Wireless: Breaking the shackles

We look at four examples of the way mobile technologies such as GPRS and 802.11 are giving Australian businesses the opportunity to bring the benefits of connectivity to mobile workers, whether they roam within buildings or are out in the field.
Written by Stephen Withers, Contributor on

We look at four examples of the way mobile technologies such as GPRS and 802.11 are giving Australian businesses the opportunity to bring the benefits of connectivity to mobile workers, whether they roam within buildings or are out in the field.
Admit it: the only reason you decided to implement a wireless network was the chance to play with some cool new toys. Business case? Return on in-what? But of course in the real world, the just-plain-cool argument rarely cuts the mustard, so it's good to know that wireless and mobile technologies aren't only cool, they're also helping workers achieve new levels of efficiency and allowing new types of work to be done.

The big challenge, of course, comes in allowing your existing applications to work with new wireless and mobile devices. Most applications are designed to work with desktops, and the challegnes go well beyond a smaller screen size. So to give you an idea of how it all works, this month we're going to look at four examples of companies who have successfully integrated their applications with mobile devices.

  • Wireless: Breaking the shackles

  • Fuji Xerox
    Fuji Xerox's service organisation started its wireless journey in 1996. Service logistics were controlled by a team of dispatchers, each responsible for around 30 engineers. As soon as an engineer completed a job, he or she would phone in, provide the dispatcher with details of time taken and parts used -- a process that typically took five minutes -- and get the details of the next job. Part of the problem was call patterns were very lumpy. Engineers would all call in at the beginning of the day for their first jobs, and they would also finish those jobs at roughly the same time. Consequently, it wasn't unusual to be kept on hold for ten minutes waiting for the dispatcher.
    Although field engineers carry parts kits in their cars, there was no mechanism (apart from a good memory) of tracking what was onboard without returning to the vehicle when they needed an item, which wasted more time. In addition, obtaining other parts involved ringing a warehouse person and waiting while they checked for stock.
    With over 400 engineers around the country, the cost of all this wasted time was significant. The first attempt linked laptop computers with Fuji Xerox's custom-written FIRES call management software and the System 21 enterprise software -- which Fuji Xerox has outsourced to GEAC -- via Telstra's DataTAC wireless service.
    FIRES and System 21 are linked via Oracle Gateway (FIRES uses the Oracle database, while System 21 uses DB2). This means the integration isn't truly real-time, says application services manager Nayyar Ghaznavi, but it is close enough. If the system was being developed today, closer coupling would be achieved by using JDBC or a similar technology, but there is no sufficient reason to rebuild it.
    "There was nothing [like FIRES] around -- it was leading edge," says Andrew Taylor, manager of business services, global services group at Fuji Xerox. But there were some problems. DataTAC worked fine when the radio modem was connected to a car antenna, but coverage inside buildings was "pretty ordinary", and battery life was also an issue. "It was quite rudimentary [and] quite slow to use," he explains, so the full productivity gains were not realised.
    "We had to upgrade the FIRES system during Y2K" to keep it in step with an upgrade to the enterprise software, says Taylor. Work on the mobile system was held off until all other issues had been sorted out, but the time came in 2002.
    Taylor explains that it was important to get it right on the second iteration to avoid alienating users completely. "We'd learned some really good lessons from the first time we did it," he says.
    The revised system uses a notebook computer (handhelds were initially ruled out due to the need to display wiring and other diagrams), but the DataTAC modem was replaced with the GPRS capability of the Ericsson T39 mobile phone. Bluetooth provides a wireless connection between notebook and phone. The whole package was significantly lighter and easier to use, coverage was far more reliable, and transaction times were reduced to around 18 seconds.
    A more recent development has been to replace the notebook and phone with an O2 XDA handheld PDA-phone. While some engineers still do detailed repair work and still need on-site access to drawings, others specialise in products that are repaired on a module exchange basis, and for them the XDA's small screen is sufficient. Once they have swapped the module and read the page-count meter, it takes less than a minute to close the call in FIRES.
    Apart from facilitating the direct flow of information between engineers and the back office systems (eg, by providing engineers with access to service contract details so they can accurately advise customers of repair costs as not all contracts cover parts and labour, or to enter the details of parts used), FIRES is able to assign calls efficiently as it knows the current location of all engineers and can predict when they are likely to complete their current tasks.
    Taylor says the FIRES development team was tempted to replicate functions provided by System 21, but strong management nipped that idea in the bud and avoided the duplication of data and processes. "The integration is absolutely seamless. You are effectively looking into the core enterprise software," he says. For example, FIRES performs no data validation, as System 21 does that. "That's one of its key strengths," he adds.
    Taylor estimates that this mobile solution has captured about an hour of the hour and a half per day previously wasted by each engineer. Key metrics including utilisation and travel time were all improved by 15 to 20 percent by the second version of the project. Inventory levels have also fallen, because engineers reduced the number of parts they carried as they became more confident of the warehouses' ability to supply on demand.

