Mobile technology: how it works in the real world

Businesses adopt mobile IT to improve their efficiency and empower staff. Helen Beckett and John Kavanagh look at companies where...

Businesses adopt mobile IT to improve their efficiency and empower staff. Helen Beckett and John Kavanagh look at companies where practice matches up with the best of theory

RFID tracking speeds up checkouts

The use of radio frequency ID tags to track stock can transform retailers' supply chains and consumers' shopping experiences. German retail giant Metro has rolled out RFID to two Metro Cash & Carry stores, five Galeria Kaufhof department stores and 11 Real hypermarkets since November 2004.

Metro piloted RFID in its showcase Future Store initiative in Rheinberg, Germany, and noted its impact throughout the supply chain. "It is reducing stock errors and streamlining our supply chain by providing a greater visibility in the supply chain," says Gerd Wolfram, project manager for the initiative.

Tags operate at 13.56MHz and have a range of up to 1.5 metres. They can be read by RFID multimedia kiosks around the store, so customers can simply swipe a CD or DVD to select a preview of the album or film they are considering purchasing.

"RFID basically provides a 'contactless ID'," explains Markus Luidolt, project manager for Philips, supplier of the microchip smart tags to Future Store. Individual items can be tracked from the moment they are loaded on a pallet at a distribution centre to the moment the anti-theft tag is removed at the till.

The store manager in Rheinberg can track each shipment through the store warehouse information system, knowing which products to expect and when they are due to arrive. When the pallets arrive at the store, another scan reveals if any of the cases are missing, eliminating the need to check each pallet and physically count the shipment.

Customers too are enjoying the benefits of the greater information that the RFID provides, according to research carried out at the store. Once in the store, the chief advantage over the traditional barcode swipe method of tracking inventory and security is that manual scanning is eliminated. Instead, RFID antennas installed at checkouts automatically identify garment categories plus details such as where the item was manufactured and the batch number.

A key aspect of better stock control though RFID is the creation of "smart shelves" that can provide real-time inventory. "An RFID reader sends a message to the store back-office system when stocks are running low, and restocking on demand avoids sales losses due to empty shelves," says Luidolt. In addition, expiry date control, generation of sales data and the location of misplaced items are all handled by the smart shelf system.

RFID scanning is performed 10 times faster than barcode methods, which can deliver an 11% reduction in labour costs. Meanwhile, theft of goods has fallen by between 11% and 18% in stores.

PDAs are winners for waste disposal

LondonWaste has invested in virtual private networks that connect over GPRS and enable roaming executives to access their e-mail remotely and securely.

In one fell swoop, remote e-mail access has made the company more efficient, improved the productivity of executives and increased customer satisfaction, according to Mark Beattie, head of IT at LondonWaste.

Unlike the fast-moving consumer goods sector, where predictions can be made about patterns of demand and decisions about where to allocate resources, "waste is the last thing on people's minds," says Beattie. This results in calls to the business from people who need to get rid of two tons of fluorescent lighting, for example, at short notice.

The industry operates on a day-to-day basis with managers in the field having to make instant decisions about pricing a contract and shifting waste. There are also stringent regulations to comply with, such as the amount of time that waste may stay on a site.

Not having access to e-mail out in the field was a big disadvantage because office staff had to verbally summarise documents to managers who were travelling, explains Beattie. With the remote e-mail installed as part of the Orange Office Freedom suite and accessed from the Treo 600 handsets, managers can now view original Word or Excel documents.

The e-mail is set up so it is pushed to the device from the server. Despite the disadvantages of using a wireless network that is optimised for voice calls for a data application, GPRS has done the job for LondonWaste. "3G was not available when we launched. But it is a slim application and GPRS has not let us down," says Beattie. GPRS even provides coverage in remote corners of the UK.

LondonWaste tried laptops installed with 3G data cards for its salesforce but the experience of getting data speeds no better than dial-up "was not always so satisfactory", says Beattie. "Our roaming executives do not want to take laptops with them."

The beauty of PDAs is that they are synchronised with the office calendar and contact lists, so you can be up totheminute in the field. "We can give them a PDA that is also a phone, which fits into their car kits.

Another key concern for the business was to reduce the cost of fines levied on the company when its vehicles use routes that are not allocated to the company for waste collection. LondonWaste installed Fleetlink, an in-vehicle, telemetry-based product supplied by Orange.

Every time a vehicle passes an Orange base station, it records the fact and sends a log back to base. By using all these location sightings it is possible to plot accurately where a vehicle is and ensure - and demonstrate - that the fleet of 32 waste collection vehicles keeps to allocated routes.

LondonWaste has also used the fleet tracking telemetry to optimise the reuse and recycling centres it manages on behalf of local authorities. When the giant containers at the sites are full, the centre would normally need to be shut for health and safety reasons while they are replaced. However, the transport manager can now easily locate and divert a truck to make the switch quickly.

