Bumps and Grime

By Kim S. Nash  |  Posted 2003-05-01 Print this article Print

Summertime is hot and sweaty. You're likely to be munching on chips at neighborhood barbecues or pulling on a cold beverage from dawn to dusk.

Summertime is hot and sweaty. You're likely to be munching on chips at neighborhood barbecues or pulling on a cold beverage from dawn to dusk.

PepsiCo drivers, in turn, must get up before sunrise and put in 10- or 12-hour days to slake thirsts for soda and hunger for salty snacks.

Drivers like Dan MacDonald of Pepsi's Frito-Lay unit will haul at least 10% more 10- and 40-pound cartons of chips into supermarkets in a typical summer day, compared with winter. His counterparts delivering sparkling beverages will push thousands more 18-lb. cases of Mountain Dew, Diet Pepsi and Sierra Mist.

As usual, they will carry brick-sized handheld computers to organize their work. The devices track, for example, how much of which products driver-salesmen sell, how many hours it takes which drivers to empty daily loads and which stops on which routes are most lucrative.

Managers who oversee Pepsi's blue-collar mobile workers know they handle technology much differently from an office worker using a desktop computer. Handhelds get treated like cell phones—tossed in bags, left in steaming or freezing cars and trucks, jammed into back pockets. They become more personal than any personal computer and they have to be more rugged.

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Devices that roll with drivers every day have to mesh with the gritty daily grind. If they're too big or heavy, they won't get used. If they're too complicated, they won't get used well.

PepsiCo executives, who toil amid a world-renowned sculpture collection on the garden campus of company headquarters in Purchase, N.Y., may envision that field workers tote their handhelds right into stores. They may imagine that orders are entered immediately as they fall from the mouths of store managers and are transmitted back to distribution centers wirelessly, to keep the company informed to the minute.

That's often not so.

When MacDonald, the Frito-Lay driver, takes chip orders at the Wal-Mart or an A&P supermarket on his route in Westchester County, N.Y., he leaves his Fujitsu computer in the truck. He prefers to write new orders on paper, then key them into the Fujitsu later that day. It isn't because the computer is too heavy or he doesn't like to use it. "I'm always afraid I'll forget the thing in the store someday," MacDonald says, zipping his brown work jacket against the cold. With handwriting, he always has a printout and a backup.

Other PepsiCo drivers have newer technology that can handle wireless communications. However, the idea of an always-available wireless grid is fallacy. Poor network coverage, mountains in the landscape between point A and point B and even fluorescent lights can all disrupt a wireless signal.

Fifteen of the 40 Norand 6100 handhelds assigned to merchandisers at Pepsi-Cola of the Hudson Valley are equipped for wireless transmission. "But we try to have as few people use wireless as possible," says Jim Hinek, head of information systems at the independent bottler and distributor in Newburgh, N.Y. "Just too many headaches."

In an effort to relay order data in near real-time, Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. of Delmarva, a bottler in Salisbury, Md., once experimented with having drivers upload data by hooking their Intermec handhelds to customer phone lines or roadside pay phones.

The pay phone option worked only sometimes, says Dennis Tuttle, director of information systems at the bottler. Then one driver discovered that if he lightly hit the phone, it would transmit the data. "Well, that light tapping becomes a good hard knock when it doesn't work the next week and the next" Tuttle notes.

Tuttle's sales agents now use Palm Inc.'s Vx handheld computers. Agents send orders wirelessly several times per day by connecting the Palms to Kyocera cell phones that talk to the office network.

Transmission isn't 100%—cell signals ebb and flow— but it's better than with the older Intermec hardware that wasn't designed for wireless use, he says.

Repairs are expensive, too: $356 every time. This, compared with about $2,000 to buy a new device.

Intermec boasts that some of its models can withstand repeated 4-foot drops to a hard surface, like a sidewalk or street. But sometimes that's not enough.

A Pepsi driver in Newburgh, N.Y., recently rode his 18-wheeler over his Norand 6100. He didn't see the computer drop from the cab when he opened the door, then backed the truck out of a parking spot. Crunch. The computer was mangled, one side split open to reveal the innards.

As Hinek picks up the machine, a triangle of glass falls from the shattered screen. "We're obviously not going to bother sending this in for repair," he says.

Senior Writer
Kim has covered the business of technology for 14 years, doing investigative work and writing about legal issues in the industry, including Microsoft Corp.'s antitrust trial. She has won numerous awards and has a B.S. degree in journalism from Boston University.

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