Technology for Technicians: 2013 Trends
The multi-functional capability of newer mobile devices, including ruggedized smartphones, presents field workers with a whole toolbox of computing and communications tools
by Dale Kyle
It is a great time to be a technician using technology. Work done in the field is getting easier, more efficient and more accurate as the tools we use get smaller, faster and more precise. And we can perform new functions in ways we might not have imagined five years ago. Asset tracking, inventory and cloud computing are three of the strongest application trends in 2013.
When it comes to technology, predicting very far into the future is a dicey proposition. But in the short term, it is possible to look into 2013 and see what is coming — and it is exciting stuff. Here is what I think will be some of the leading technological developments in the coming year.
The next level of applying technology
While there are holdouts in the working world still using pen and paper to work in the field, more and more organizations are already using mobile technology — and many of them are in their second or even third phase of deploying advanced levels. Initially they focused on the obvious gains technology provides — like field techs not having to do data-entry back in the office at the end of a shift — but now that they are comfortable with the tools and the technology, they are looking around for what else they can accomplish with it.
I think the biggest opportunity is the multi-functional capability of newer mobile devices. People started with simple handheld computers that let them jot notes or enter basic data; that is like learning to use a screwdriver. But now a single device offers an entire toolbox full of capability.
In 2013 users will explore what more they can do with that toolbox. Today you can easily find a handheld device that offers WiFi, GPS, barcode scanning, RFID and a really good camera. When people understand those functions and take some time thinking about how they can be used for their tasks, the horizon is going to get very wide.
Here are some examples that many leading companies have deployed and others will add soon:
- Asset tracking — Techs take pictures of the condition of any asset, write up a maintenance or repair report and transmit the photos and report back to the main office instantly, using WiFi. Or a field tech can use RFID or a barcode scanner to identify the asset and then send an associated report.
- Inventory — Real-time tracking is a huge advantage; when someone in the field consumes a part or other asset, a real-time report and inventory update can go back to the central office, which can react automatically by ordering a replacement.
- GPS — Advanced GPS functionality can be used for exact location information of workers or equipment, or for efficiency improvements such as route optimization.
- Wireless networks — Most devices are already solid in offering 3G-level wireless speed and access; when 4G modems come out, they will quickly be integrated into the mobile form factors. That will allow for faster transmission of bigger files in both directions. 4G is coming, and the leading products will have it.
Other developments to watch:
- Cloud computing (software as a service) lets users deploy new functions quickly and at a low initial cost, because there is no upfront expense of buying software.
- Machine-to-machine communication, where remote sensors on field assets can communicate with a field tech's handheld device, will let a tech know what to expect in advance, offering all sorts of efficiency improvements.
- Mobile payments — For retail operations and other functions that involve payment processes, several mobile payment companies are making it easier to take credit card payments on the fly.
These are just a few of the advanced capabilities that are available now and will be adopted more in the year ahead.
Smartphones are the new computers
Another interesting development is that more people are doing their jobs with their cellphones. There is a generation of workers coming up that thinks nothing of running their lives on a little phone; their logic is, why not use it for their jobs, too? I see more and more demand for devices like small rugged handheld devices or rugged smartphones. So besides seeing a move toward the larger tablet form, we may also see a surge at the opposite end, to devices even smaller than traditional handheld computers.
In the world of wireless, the capabilities that 4G networks make possible are going to change the way field techs work. The speed will let you do everything wireless faster, and the quantity of information you can send will be so much larger. Things that would have taken too long to send before — database files, schematic, maps, photos — now will not slow you down.
You can even extend this scenario to streaming video and other rich media. There is a wide variety of ways you can communicate to troubleshoot or solve a problem no matter how far it is between the problem and the answer.
The role of collaboration in workflow
Applications called enterprise-collaboration tools — essentially, social media within an organization — offer the ability to connect employees across all levels of an organization. These tools will be used much more widely in 2013. Field technicians could discuss problems with colleagues not only with words but also with photos, internet links, videos, chat functions etc.
In essence, these types of collaborative tools will capture the collective knowledge of every single person in your organization and make it available to everyone, virtually anytime. And their capabilities can extend beyond inter-organization communication. Smart outfits will find ways to use these applications to engage directly with customers. How do you think customers would react to real-time updates on appointment times?
Bringing it all together
One of the biggest challenges of all these new technological functions and capabilities will be to get all the pieces to work together effectively. What you will need is a combination of devices, networks, application and overall integration. The burden here will fall on your organization's IT department to connect it all effectively.
From my point of view, the key here will be to choose your technology products wisely, keeping in mind this need to integrate everything effectively. With the complexity of today's technology configurations, the cost of deployment and downtime is so high if something breaks down on you. That makes it all the more important that your upfront planning and product choices be forward-thinking. You want devices and applications that are rugged and reliable; buy good tough products the first time.
It is impossible to see too far into the future of technology. But I hope that I have been able to at least give you a glimpse of what to expect in 2013. Happy field work!
Dale Kyle is President of Handheld US. The Handheld Group is a worldwide supplier of rugged mobile computers, PDAs and smartphones. Mr. Kyle has more than 20 years of experience from rugged handheld devices and the field of GPS. http://www.handheldgroup.com.