  • Fuji Xerox

  • Costa's
    Costa's is a fruit and vegetable wholesaler with a 116-year heritage. Starting with a retail fruit shop in Geelong, Victoria, this family business is now a major supplier to supermarket chains and has distribution centres in New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia, and Tasmania.
    Until recently, there was a low level of automation in the distribution centres. "We had a fairly restricted WMS [warehouse management system] module that produced paper pick tickets," says Anthony Jackson, Costa's national logistics support manager. Picking staff would collect a pick ticket and roam the centre pulling together the order, checking off items on the ticket and recording any variances. This information would then be re-entered into the WMS.
    Incoming stock was taken by forklift to a location as close as possible to the pick face for that particular product, but the exact location was stored only in that driver's memory. If another driver was called upon to restock the pick face, he or she would have to search the vicinity for the product.
    "There was lots of scope for error," says Jackson. "We had some high goals -- 100 percent inbound accuracy and 100 percent outbound accuracy." Part of the solution was a new WMS to improve accuracy and speed and therefore provide better customer service. The other facet was the elimination of paperwork by giving distribution centre staff mobile devices connected through a wireless network to further reduce errors and eliminate data re-entry.
    "We pushed the limits by looking at wearable devices for pickers," says Jackson, but "that turned out to be an excellent decision." The chosen device was the forearm-mounted Symbol WSS1060 with a long-range barcode scanner.
    The picking process starts at a label printer where a picker takes the pallet label for the next job and scans it to confirm receipt. The WSS1060 displays the details of the first item including the location, and when that's been loaded onto the pallet the next item is displayed, and so on. The WMS sequences the items in each order so the least crushable items go on the bottom of a pallet, and to keep items from similar temperature zones together as far as possible. When all the items are loaded, the picker is directed to a specific location in the dispatch area, and the software confirms that the pallet has been left in the correct place.
    Forklift trucks were fitted with Symbol VRC6946 vehicle-mounted devices and barcode scanners with a maximum range of 10 metres. This combination reduces the need for operators to leave the truck and allows operation while wearing protective gloves.
    The WMS tracks the exact locations where incoming goods have been stored, so any driver can be directed to the right place when a picking face needs replenishment. Furthermore, replenishment doesn't wait for a request from a picker, the software tracks stock positions in real time and directs a forklift operator to the bulk reserve to replenish a picking face just before it empties. "By and large we've got it pretty right," says Jackson. "None of that would be possible without the real time interface" between the mobile systems and the back end.
    "Integration was a fairly simple task," says Jackson, as the Manhattan Associates WMS makes provision for mobile devices and the vendor also offers an integration tool to link with other software or to electronically send packing lists and other documents to customers. The implementation used resources from Manhattan's local integration partner and from Symbol, and an outside contractor maintains the network infrastructure.
    "I'm proud of the fact that we did it with a very small project team [five or six people] in a very short time," he says. Design began in February 2001, and was implemented at three sites between August and November the same year.
    The project was justified on the basis of a 36-month payback period. "We're well on track to achieve that" with about six months to go, says Jackson.
    Apart from the financial aspects, there have been significant benefits for customer service including greater accuracy of fulfilment. "We get tremendous kudos out of that," says Jackson. Under the old system, approximately 94 to 95 percent of orders were error-free. Now, the figure runs at 99.7 to 99.8 percent, equivalent to a single error in one order per day.
    The detailed information kept makes it easier to handle claims of short delivery -- if a customer rings to complain that she can't find the tomatoes, Costa's can say they were packed between the passionfruit and cucumbers, for example, and there is a record of exactly who picked what and when.
    Inbound handling is even better: "It's very rare that we make a mistake on inbound," he says, and so 100 percent accuracy normally achieved.
    All staff strongly prefer wireless to the old paper-based system, and the warehouse staff are becoming more technologically sophisticated. This has resulted in people thinking about other ways to apply technology, such as the possibility of improving existing quality systems with the aid of Tablet PCs.

