UPS and Yorkshire Water reveal how mobile IT has transformed their businesses
Companies in a range of industries, particularly utilities, retail and delivery, are investing in wireless and GPRS technology to improve communication with field staff and help reduce costs. In some cases the savings have been significant.
Computer Weekly talked to the IT directors at two well-known companies about the challenges and the rewards of using mobile technology.
The tabloid press once voted Yorkshire Water bottom of the customer service league in utilities, now the Financial Times calls it one of the UK's most respected companies, ranked second from the top for customer service. Mobile IT has been vital to achieving this transformation.
The utility had a problem faced by many companies: disparate processes and IT systems for customer contact and work management. It wanted to integrate the systems used by call centre agents, field staff and contractors.
Duncan Bennett, manager of the £28m integrated customers and operations management programme, said, "We needed to have a complete view of all the interactions a customer had with us, and total real-time visibility of all jobs."
The programme to transform the utility began early in 1999. Yorkshire Water implemented a cluster of software from supplier Clarify for the contact centre and call management system. SAP provided the core work management system, and software for mobile scheduling came from MDSI. Geographic information systems (GIS) were also used.
Bennett said call agents now have all a customer's details instantly on screen, together with a view of all planned and ongoing work, and can check whether the fault has been reported, and, if so, what progress has been made to fix it. About 500 field workers log in remotely using ruggedised 12Gbyte Toughbook handhelds to collect their daily schedules and report back on progress.
Four years on and the mobile technology has already delivered significant return on investment.
As well as saving £8.5m on operating costs, customer calls are down 20%, follow-up calls 10%, and written complaints down 40%. Unnecessary field jobs have fallen by 45%, 35% of non-billing calls are closed at first contact, and almost 100% of customers get appointments within the agreed two-hour timeframe.
Yorkshire Water is now exploring integrating GIS with global positioning technology to help with asset and worker management, and improve safeguards for lone-worker security. The company is also evaluating whether to use field workers' vans as mobile communication centres to automatically update remote and central systems in real time.
UPS used to be known as a truck company with some IT, now it is an IT company with some trucks, according to IT director Graham Nugent.
One of the worlds best-known logistics companies, UPS delivers goods and information to more than 200 countries worldwide. It employs about 4,500 people in IT and spends $1bn (£600m) a year on technology.
Nugent said mobile technology is fundamental to the UPS business. Packages are scanned and tracked at every stage from collection to delivery using wireless communication.
In addition, the company offers a wide range of financial services, such as cash-on-delivery payment, which is logged through devices carried by drivers.
UPS designs and builds its own mobile IT, and is now implementing the fourth generation of its proprietary Delivery Information Acquisition Device parcel scanners, which are used both by drivers collecting and delivering parcels, and by depot staff sorting them en route.
The previous generation of scanners needed cables, which were expensive to repair or replace if the cable connector was pulled out. Now, more than 50,000 scanners in 118 countries are being upgraded to hands-free scanning platforms, standardised on Windows CE mobile operating systems.
"The company had 17 scanning platforms worldwide, each with different operating systems and languages - the cost of support was enormous," said Nugent.
UPS intends to spend $120m over five years on the technology. Going wireless and moving to a common set of standards will cut repair costs by 30%, downtime by 35% and spare kit by 35%, he said.
With wireless communications protocols still evolving, UPS currently uses the wireless Ethernet IEEE 802.11b protocol to communicate between the mobile scanner and the server, which is well-suited to sending messages to allow parcel tracking.
UPS is also experimenting with the rival, short-range, low-power Bluetooth wireless communications protocol which, unlike 80211b's reliance on heavy batteries, means that workers can use a scanner worn as a finger-ring.
Finding a wireless technology standard that can talk to all devices is a challenge.
A growing number of companies are investing in radio frequency identification tags to track items along their supply chain but, for now, the technology is too expensive for UPS. "It needs to come down to under one cent per tag before it would be cost effective in our small package business," said Nugent.
Lessons on using mobile technology
- Use the highest level of security - wireless comms are wide-open for eavesdropping
- Standardise as much as possible to reduce costs
- Simultaneous use of protocols can mean competition for frequency
- Position access points to minimise signal absorption
- Printers and faxes in vehicles can be disturbed by bumps on the road - stick to screen-based outputs such as e-mail
- Battery life can limit the duration of field use.
- Use proven technology, adapting business processes if possible, to keep risks and costs low and ensure ease of upgrade
- Persuading operations managers to accept a one-size-fits-all system, and avoiding the development of local practices, can be a major challenge
- Testing the 213 interfaces between a total of 28 systems was also a challenge, and done in four phases
- Pilot new technology with users, first securing union support to help get buy-in
- Handhelds' disc capacity and data updates logistics may limit what maps, schematics and databases are practical to hold remotely.