Clunky mobile devices evolve into savvy, elegant tools

Published on the 23/06/2009 | Written by Johanna Bennett

reuse old phones

Mobile solutions can radically improve business processes, and make and save companies’ big dollars, says mobile solutions specialist Mobico…

Mobile devices aren’t what they once were. Rugged handheld computers in particular have evolved greatly. Indeed, they’ve become a whole family, and some of its members are quite delicate, although still strong.

There is the tiny ‘ring-scanner’ that straps to your finger and acts as a miniature scanner. Then there are the small, stripped-down cellphone style devices used in hospitals. But whatever form they take, they’re all high-spec devices capable of a myriad of functions.

Take the latest innovation – the über-cool RFID reader for use on the ski-field. It reads the skier’s season pass while it’s still inside his or her jacket. It checks its validity by pulling up a photo, so the lift-operator can quickly confirm that the pass-holder really is who they say they are. It speeds up the chilly process of waiting for the chair lift considerably.

But the ‘family’ is bigger than this, and examples of its members provide for an interesting display in Mobico’s boardroom, the venue for our interview with Aldas Palubinskas.

Some models are still of the rugged I-cantake-being-run-over-a-truck variety (and they are – repeatedly – says Palubinskas), while others are more akin to your everyday cellphone.

The varied designs are no accident. They perfectly illustrate the diverse forms mobile technology is taking as it emerges from the back-room and the courier depot, and starts to appear in a lot of places you wouldn’t expect – such as on the ski-field or inside the cockpit of a jet liner – as well as in hospitals, universities and throughout retail networks.

Just why they’re developing this way is a story Palubinskas is keen to tell. The general manager of Auckland-based Mobico provides mobile solutions to solve what are basically process problems we all have and that mobile technology can deal with very effectively.

It can free us from paper mountains, and the drudgery of multiple data-entry, with all its tedium, inaccuracy and waste of time and money. And it can deliver the kind of efficiency and savings that have become pressing with the tough recession we’re facing, says Palubinskas.

“Companies in retail and transport have used such technology for years, both to automate jobs, making them easier to do; and to monitor quality and cut down on waste,” he says.

The problem is that, beyond these industries, people aren’t aware of how and where to use such technology despite how powerful it is, he says. However, Palubinskas thinks a recession is a good time to look at new ways of managing business.

“When times are tight, people need the opportunity to do things differently. That’s a real cliché, but if you’re in business and you’re used to following certain processes it can be quite daunting to try and find another way of doing things, even if the return seems obvious.

“Mobile technology can substantially improve the quality of your business processes and free up cash by giving you better visibility of your stock or assets, or other resources. It means you can make better business decisions.”

Making the case for adopting a mobile model, he says; “Most business processes consist of somebody sighting something and recording it. The normal process, ever since people could write, has been to record this on a piece of paper and then manually enter that data later on or reproduce it throughout a whole paper chain.

Mobile technology allows you to do that data capture at the point of interaction, at the organisation’s edge, where you’re serving the customer or handling an item of inventory. “A lot of organisations have their business processes built around paperwork, but then you’re locked into how that invoice or service request gets handled. This technology lets you capture that data instantly, and accurately, so you’re able to complete many of those processes on the fly.”

Smart drive washes up
Palubinskas gives the example of a Fisher & Paykel maintenance technician who comes to your home because your Smart Drive washing machine isn’t working.

Instead of relying on paperwork, as used to happen, the technician now has a handheld with drop-down menus, which allow him, for example, to see if the part he needs is in his van. If it isn’t, he doesn’t even need to go out and check, he just sends a request straight back to F&P so his bin will have that part placed in it. So, later on, when he goes back to the depot, he can just pick it and come straight back to you.

“A whole bunch of processes have been blended together here and, once he has done the job, an invoice gets generated on-the-job and he’s pretty much clear of all the paperwork,” says Palubinskas.

Although it might not be obvious at first glance, you can translate this way of doing things to other processes which are actually quite similar, such as insurance or tenancy inspections, meter reading or aircraft manifests, and more advanced developments, in hospitals and even on the ski-field, says Palubinskas.

Mobico is presently installing a ski-field application. It illustrates one of the more sophisticated uses of mobile technology, as it uses RFID (radio frequency ID) tags. RFID has taken a bit of battering lately in terms of take-up, as people come to terms with how best to use it.

Despite this, Mobico is busily installing an RFID-based ski pass system at Mount Ruapehu – the ski season arrived early this year, putting the pressure on for a quick install. The system will see ski-lift operators check your pass while it’s still inside your jacket. The traditional lift pass has a bar- code, which means you have to fish it out of your jacket. This can be a cold, unpleasant business and also means delays as chair-lifts go past unoccupied, says Palubinskas.

With RFID-checking, chair utilisation goes up, queue throughput increases and customers get more runs. Which is why Ruapehu Alpine Lifts is installing the technology. This leads us on to the need to ensure backend processes can support mobile solutions. Palubinskas gives an example of how this is being done in a fairly non-traditional area for mobile technology – health.