  • Costa's

  • AirRoad
    Transportation and logistics company AirRoad wanted to improve the last leg of its delivery chain, from depot to destination. The goals were to reduce costs by removing paper-based processes and improving fleet utilisation, and to improve customer satisfaction by capturing both the exact time of delivery and proof of delivery.
    The company called in HP's services operation at an early stage to help define the processes to be optimised, the focus for the initial project, and to establish the business case.
    The result was a mobile system for drivers built around the iPaq Pocket PC and using both Bluetooth and GPRS communications.
    As drivers load items into their vans, they use a barcode scanner (not connected to the iPaq) to record each item into AirRoad's in-house back-end software, which is known as AFTMDI (AirRoad Freight Tracking Multiple Document Interface). AFTMDI builds the manifests for each van, which are then automatically transferred to the iPaqs via Bluetooth as that technology has a zero marginal cost and is much faster than GPRS.
    As the van leaves the depot, the iPaq automatically switches from Bluetooth to GPRS. This was an essential feature, says Newman, as it was simply not acceptable to expect drivers to reset their iPaqs when they enter and leave the depot. According to Glenn Exton, the head of HP's mobility/Web services business, this capability was not available with off-the-shelf software at the time of the project.
    The system displays the driver's running list of delivery addresses, the number of items, whether or not a signature is required and any special instructions.
    AirRoad has investigated various route planning applications, but "we've yet to find software that can beat a good delivery driver," says Newman. Each driver operates in a specific area and typically visits the same premises on a regular basis, so route planning is not the issue it is for companies that specialise in point-to-point deliveries.
    The Quicktrak vehicle tracking service is used to locate vehicles in the fleet, partly for security reasons but also to identify the nearest van when a pickup must be assigned to a different driver, explains Newman.
    As each delivery is made, details are sent via GPRS to the back-office system. Since Optus offers a private IP network over GPRS, additional VPN software was not required.
    At the end of the day, the driver returns to base and if any items have not been delivered a manifest reconciliation is performed via Bluetooth so those items are rescheduled for the next day.
    Driver acceptance has been very high, says Newman. Just two of the drivers in the pilot group were initially guarded, but they became the biggest advocates, he says. One reason for the acceptance is that AirRoad's drivers have been using barcode scanners since 1990, so technology isn't seen as a big issue. "I'd hate to be somewhere else trying to introduce this cold," he says.
    Development has been shared between HP and AirRoad's IT staff. HP took care of the backend storage and defined the Web Services interfaces (including the XML transactions), while AirRoad developed the mobile application. It is an ongoing project, says Newman, with new features being added almost weekly. The company is currently looking to enhance the system to support on-site warranty or service exchanges on behalf of their clients. For example, AirRoad would deliver a replacement printer, repack the faulty one, relabel the carton and return it to the supplier. The trick is to capture all the serial numbers and other information using the iPaq so that the records are accurately and efficiently maintained.
    While the mobile system yields cost benefits to AirRoad -- eliminating the handling costs relating to paper proofs of delivery gives a considerable saving, says Newman -- the biggest benefits accrue to clients. For example, one of AirRoad's clients bills its customers once a month for the goods they have actually received. Thanks to real-time delivery information, that company can include items delivered right up to the close of business on the last of the month without having to delay invoice production. "EPOD [electronic proof of delivery] is a genuine benefit for our clients," says Newman.
    "We've been thinking about this for over ten years, just waiting for the technology to catch up," he says. "It's something that's got to be done."

