an in-built GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver continuously determines its location.

Whenever the radio's push-to-talk switch is released, WARPS sends the vehicle's identity and location in the form of a series of audio tones lasting less than 0.2 seconds at the end of the transmission. Fixed or mobile base station units will automatically decode this data, which is passed on to a PC using a serial connection.

The Gosford (NSW) Rural Fire Service has been using WARPS to great effect. "It's eliminating a lot of logistical difficulties, especially in major incidents," Rural Fire Service inspector Rolf Poole says. "Large emergencies are by nature fast moving, and they require us to be on our toes."

The traditional approach is to listen to radio reports and move markers representing vehicles around a map. WARPS integrates with Gosford RFS's MapInfo-based geographical information system, allowing vehicle positions to be superimposed on maps along with aerial photographs and infrared scans, contours, road names, street numbers, property boundaries, infrastructure elements, high-risk areas and other data. This eliminates time delays and allows more effective use of resources.

"WARPS gives them a very efficient way of managing their mobile assets," technical director at WARPS Australia Michael Norman says. The RFS uses a private mobile radio network in Gosford but can also switch to a NSW government one if required.

While PCs can be attached to all WARPS units, Gosford RFS only does so with its base stations. The one at the fire station connects to a desktop PC, while the mobile unit used by the field commander (usually deployed only when five or more vehicles attend an incident) is used with a notebook for obvious reasons.

Knowing the exact positions is valuable in emergencies, such as a tanker being overrun by fire, as well as less dramatic circumstances such as delivering food to fire fighters while they tackle a large blaze. It's even helpful when attending relatively minor incidents such as road accidents, says Poole, as it gives an exact position rather than one relative to the nearest cross-street.

The base stations can also poll WARPS units to obtain their position at any time.

Future developments will allow the electronic tracking of crew members, monitoring the status of the vehicle such as a tanker's water level (the WARPS hardware provides two user-definable inputs along with a 'mayday' input), and logging working hours to determine when a crew change is needed. "WARPS is a huge advantage from an occupational health and safety perspective," Norman says.

Gosford Rural Fire Service is currently considering alternatives to MapInfo, but Poole is confident that WARPS is easily adaptable to any other GIS. The data collected can be analysed after an incident, perhaps to help determine how response times could be improved, or to provide a coroner with dates, times, and the exact location of vehicles.

"The potential is enormous," Poole says.

Wired for success
The examples above more than prove that multiple wireless technologies (WiFi, GPRS, trunk radio and others) can be applied to solve a variety of business problems. When implemented correctly, these technologies are able to provide you with measurable increases in productivity.


Contents
Introduction
Nurses streamline with tablets
Picking up tips from from NYK
Fighting fire with wireless
Eight points for wireless success

Eight points for wireless success

  • Think about the required characteristics for the mobile device(s) in your application.


  • Integration may occur across the wireless link or at the back end, depending on the application and selected architecture.


  • Batch updates can be viable -- real-time integration is not always essential.
  • Keep the worker's primary job in mind: simplify data entry, and don't overload them with administrivia just because the technology makes it easy to collect more information.
  • Relevant standards can make integration easier, both inside and outside the organisation.


  • Performing any required data translations in middleware is preferable to modifying your software as it minimises problems when the time comes to upgrade.


  • Ensure the executives involved understand what they will be getting prior to implementation.


  • Integration can eliminate manual processes, leading to more timely information.


This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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