In technology, it's all too easy to be inundated with solutions in need of a problem. Everyone remembers the famous Tomorrow's World's demonstration of a microwave cooker decades ago, with Raymond Baxter informing everyone that, of course, there would never be any domestic demand for such a contraption.
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Sometimes, however, it's the other way round - when there's a problem in need of a solution. The RAC's Inspection Services division was in that position for several years, waiting for the right technology to arrive so that it could finally dispense with manual note-taking by its engineers out in the field inspecting the condition of a vehicle for sale, on behalf of a prospective buyer.
What it needed was a fast, cost-effective means of electronic data capture carried out during the inspection itself, which of necessity happened on site, in all weather conditions. As the RAC's inspection business grew - currently nearly a quarter of a million reports are produced each year - manual data capture was fast becoming unmanageable, time-consuming, prone to inaccuracy and costly.
RAC engineers work all over the country, travelling to the car and carrying out more than l60 different checks on it. Sales staff at RAC offices took bookings over the phone into a Dos-based system, agreed price and details with customers, and carried out online HPI checks on the registration number to check if the car had been reported stolen, written off or had payment outstanding on it. The booking was then passed to the allocation department, an engineer was allocated, and briefed by phone on voicemail. Engineers phoned in to their voicemail every evening or morning to find out their day's work, noting details manually.
"They would turn up at a site, do their inspection and write up a five page report," says Adrian McCarthy, national operations manager for RAC Inspection Services. "Once completed they would leave a copy on site if the customer wanted it or post it, plus post another copy to the office, as well as giving a verbal report over the phone to the customer if required."
The handwritten report details would only be entered electronically into the organisation's Dos-based computer system when the paper copy had been received back at the office.
As the volume of business increased, the manual system "was a major problem - we couldn't keep going with it. It was coming apart at the seams and it was obvious we needed to implement something better," says McCarthy.
The manual system was not just lengthy and cumbersome, it was also prone to inaccuracies. "We had a number of issues," says McCarthy, "from the accuracy of information to the final presentation of the report to a customer. Quality was suffering, caused by a whole range of factors, from the engineer's handwriting being unclear to weather conditions physically damaging the reports.
"Engineers sometimes found themselves in the most appalling weather conditions," says McCarthy. "Reports were arriving back to us at HQ looking as though they had been in a warzone - handwriting smudged by rain, bits of reports torn and tattered - not really a presentable state to send to the customer."
Clearly, the paper had to go.
But what to replace it with? It's easy to say, "You need a mobile data solution, mate," but less easy to find the right one.
In the mid-nineties there was not a lot of choice and the technology was definitely nascent, rather than mature.
"I knew what Apple was doing with the Newton Message Pads and did take a real interest," says McCarthy. "Unfortunately, though, Apple withdrew the product from the market around the same time, which effectively put us back at square one.
Psion and PalmPilot also proved problematical because they would not fit into the RAC's existing IT infrastructure and neither the hardware nor software available were suitable. The RAC also looked at established, PC-based kits already used in field and factory conditions, such as ruggedised Husky handheld machines, as well as laptops such as the IBM Thinkpad.
The PC problem, however, was one of weight and usability in the field. "Engineers can't carry a 3kg machine with them for eight hours a day," says McCarthy.
Moreover, engineers could be reluctant to use a laptop during the inspection itself. "There's no worktops on site," says McCarthy.
The danger was, then, that engineers would still make notes manually during the inspection, then head back to their car and sit keying them into the PC - just what McCarthy didn't want them wasting their time doing.
McCarthy seemed to have reached an impasse.
Then, in March l998, McCarthy heard of a possible breakthrough when the RAC was doing some work with BT. BT introduced him to TBS Systems which specialised in mobile data projects. TBS was itself exploring the possibilities of a newly launched tablet-form pen computer, the Casio Cassiopeia PA2400U, which ran Microsoft's stripped down version of Windows - Windows CE.
"We adapted the Cassiopeia to make it more rugged and waterproof by encasing it in a hardwearing shell," says McCarthy. Costs looked favourable. At the time, a ruggedised laptop would have clocked in at around £3,000 each, compared with around £600 for the Cassiopeia - a significant difference when more than 50 engineers needed to be kitted out, plus spares bringing the number up to around 60, with more planned in the future as business expands.
Although the Casios have proved robust the downside of a physically lightweight palmtop is that it is not a full-function PC, and Windows CE is not full-function Windows. When it comes to the software in a mobile application, says McCarthy, you have to cut your cloth appropriately.