The tariffs for these slimline wireless applications are relatively cheap. LondonWaste gets a discount because it is half-owned by refuse company Sita UK. However, Fleetlink is charged per unit, plus a monthly subscription and a charge for each text sent.

"Waste is not a glamorous business," says Beattie, and it was perhaps this stark truth that made it easy for him to implement the minimal solution that has made such a big difference to the company.

The lawyers who work anywhere

Staff at Scotland's biggest law firm can use all its systems and work on all their documents regardless of whether they are in the office, at home or in an internet cafe.

"People can access anything as if they were working on the local area network in the Glasgow or Edinburgh offices," says David Murphy, IT director at MacRoberts, a specialist in business and employment law.

"They can use the document management and practice management systems, deal with e-mail and send dictation: they have digital handsets and can download their dictation to their laptops to send back for secretaries to work on.

"If the IT staff need to do software upgrades or installations out of hours they can work comfortably at home rather than staying at the office late into the evening."

Mobile working was introduced both to meet lifestyle aspirations and to enable lawyers travelling the world or away at a tribunal for a few days to work on their cases or keep up with other client affairs.

They can work at home, from hotel rooms or via wireless links while on the move. They do not even need their own laptops as they can use internet TV systems now offered by some hotels, or public internet cafes, despite the confidential nature of their work.

Security is based on a user name, a password and a keyfob which displays a code that changes every 30 seconds and is synchronised with the central systems. The code has to be keyed in to gain access.

Virtual private network boxes and software from Whale Communications at the Glasgow head office manage the online sessions - and also automatically clear the cache memory in public computers, for example in internet cafes, after an online session so that the next user cannot see information from the session.

"The one-off capital cost of the Whale products, including interfaces to our Interwoven document management system and Pilgrim practice management system, was around £27,000, which was not a huge amount, considering the productivity and lifestyle benefits," Murphy says.

No place like home

Mobile working is even more important to Bellwether Enterprises. The railway safety consultancy has no offices at all. Its 24 people are based at home and do all their work remotely from each other, even when they are working in teams.

This arrangement was the idea of technical director Graeme Lloyd-Roberts, a single father with children aged 12 and 13. He wanted work flexibility - and it has brought benefits to the company.

Staff have Sony Vaio laptops and broadband links to their homes, and they also work while on the move. They each have a Draytek VPN box at home, in effect giving the company as a whole a private network via the internet. IT and website hosting is handled by services company Cobweb Solutions at its datacentre.

In addition Bellwether has its own data storage server: an old PC with some extra Maxstor disc drives at Lloyd-Roberts' house.

Overheads are lower, and the best staff can be recruited, regardless of where they live, Lloyd-Roberts says. Bellwether has staff across England and in Australia.

Flexible working has expanded the company's market. "I can work with our US clients after my children have gone to bed," says Lloyd-Roberts. "Sometimes time zone differences can actually be a benefit."

Technology helps to give staff a feeling of working together, says Lloyd-Roberts. "We have Yahoo Messenger and Windows Messenger and when you log on it is like arriving at the office. You can see who is in, text people, and talk via a headset. You can check other people's diaries to fix a meeting.

"Sometimes we work in teams, and we use voice conferencing and RealVNC software, which allows one person's computer to be seen by everyone else. Anyone can enter text to edit a document, so it gets done immediately. In some ways it is better than a traditional meeting."

This way of working suits some people but not others, Lloyd-Roberts says. "Some people seem unable to function without going to the office: they miss everyone. We have taken on some people who have been really miserable. Other people prefer to work alone - but if they are too much of a loner they might not be able to collaborate."

Direct contact is important, Lloyd-Roberts says. He takes staff to lunch individually at least once a month, and there is a monthly meeting when everyone gets together.

Taking an axe to admin

A mobile application that lets construction workers receive job details and order spare parts over the GPRS network has freed up 30% more of their time for actually doing the work.

The application is used by building components supplier Wolseley to communicate with its trade customers and is supplied by O2. The XDA II device comes with an in-built camera and client software to power two applications, receiving and reporting on jobs, and the ability to photograph and order spare parts.

The image transfer has real benefit for Wolseley because it enables much more accurate identification of parts. "A central heating engineer may have to service a boiler that is 20 years old and a photo is the best way of communicating the spare part required," says Tim Pollard, marketing director at Wolseley.

The image transfer also communicates proof that a job is completed in a fast and secure way. This in turn means that payment is released by housing authorities faster. "Contractors get paid quicker and cashflow is a key concern for smaller businesses," says Pollard.

GPRS is optimised for voice calls, but Wolseley says that its customers have not reported constraints on image transfer yet.

"The construction industry has had frightening experiences with IT," says Pollard. "O2 has put together an application that is simple to understand and cost. If you have 50 engineers, that means 50 devices and it is costed per device."

This article is part of Computer Weekly's Special report on enterprise mobility, produced in association with Intel

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