This article first published to LinkedIn Pulse, November 2015
Can Tablets Add IoT Business Value
in Field Service?
By Sal Yazbeck
Today's tablets feature a variety of network connectivity options, web-based applications, and familiar operating systems that can enable a field service engineer to retrieve and update cloud data from the field as it happens.
In Field Service Management, tablets function as part of a larger Internet of Things (IoT) data ecosystem since, by design, this data ecosystem enables an end-user to interact with available cloud services. In this way, end-user tablets, cloud services, and a working Internet connection work in harmony to facilitate a data exchange process. Looking at the big picture, from a strategic business value approach, it becomes clear how tablets play a key business role in field service and for their organizations.
The following is a framework I usually use when analyzing IoT services for strategic insight, and which articulates an interconnected approach symbolizing current innovation in 3 distinct areas:
1. The Enablers
2. The Support System
3. The Business Drivers
These three areas, together, represent an ecosystem of technology and operational processes I refer to as an “IoT Data Value-Chain Ecosystem,” and which one might apply to gain rapid clarity and insight on a technology, business, and market level.
THE ENABLERS: COMPUTING DEVICES
This category is comprised of all those end-user devices where manual data interaction is a primary feature. For field service and in this article, the tablet is of primary interest for its larger screen size and greater keyboard functionality when compared to using the smaller smartphone option. These particular features tend to offer a more efficient user experience.
For the field engineer, as a tablet end-user assigned on a machine service case, this could also mean having access to useful customer information while out in the field. Such information may include, for instance, machine health data previously transmitted to cloud services via embedded sensors.
And while IoT, as a concept, also offers field service managers remote access to this and other cloud customer data, the challenges presented to the engineer at the case location can be unique in many ways. For instance, while managers may use a consumer-based tablet from the comforts of home or office, the field engineer may require a more ruggedized version as they could be facing a variation of harsh environmental conditions and repair complexities.
As such, a tablet tailored for the field engineer experience can play an important role in helping resolve an assigned case on the first visit. Field service may include anything from maintaining a busy office copier, to repairing a wind turbine that is more complex in size and performance and situated in very challenging environmental settings. Though, in either case, serviceability expectations are that repairs be done efficiently, cost effectively, and with least disruption to operations.
When interacting with cloud systems optimized for field service, a field engineer equipped with a networked tablet along with the appropriate installed software may benefit in several ways. Examples include:
1. Retrieve cloud stored data: On-demand access to sensor collected data and other customer resources. For instance:
- Access to machine logs, configuration data, and service history can offer opportunities for the engineer to work with up-to-date and precise information.
- Retrieval of service manuals, customer information resources, and parts availability can be important factors in how efficiently the engineer closes a service case.
2. Add to cloud stored data: Engineer-assisted data collection at the worksite. Functionalities include:
- Paper replacement. Service notes entered directly into a web-based app. This process helps reduce the risk that paper notes are later lost or misplaced.
- Serviced machine update: Capture the tag or bar code on a just replaced part or machine to update account information.
- Multi-media data: Take photos or video of a repair process and share with colleagues for collaborative assistance.
- Signature capture: Acquire digital customer signature for work completion and invoicing purposes.
- Mobile billing: Enable credit card processing and other payment options.
From an IoT perspective, as customer data is entered into tablet software and uploaded to cloud services, it could then be merged and analyzed with machine and enterprise data to produce enhanced account insight.
Such insight may lead to a variety of quantifiable business value outcomes, mutually beneficial for the service provider and their customer. For instance:
- Predict machine failures before they occur.
- Prescribe a way to avoid failures.
- Decrease customer service calls.
- Offer competitive pricing.
- Enhance customer loyalty (ie, less churn).
- Maintain a happier workforce.
The success of such examples, however, is dependent on various additional factors including a field engineer’s access to appropriate tablet hardware configuration and a readiness to operate under variable worksite conditions. These follow next.
DEVICE FEATURES AND ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGES
Field service occurs in a variety of settings from factory floors and office buildings, to very harsh outdoor environments such as mining and construction. And in places where a Wi-Fi connection is available, and in areas where cellular signal is not. However, there are options available to address such challenges. The following are some examples.
Among the rugged and non-rugged tablet choices, some useful features include:
PAN (Bluetooth), WLAN (WiFi), and WWAN (cellular, satellite) radios
- GPS (location)
- Camera (photos and video)
- Bar code scanner (data capture)
- Credit card reader (transaction processing)
A variation of worksite environmental challenges include:
- Extreme temperatures
- Wet conditions (rain, sea)
- Shock (drops and bumps)
- Dust exposure
- Extreme vibrations
- Bright sunlight
While these examples are brief and may appear intuitive, the bigger reality could be that field service organizations may or may not be familiar with such condition variations their own engineers face out in the field. Such awareness can play directly into which type of field service tablet an organization may select.
THE TABLET OF CHOICE
A couple of good articles, here and here, present some useful nuggets on how to choose the right tablet. It’s safe to say there are options. For instance, adoption considerations vary from sleek and rugged designs as Getac’s T800, to consumer devices as the Apple iPad. And from tablets running operating systems as Android or iOS, to tablet PCs as MobileDemand’s xTablet T1200 running a full version of Windows.
On device toughness, rugged tablets are well known for their durability and reliability. But there are organizations as Pitney Bowes who have also shown how implementing a combination of a consumer tablet alongside device use policies “saw breakages fall to practically zero.”
However, as in many cases, there's no one size fits all. What may work for one organization may not work for another. So, while organizations like Pitney Bowes are able to meet their needs with consumer grade tablets, others such as Utilities will see greater benefits from rugged ones. Perhaps taking a closer look at the field work environment and benchmarking other companies in the same vertical, may just be the right areas to begin.
As for IoT, its success is dependent on the level of business value it contributes overall. For field service organizations, choosing the right field tablet may offer a strategic push in that direction.
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