"You have to understand the limits. For example, if we'd wanted to run a full estimating system in the field we couldn't have done it," he warns. "But for us the limits were outweighed by substantial benefits. You just have to be aware of the restricted processing capability of palmtops, although they are getting more powerful."
Even so, "it was quite a difficult decision to make," he acknowledges.
At first, McCarthy thought the RAC might have to develop a suitable application in-house, but TBS already had a field service automation application written for the Casio Taskmaster that could be tailored to what the RAC field engineers wanted to do - capture the relevant data easily and quickly on menu-driven, pre-defined electronic forms at the point of inspection and transmit that data to the report-generating back end systems.
Moreover, the engineer now receives his next day's allocation of jobs directly through Taskmaster over a mobile phone connection, removing the need to dial into his voicemail.
"My eyes lit up when I saw Taskmaster," says McCarthy. "It fitted our needs exactly, and had built-in flexibility and configurability. At the time it was the answer to a major problem we had."
The Casio CE units - which had to be specially imported for the RAC, so new to market were they - comprise the handheld PDA, a GSM Nokia 6110 mobile phone and a Pentax thermal-imaging printer which can print a one-page draft onsite if needed, all in one ruggedised case, plus charges for the DPA and printer.
The mobile system has proved easy to use, says McCarthy. "Training was very straightforward - the software is very user-friendly and only took half a day to learn," he says.
The field units form part of a larger revamp of the RAC Inspection Service's IT.
"The first phase was to replace the back-end Dos-based kit with hardware running NT. Next we developed a new sales, administration and allocation system written in-house. And the third phase was to get the engineers' data electronically captured and sent back," says McCarthy,
The project kicked off in late l997 and the Casios were rolled out on an evaluation basis in late l998.
McCarthy is confident he's getting payback from the investment.
"The project was signed off by the board as meeting the return on investment requirements," says McCarthy.
As well as making engineers' jobs easier and faster, "There's been a significant reduction in the number of administration staff who had to be used to do keying-in of data," points out McCarthy.
The metrics show that the mobile electronic system saves approximately twenty minutes per report, a 50% reduction in process steps and printing costs, and a 33% reduction in stock write-offs.
"We now produce only one sheet of paper instead of 20 different versions," says McCarthy.
One significant additional benefit has been a dramatic reduction in communication costs for keeping in touch with the field engineers. The RAC's Inspection Services telecoms bill is now less than a fifth of what it was when engineers constantly had to use expensive BT charge cards for lengthy and repeated access to their voicemail.
Significantly, the system allows the RAC to improve and tighten the allocation of engineers to their next day's jobs.
"The work is constantly changing [as new jobs are booked], and the last half of the day is spent finalising the engineers' diaries until the telesales department closes at 6.30pm," says McCarthy.
The final bookings are logged on the server and confirmed. In the days of voicemail allocation it could take three to four hours to allocate engineers to each of the 80 jobs per day.
In the past, engineers were briefed via voicemail from around 3.30pm onwards, and had to keep phoning in, in order to ensure they picked up any late allocations.
"Now we can swap jobs around on screen in seconds, and when we're happy with the mix for each engineer, he can just dial in to the server to collect his allocation," says McCarthy.
Now the finalised allocation is despatched automatically to their Casios. "We can now configure their work more efficiently," says McCarthy. "It's a major benefit and the engineers appreciate it because they can concentrate better on their work."
In general, the RAC's field engineers have welcomed the new devices. "I was concerned about their reaction," says McCarthy, "but they've been very pleased to use them most of the time."
As for the RAC's customers, they are "stunned by the quality, speed, efficiency and accuracy of the reports generated with the new system," he claims.
"Customer service surveys say 99% are happy with the presentation of the report, and find it easy to read."
"What we've been able to achieve with Windows CE was unthinkable l8 months earlier. I have no doubt that as the business grows, the use of Windows CE will grow with it."
Automation of the field engineers' allocation and reporting has arrived at a good time for the RAC. The inspection service business is growing enormously, and expanding into new markets and directions. Field automation has contributed to both the consumer and the commercial sides of the business.
Above all, consumers want a fast response - they want the car they are considering buying inspected as soon as possible so they can make their decision. "It's very difficult to get to consumers," observes McCarthy.
To reach the consumer, "we've got to get them at the point of purchase - we can now get to 76% of the vehicles within 48 hours," says McCarthy.
There's a lot of consumer market share up for grabs. "It's very much an untapped market," says McCarthy. "Between us, the RAC, the Automobile Association and Green Flag inspect only around 1% of cars sold to consumers."
The key to the market, he says, "is fast, cost-effective service - if we can crack that, we can crack the business."
The faster the turnaround by inspection engineers the better, and therefore the less paperwork to bog them down the better.
