Companies are finding new uses for wireless telemetry, as two-way communication with remote devices improves customer service and creates new business opportunities. Helen Beckett reports.
Telemetry has evolved from monitoring widgets for ensuring that water or electricity flowed through the grid, to transforming remote devices into intelligent systems. Three industries demonstrate how the advent of wireless technology and the web are transforming telemetry into an enabler of huge efficiency gains, improved customer service and new information services.
The virtual vending machine
The clunky old vending machine, once used for dispensing cans of drinks and other items in salubrious establishments, is becoming an intelligent, interactive communication device. The vending channel, which is currently worth £20bn in Europe, aims to play a big part in converting the world into a population of snackers and grazers as it metamorphoses into a virtual point of sale.
Historically, the vending channel was troubled by the pilfering of cash and the shrinkage of products, says Ian Orrock, managing director of Vianet, telemetry and managed vending supplier. Now, as the resident GPRS modem sends updates on the date and time of sold items, it is possible to reconcile all stock.
As a result of two-way communication between the telemetry-enabled machine and head office stock systems, pilfering and shrinkage, which ran at between 5%-6%, has been all but eliminated. "It has been reduced from a material consideration to one of virtually no consequence," says Orrock.
An even greater economic benefit is that the fleet of service staff in vans that service the vending machine circuit can work much more efficiently. Rather than patrolling a regular beat of vending machines that may or may not have required attention, refills or repair, service staff are informed by an SMS message in advance of their visit which details precisely what action is required.
Vianet telemetry technology is installed on the vending machine to collect data about items of stock sold and how machinery parts are functioning. Integrating the vending machine operating system with a GPRS modem means that precise details of the stock that needs replenishing and any technical problems can be flagged up. Introducing two-way interaction makes the service team 30% more effective, says Orrock. In turn, this means that the industry can save on vans, staff and stock.
However, the innovation that promises to add the most value to the vending channel is the data capture and exploitation of more sophisticated customer consumption information. GPRS enables a supplier to squirt a ring tune down to a machine that can be uploaded onto a mobile phone, or even offer weather or other information updates or "sweeteners".
Mobile phones are already being used in Europe not only to pay for vending machine products but to pay other utility bills. "The economics of GPRS have only been available to data over the past six months. Vending machines could be Wi-Fi enabled. It will not be long before we look at them as the point of departure for a Blackberry or other personal digital assistants (PDAs)," Orrock says.
Two-way customer service
Implementation of a GPRS, real-time tracking system has enhanced efficiency and improved customer service capabilities for Marshalls, a UK manufacturer of concrete, clay and natural stone hard landscaping products.
Marshalls' 150-strong vehicle fleet delivers more than 1,500 loads a day from 13 UK depots to keep customers in stock. Until recently, route and delivery schedules were planned on paper by 14 people. The introduction of a route planning system to automate this task was intended to give head office visibility of what was happening at individual depots and across the business.
Stewart Potter, group logistics manager at Marshalls, says that the company could have improved efficiency with route planning software alone. However, the company also opted to invest in GPRS vehicle tracking to achieve optimum effectiveness. "GPRS-based telematics provides the ability to get maximum efficiency out of the fleet and to keep customers updated on what is happening," says Potter.
GPRS was selected in preference to GSM because it enables two-way communication between drivers and fleet managers and is always on. Problems and delays could thus be reported and responded to immediately.
Marshalls bought a fleet management system from Cybit and the location of vehicles is now reported every five minutes. This data feeds into the route planning software, which additionally has been integrated with Marshalls' existing Baan ERP system. Reach, the new route planning system, enables supply chain management in real time. The increased efficiency means that the investment will pay for itself very quickly, says Potter.
Utilities - the shape of things to come
Centrica, the home services arm of British Gas, has been using laptops for the past 10 years to co-ordinate customer call-outs and service engineers in the pursuit of better customer service. Applications on engineers' field terminals link to and synchronise with the central field system that reorganises call-outs and priorities.
British Gas uses the GSM network so that engineers to update central records and order parts. "GSM enables engineers to do comprehensive updates on the hoof - vital when safety is our number one priority - and also transforms field terminals into intelligent devices," says Dominic Shorrocks, head of transformation at British Gas Home Services.
The utilities company recently spent a further £10m on Vidus software to upgrade its workforce automation systems, which manages 8,000 field workers. "Currently we use telemetry to monitor our people. British Gas no longer owns miles of pipelines and fixed assets - we are a customer-focused retail organisation and our resources are spent on incremental improvements," he says.
Shorrocks looks forward to an era when two-way communication is applied to remote devices, as well as people, to achieve bigger gains in customer services and efficiency. Communicating with remote diagnostic kits inside home boilers is the next generation of telemetry. "It is great from the customer point of view," he says.
British Gas uses the analogy of the modern car, where a reading can be taken of the onboard computer system to gain an instant accurate assessment of the state of health of the car without even lifting up the bonnet. "Modern boilers have in-built diagnostics, and it is a logical next step to access and manage this intelligence remotely," says Shorrocks.
This article is part of Computer Weekly's Special Report on mobile IT produced in association with Vodafone
This was first published in May 2004