Healthy option
Unusually for the normally paper-based health sector, Capital Coast District Health Board moved to a mobile-based inventory replenishment system in its hospital wards about five years ago.

The system involves every ward having a location identifier and its medical stocks – syringes, bandages, medicines etc – being bar-coded. A handheld scanner is used to identify and capture information about stocks. It keeps a count and then relays this information to the three hospitals’ Oracle database.

This has a set ‘refresh level’ for when stocks fall below a certain level. The system will then ask the administrator if he or she wants to generate an order and if so will automatically transmit one to the supplier concerned. It’s effectively a real-time, ongoing stocktake, says Palubinskas.

Mobico’s Ben Tompkins, the systems architect who helped install the system, says the solution has had a major effect. The hospitals used to overstock on saline solution and dialysis products, for example. These have a limited life, but it’s hard to predict how much is needed. The hospitals would over-stock and a lot of it would go bad, says Tompkins.

The scanner-based inventory solution has helped the DHB address this expiry date issue, along with many other issues. The health sector is starting to look at mobile solutions too. Palubinskas says that a Canterbury hospital pilot is currently evaluating a quite different mobile solution – an RFID system to tag beds, so they can be tracked around the hospital.

“You might say, ‘how can you lose a bed?’ But you’ve got assets flying around the place all the time and there’s no check on them, so there could easily be an extra gurney in the emergency department or parked up some back hallway.” Even though we’re talking about hospitals, says Palubinskas, “It’s pretty much the same technology solution that’s used to restock shelves in your local store, but using a different business model. And the payback is immediate for both, with savings being derived from reducing slowmoving items and ensuring fast-moving items are at hand.

” You should be so lucky to have people queuing up in these tight times… Well, The Warehouse and McDonald’s do, and when their queues get too long they have a mobile solution.

For instance, a McDonald’s staff member will sometimes appear at your side and take your order on a PDA, relieving pressure on till staff and speeding up your order.

Similarly, at The Warehouse, especially at Christmas when queues are long, extra staff will often come and scan your purchases, and give you a ticket, so when you get to the counter all you have to do is pay – no more waiting. Palubinskas says these “queue-busting applications” just record what people have in their basket, but from a business point of view are very powerful as they take on “20 percent of the [POS] task for 80 percent of the benefit”.

“Many field service applications take a same approach. It makes implementation much faster and cheaper. Applications can be expanded over time, but just that 20 percent is enough to gain 80 percent of the ROI.”

Savings stack up
And what kind of savings are we taking about? Palubinskas gives a robust retail example to illustrate.

With the move some time ago to ‘just-intime’ manufacturing and stocking, one result has been gaps on shops’ shelves as popular items sell out, while stocks of less popular items languish unsold. A similar solution to the health board’s – but on a much more modest level – has been shown to increase the profits of a medium-sized shop by $50,000 to $250,000 a year, simply by reducing out-of-stock gaps and managing stock better, says Palubinskas.

The solution consists of a handheld equipped with a scanner, which is hooked up to a wi-fi network.

“Customer satisfaction also improves greatly. Did you know sales and margins lost due to out-of-stocks and discounts on old expired stock account for many more dollars than stock theft or loss? When a full stock-take takes hours instead of days, retailers can stay on top of their inventory, replace what they need and clear what they don’t far more efficiently. Even with a small gain, such a system can pay for itself almost straight away.”

“It’s smart technology for tough times.” And to emphasise the low-volume point, Palubinskas says that vertical operations – he mentions Morgan Furniture – are starting to use mobile- based systems. You can automate routine jobs by using scanners, which makes for consistency and also allows you to monitor quality, he says.

And, although initial staff buy-in can be difficult, once people realise it makes their jobs easier and gives them more control they’re usually enthusiastic, he adds.

Air NZ pilots paperless take-off
Moving up the company-size scale, Air New Zealand is using a mobile solution for a manifest makeover – that’s the folder of passenger information the pilot must have before take-off.

Just because a company is big doesn’t mean it’s immune from cost pressures, and Air NZ has faced the same pressures as other airlines, as the industry has become intensely competitive in recent years. This has forced it to scrutinise costs closely. For example, airlines have to pay steep fees for every second their planes are on the tarmac. “So, why do they walk the paperwork (the manifest) to the cabin door and hand it to the pilot?” asks Palubinskas.

Well, Air NZ won’t need to any more. It has been piloting a paperless solution for its national feeder plane airlines – the little planes of the Eagle and Mt Cook lines. This sees the pilot receive his or her manifest information wirelessly, over the public GPRS mobile network, to a handheld, a Motorola MC35 handheld computer in this case.

No more delays because of slow paperwork – that’s the bonus from the passenger point of view. From Air NZ’s, it’s the large savings from not having planes tick up fees as they hang around on the tarmac waiting.

