In the first of two case studies, Antony Adshead reports on how mobile technology helped BT Industries simplify its truck maintenance scheduling and service system and save £1.7m a year.
As the world's largest manufacturer of warehouse trucks, BT Industries' business is all about helping its customers get things to where they need to be. A major part of that involves keeping those trucks rolling by responding to efficiently repair call-outs and routine maintenance.
There are 1,500 maintenance technicians working in the field in the company's European operations making about 5,000 service visits a day - both planned and emergency. Scheduling these visits and arranging for the delivery of parts has been dramatically simplified using handheld devices connected via the mobile phone network to customer and product data held in the firm's enterprise resource planning system.
As a result, BT Industries has saved £1.7m a year in maintenance costs Europe-wide and £1m by being able to reduce its offices from seven to two in the UK.
It all started around 2000, after the company had implemented an enterprise resource planning system from Intentia called Movex, and it began to think about the possibilities of developing it to provide mobile information.
The existing system of scheduling maintenance and repair staff was heavily dependent on staff taking calls, manually checking to see which technicians were best suited to the job, contacting the technician and arranging for the correct parts to be sent to the customer location - all of which was done by phone. Such was the amount of phone time taken up by this process that customers would often get an engaged signal when calling BT Industries' service centre.
"Taking and making calls and back-office checks used to occupy the bulk of the time in the whole process," says Nick Duckworth, after sales manager at BT Industries. "Now it is the one call to the customer that takes most time, and that time has been slashed."
Since the implementation of the system, BT Industries knows exactly what products a customer owns, when scheduled maintenance is due and what parts are most likely to be needed to service the truck.
"When the customer signs the initial contract we also draw up a service level agreement. These service levels are entered into Movex and when a maintenance event becomes due the information is automatically transferred to the appropriate technician," says Duckworth.
When an event is impending or a customer request for service comes in by phone, the most suitable service technician is selected according to records from the service level agreement held in Movex.
The technician is equipped with a ruggedised Intermec handheld with GSM or GPRS connection that is synchronised three or four times a day. When he does so he receives comprehensive information about the customer's trucks, their service history and instructions, as well as checklists that are used to document what has been done. Parts are also sent out as required.
In dealing with a repair the system accounts for forthcoming scheduled maintenance and notifies the technician of that too. More cost savings result from being able to carry out repair and maintenance work simultaneously. Then, when servicing or repairs are completed, the customer's approval is logged directly into the system via the handheld.
As well as the scheduling and the servicing processes being simplified, the system is also sped up by including an invoicing function based on what the technician has entered into the handheld.
This means that there is seldom a shortage of spare parts, and stock levels held locally in vehicles and at the firm's central depots have been reduced because usage of parts is constantly monitored, instead of suffering the time lag that paper-based and manual entry systems used to produce.
To date, the system has been close to an unqualified success. "We have reduced call receiving and dispatch activity by 50% and increased business activity by 25%," says Duckworth.
Infrastructure manager Patrik Carlsson says, "We expect that our entire investment will pay for itself in a year. In addition, our service presence will increase, and we will be perceived as more professional."
The first phase of the implementation was the selection of processes to be incorporated into the system. The decision was taken to design the best possible business process first and then develop software to suit, says Duckworth.
"A project group was formed with members from three countries which agreed to use a common service process. A first release was implemented on a trial basis in three countries and only small adjustments were needed before it was rolled out to 11 more."
An example of where the system was adapted to suit ways of working was in printing out documents for customers at service visits. Obviously carrying a printer around was going to further burden the technician and access to a customer's printer could not be guaranteed.
E-mail was considered as a solution, but among the supermarket customers who form a major part of BT Industries' business, e-mail use is not common in warehouse areas. Fax machines are, however, so the system was developed to print off customer documents to their fax.
Development was carried out by BT Industries' IT partner Sogeti, which devised the Movex field service functionality in the back-end and on the Pocket PC-powered Intermec PDAs.
Technicians usually synchronise four times a day. In the UK they connect via Vodafone's GSM or GPRS networks to Movex, which runs on OS400 on IBM iSeries machines via a Windows 2000 server.
The Intermec handhelds support GSM and GPRS. Being ruggedised was an attraction for reasons of everyday use, but also for device security. "They are so obviously not consumer devices that they are less likely to be a target for theft. In fact, the only problem we have had at all is one technician who left one on the roof of the van and the vehicle behind ran it over," says Duckworth.
Apart from such minor incidents, the BT Industries team considers the roll-outs so far to be a success and have plans to implement the system in Greece later this year.