Building a mobile workforce

When a building services firm wanted to monitor its activities and stock levels and gain an overall view of the business, it put...

New Asset  

When a building services firm wanted to monitor its activities and stock levels and gain an overall view of the business, it put its supplier to the task of developing a system that could be used by its staff and customers alike. Helen Beckett reports




Emergency building contractors Response Maintenance & Building Services won the BCS Business Achievement Award in 2004 in the small business section for its real-time, always-on business scheduling system. Innovative technology is just part of the success story. The application has delivered real benefits to the business, stripping out £250,000 in costs a year and turning the building repairs company into a finely tuned customer services organisation.

A huge part of this success is down to managing director Andy Cornaby. Disillusioned with an industry where the customer constantly wants more for less along with a chronic shortage of skilled tradesmen, he was watching his profits drop year on year.

"From day one we have always used technology," he says. When the business was founded this was pretty basic: a word processor, CB radios in the vans and pagers to call drivers to their vans. Mobile phones were not universal and up until three years ago he ran a paper-based office where jobs were scheduled on a dry whiteboard stuck to the wall. Cornaby started the business in 1994 with his financial director, two staff and four tradesmen and within three months this increased to four staff and 20 tradesmen.

However, trading conditions for the repair and maintenance sector have become more demanding with clients looking for ever better service at cheaper prices. Labour costs have risen as quality tradesmen are in decline following the lapse of apprenticeship schemes over the past 20 years.

Cornaby wanted his Wolverhampton-based company to manage resources, labour and stock much more efficiently to increase margins and provide better customer service. This could only be accomplished through real-time deployment of parts and labour to jobs. "I wanted to be able to monitor the purchase orders, the delivery notes and the individual jobs or tradesmen at the touch of a button," he says.

Relying on a manual system of whiteboards, jobsheets and a squad of administrators to input tradesmen's handwritten notes costs time and money. If job sheets went missing or workers were off sick, reporting could be delayed by up to a week. "Although this was just about acceptable, it was not efficient," says Cornaby. Idle stock and dead time were also an unwelcome feature of the business. "We carried about £95,000 of stock that was never or seldom used," he says.

Worst of all, it was virtually impossible to get an up-to-the-minute view of the business. It needed a "fast, reactive response service" says Martin Taylor, managing director of web-based software and browser interface specialists Impact Applications, developer of the company's mobile system. "The business was giving clients 24-hour response time agreements and was meeting them by the skin of its teeth," he says. The application had to be in real time.

Cornaby wanted to equip his staff with personal digital assistants that could transfer live information between the field engineers and the back-office via the internet. Additionally, customers, stock controllers and administrators would be able to log on to the company's system to check the live status of activities including customer enquiries, jobs, appointments, workforce scheduling, labour hours, stock control and health and safety advice.

Given the immaturity of handheld devices and wireless technology at the time, this was a bold vision, says Taylor. Most logistics companies were deploying batch-synchronisation resource management systems in the field, which entailed handheld devices installed with client software that could be periodically synchronised with back-end systems. This was achieved either by plugging into a desktop and synchronising the data or doing updates over GPRS.

In May 2001 Cornaby hired Impact to implement his ideas. He had already designed a logical schema as he was keen to automate the tried and tested processes.

Impact had never developed an application for a PDA before and this was the biggest job the company had since start-up, but Impact and Cornaby worked together to devise a specification. Although the zero-client architecture proposed by Impact was technically pioneering, it had the advantage of being cheaper on a number of counts.

"The inherent cost of delivering access through a web browser is lower," says Taylor. "The cost of supporting a thin client in the field is greater, because if it is damaged or lost, you lose data as well as having to replace the software and hardware client. If you break a zero client device, it is just a case of replacing the battery or the device."

Impact is a Wolverhampton University incubated company that specialises in web-based software and browser interfaces. Taylor used open source software and MySQL, PHP for scripting and Apache web server. The company had to look into resizing screens for a PDA and had to research wireless connectivity. It chose Symbol's PPT 2837 Pocket PCs, at £1,500 per device, for Response's 30 workers in the field.

Taylor says, "When you are developing you are always coming up against things you have not done before. The great thing about using open source is having a developer community to talk to. They have a free spirit about helping their peers. We always encourage developers to spend a few hours a week on the notice boards helping people with their problems and we get it back by the spadeful. You rarely get a straight answer but you do get useful insights."

The finished system consists of three core components: the customer extranet, the mobile interface and the back-office, which controls customer enquiries, jobs, appointments and workforce scheduling, labour hours, stock control and health and safety advice. Workers could use the PDA to log appointments, report progress and collect signatures in real time, in the field.

"We had to make sure the handheld devices were powerful enough to support opening an internet address - any pocket PC-based PDA can do this now - and that the speed of wireless access was fast enough to support this," says Taylor.

Security was perhaps the biggest concern, as any connection had to be fully secured. SSL 128-bit encryption was ideal, but this was not included in the first version of Pocket PC. Mobile supplier Orange helped Impact source a supplier that provided SSL capability but by the time the system went live, the next generation of devices included support.

When development began, GPRS was still an immature technology and the first problem was whether it was feasible to use. In particular, the lack of optimisation for data and thus the relatively high occurrence of dropped connections was considered.

"If you want to send large files such as video or pictures, GPRS might be something you would look at. But for frequent small packets of data it is not an issue," says Taylor. Cornaby was happy to trade the odd, dropped connection for the big commercial benefits he believed he was set to gain.

Similarly, Impact had to look outside for specialist software when Cornaby, in pursuit of a real-time, paperless system, insisted on the capture of digital signatures. "What was the point in having a customer sign a paper docket?" he asks. No software existed for PDAs and their suppliers Orange and Symbol came up trumps in helping them source suitable software. This was installed in the permanent memory of the phone at the nominal cost of £2.10 per device.

Cornaby's determination that every aspect of the business, even the signatures, had to be in real time delayed the roll-out of the system and meant that version control had to be tight. The initial 24-week project grew to 18 months. "We developed function by function, so changes to discrete pieces did not alter the others. There may have been between 20 to 30 versions to each function. Because we worked so hard at the outset to get the specification right, features were never wrong. We just took them further than we had originally planned," says Taylor.

Both parties were satisfied with the pioneering project and achieved real-time updates over GPRS. Cornaby has cut costs and the business is in good shape for the future.

Having developed the product together, Response Maintenance & Building Services and Impact Applications are marketing it under the name Impact Response. Under the partnership, Cornaby has also agreed to act as a reference site and adviser on future version changes.

"Contractors get a terrible name - the public has seen the cowboys on TV," he says. "Now all our transactions are transparent to our customers and they can see what they are getting and at what cost." But Cornaby remains a pragmatist - the dry whiteboard is tucked away in a corner, just in case.

At a glance

The system: enables information about jobs, appointments and workforce scheduling, labour hours, stock control and health and safety advice to be remotely accessed and amended. It consists of three core components:

The back-office: A Hewlett-Packard Proliant server and HP PCs host a bespoke work management and scheduling system.

Mobile interface: Tradespeople, kitted out with Symbol Pocket PCs can access back-office systems over the GPRS mobile network at the click of the button.

Customer extranet: A layer of scheduling information can be accessed by customers from a web browser.

Read more on Wireless networking