On route
Mobile solutions have developed even beyond this, however. One of the latest enhancements is the geo-stamp. This has come about because many handhelds that are used on the road are now GPS-equipped. A recent iStart case study, of Mighty River Power, discussed how the company’s meter installers now do their ‘paperwork’ using handheld computers.

These feature drop-down menus and picklists which detail jobs and record completion. The handhelds also ‘geo-stamp’ jobs, using a GPS stamp. This involves a reading of the longitude and latitude of the place of installation, and acts as additional confirmation of a job done – very useful when third-party contractors are being used.

Palubinskas says the system has saved on paperwork and delays, and hugely reduced costs. Job-sheet accuracy has gone up from as low as 25 percent, at busy times, to virtually 100 percent.

“New Zealand’s power companies like it so much that we have ended up working with all of them to install similar systems. They would also work well for government, local councils and other utility companies, and service organisations like insurance,” he adds.

Which brings our ring-scanner to mind again. Both the ‘ring’ and the geo-stamp are examples of novel uses of mobile technology. While the geo-stamp records that a job has been physically attended, the ring-scanner aids accuracy and makes its user more productive. The wearable scanner reads bar-codes, so freeing-up the user’s hands to move packages etc. Both technologies show how varied the uses of mobile technology can be.

The key is to understand the underlying business process issue you are trying to solve. There is often a mobile solution to it, says Palubinskas.

From clunky to cool
“Mobile computing is used all over New Zealand and has been for twenty years. It can solve tough business problems, which results in big efficiency gains and cuts costs. It has been used extensively in retail, transport and logistics, and could bring the same benefits to other industries and organisations, especially when it comes to reducing paper,” says Palubinskas.

“There are perceptions about big clunky devices that are grubby, but the state of them is just a reflection of the environment they’ve been used in. The technology can be used in even the most hygienic environments, as the hospitals have shown.”

iStart’s discussion with Palubinskas finished up with a chat about Apple’s hugely popular iPod and how, basically, it’s really an innovative use of the humble hard-drive. Palubinskas thinks it’s “technology as jewellery”. Which makes it doubly innovative and underscores the theme here: that the same technology can solve the business process problems of quite different industries.

The iPod is a good example of innovative thinking. It solved a consumer ‘problem’ more neatly than its fore-runners – it made music on-the-move easier, more varied and more fun. Palubinskas has similarly innovative aims in the business space. And some of Mobico’s solutions promise more fun too – more runs on the skifield, for example.

Saving the Planet the Mobile way

Some people now have ‘saving the planet’ on their organisation’s list of KPIs. 

Even if you don’t, it’s almost certainly on your personal list of concerns. Palubinskas reckons mobilising your workforce can make a big ‘green’ contribution in a number of ways:

  • Reducing waste and  transport costs
  • Encouraging the re-use of assets – think of those ‘lost’ Canterbury hospital beds
  • Recycling storage space – as you stock up and quickly sell what you now know your customers want
  • Industrial PDAs are also way more rugged than mobile phones – they’re designed to survive many tumbles and drops, and they typically last five years or more. Very recession-friendly


Queue-Busting made simple

You should be so lucky to have people queuing up in these tight times… Well, The Warehouse and McDonald’s do, and when their queues get too long they have a mobile solution. For instance, a McDonald’s staff member will sometimes appear at your side and take your order on a PDA, relieving pressure on till staff and speeding up your order.

Similarly, at The Warehouse, especially at Christmas when queues are long, extra staff will often come and scan your purchases, and give you a ticket, so when you get to the counter all you have to do is pay – no more waiting.

Palubinskas says these “queue-busting applications” just record what people have in their basket, but from a business point of view are very powerful as they take on “20 percent of the [POS] task for 80 percent of the benefit”.

“Many field service applications take a same approach. It makes implementation much faster and cheaper. Applications can be expanded over time, but just that 20 percent is enough to gain 80 percent of the ROI.”

Savings & Financing

Because it’s hard to imagine the kind of financial benefits that a handheld computing solution can result in, Palubinskas quotes an example of a medium-sized shop increasing profits by $50,000 to $250,000 a year, by reducing gaps and managing stock better.

For bigger customers, the huge jump in reporting accuracy of field technicians’ reports for Mighty River Power – from as low as 25 percent to 99.9 percent – tells a powerful story.

Palubinskas says the savings come from less capital being tied-up in slow-moving stock, less waste and simpler data-entry that is more accurate, resulting in fewer incorrect invoices. There are also soft benefits, such as better customer service and retention.

And, because times are difficult, financing is now more flexible, he says.

“Payment can be made on virtually a daily basis, out of profits. And a business case and proof-of-concept roughed out pretty quickly so people can see just what’s possible.”

“If you want to test out a solution, equipment can be borrowed or rented, but the chances are your key business processes have already been mobilised by another industry, whose experience you can leverage.”


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