But as well as the consumer market, the RAC Inspection Services also caters for the very large commercial market, when fleet cars are released back into the market.
"Car manufacturers want to protect the residuals," says McCarthy. "It's important for them to ensure that de-fleeted cars are up to a certain standard." Enter the RAC to carry out the necessary third-party inspection the manufacturers need.
There are also new projects in the pipeline. Field automation "is allowing us to move into new areas which no one else can do. Electronic data capture in the field has allowed us to become more efficient and enter markets that in the past would not have been available to us - we see a significant growth in this area," says McCarthy
"The RAC is further advanced in this area than any of its rivals," claims McCarthy.
Automation also opens up new possibilities in terms of gathering valuable information. "The electronic version probably doesn't capture information in any more detail at the moment," says McCarthy, "but engineers can now go armed with better information sent electronically to the engineer, and later we'll have a database of faults related to particular vehicles available to them electronically."
Methodically and electronically captured information can, of course, be classified, searched and commercially exploited once it's collected into a database.
"We can now run queries on the data in areas such as how many suspension faults we get on a particular vehicle," says McCarthy. "We don't sell this data to anyone yet, but it's the kind of data that would be of great interest to car manufacturers. It's a possible revenue generator for us and we've already registered it as a project."
What RAC did right
Peter Duschinsky, secretary, BuyIT
The benefits of electronic data capture in the field:
Some of the improvements RAC measured:
What the Buy IT experts say
Chairman, BuyIT Best Practice Group
The success of RAC's Inspection Service depends on their ability to communicate quickly and accurately with the team out on the road. This quality of information sharing and management was not possible only 18 months ago - before the new hardware and software solutions became available - so we have a good example of a business growth opportunity being enabled by the emerging technologies.
The success of this project depended on a nifty bit of integration of the hardware, application software (running on the relatively unproven Windows CE), RAC's existing HQ system (running on Windows NT) and GSM datacard-based mobile phone links. Sound easy but I bet it wasn't.
Thorough testing and evaluation and good training support from the principal supplier, TSB, will have contributed significantly to the smooth rollout of the new system. Once again, we can point to the importance of a partnership between purchaser and supplier.
And taking a customer-focused approach paid off. The customers' expectations for a fast response (so they can make their decision to buy or not), is the single main driver (sorry!) here and Adrian is now able to meet this need. It's nice to see the theorists being proved right sometimes!
The Houndscroft Partnership managing director, and vice chairman of IEE's Infomatics Division
The RAC approach is a classic example of sensible compromise. It has taken into account the urgent need facing the business, the available technology and the cost effectiveness of the solutions.
They have tried to use off-the-shelf software wherever possible, which is always a better approach than writing things yourself - unless you absolutely have to. This was made easier by the flexibility of the application they chose.
They have looked closely at the way their field engineers work and tailored a solution that makes it easier for them. Efficiency and accuracy are increased because data is only entered once.
By using virtually standard items, some level of flexibility for the future is maintained, with new opportunities already on the horizon.
This is an excellent example of the growing number of applications creating mobile solutions based around a combination of PDAs and mobile phones.
CEO at NCC
The RAC are to be congratulated on finding a very practical solution to a problem which was clearly inhibiting the potential growth of a profitable business for the company.
It was interesting to hear the RAC's view on the competition. I wonder how long the window of opportunity Adrian thinks he has over his rivals will remain open. In the new digital age with new ideas and electronic options coming at us with real pace, competitors do have a nasty habit of playing leapfrog. With m-commerce around the corner, voice recognition continuing to improve and Internet access getting to the "anytime, anyplace, anywhere" stage, being leapfrogged is something the RAC needs to consider.
It is also the case that winning in the knowledge economy may be more about cooperation than competition. Looking at this business in new ways with new types of partners may be something else that might provide a leapfrogging opportunity for existing and potentially new competitors in a market which is clearly under-exploited. Definitely worth a look!
Deputy chief executive, British Computer Society
It is always pleasing to see a solution that is both relatively simple and very clearly fit for purpose. The RAC has resisted the temptation to look for an all-singing-all-dancing system and has provided a solution that appears to be an exact fit with the real business need.
Overall they have improved the service to their customers, made life easier for their field engineers and HQ staff, reduced both the communication and administrative costs significantly and created capacity to expand the business within existing resources. That would be an impressive outcome for any project.
Perhaps the most significant feature of this project is that it is based on relatively cheap palm-top technology, running package software and using an operating system that would not be the automatic choice for a business-critical system. Those interested in similar mobile data capture systems will do well to look at the RAC experience.
BuyIT guidelines on project management are available www.itworld.co.uk