    Janssen-Cilag is the world's fifth-largest pharmaceutical company and has over 1000 sales representatives in the Asia-Pacific region, including around 120 in Australia.
    Most of the Australian reps only call on physicians. Less than 20 percent of them also take orders from pharmacies for over-the-counter products. That part of the job is complicated by the complex set of business rules concerning issues such as pricing, payment terms and bonus stock. These rules are implemented in Janssen-Cilag's SAP ERP system.
    From Janssen-Cilag's perspective, the order-taking aspect of the system is less important than the call planning, customer contact information, and customer appointment capabilities, explains Stephen Wilson, regional vice president for information management. The ability to provide physicians with relevant information and to record any follow-up actions required was central to the project, but only the order-taking aspect requires integration with other systems.
    A pilot program to put information into the hands of reps and increase the efficiency of record keeping and order processing began in November 2002 and was subsequently rolled out around the region. The Australian implementation was fully live by December 2003.
    When a rep meets with a physician or takes an order from a pharmacist, the details are entered into an iPaq that runs software developed by O4. Capturing data on the spot improves the quality of the information in the system, and avoids subsequent entry from paper records.
    Reps previously used a PC-based system, but that provided much less immediacy as they would enter data at the end of the day (in some cases at the end of the week). In addition to reducing the timeliness of the data, it also ate into the reps' free time. The PDAs can be carried in a pocket or handbag, and "we're getting higher rates of compliance from the sales people," says Wilson, adding that they are happier with the new system.
    He says O4 put a lot of effort into the usability of the mobile component, making extensive use of pick lists and check boxes for fast and accurate entry. There's always a tendency to make interfaces over-complicated, he says, but O4 promotes ease of use.
    Data is automatically sent via GPRS to the Janssen-Cilag's O4 server. GPRS was selected largely because of the simplicity of operation. Once a rep's iPaq and mobile phone have been paired via Bluetooth, transfers are automatic.
    The reps are not technically oriented, says Wilson, so the communications aspect needs to be as simple as turning on a TV and changing channels. Communication needs to be quick, reliable and "first time, every time", he says, and "their [O4's] application is very good in this respect".
    Data is transferred from the O4 server to the ERP system on a daily basis, and in the reverse direction daily or less frequently as required. "It's quite complex, and it's all automated," says Ashley Bloch, managing director of O4. "It all happens on a scheduled basis, and according to database triggers." This integration is done at the database level, linking the SQL Server that underpins the O4 applications with the Oracle database used by the ERP system. The integration work was done jointly by O4 and Janssen-Cilag.
    In addition to the obvious benefits, implementation across Asia-Pacific has greatly simplified the task of regional reporting now that operations in all countries share a common platform.
    Wilson says the company has not done a ROI calculation for the project yet, as "a lot of the benefits are soft benefits" such as improving the likelihood of having all the information requested by a physician, or the ability to fit in an extra call during the day. "It's workflow and productivity -- it helps to have the immediacy of a PDA for mobile people," says Wilson.
    "It's certainly beneficial to the sales representatives themselves and the company, and the physician."
    "The project continues: more countries, more enhancements," says Bloch. For example, Janssen-Cilag's distributor in Thailand uses a SAP system, while in China the company wants integration with its Oracle data warehouse.
    Wilson says "We're likely to be using these devices for other things in future, such as analysis." The Singapore operation is already sending daily sales reports to reps' PDAs, and he's considering using the devices to deliver multimedia presentations stored on SD cards.

    This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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  • AirRoad
  • Janssen-Cilag

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