Giving Mobile Workers Wireless Tools

By Brian Lee  |  Posted 2005-11-08 Print this article Print

Giving wireless devices such as laptops and handhelds to your workforce can make them more productive—and boost the bottom line.

When an American Airlines engineer needs to review a schematic plan for an aircraft, he may have to schlep hundreds of feet or more—from a computer at one spot in a hangar to an aircraft elsewhere in the hangar or outside at an airport gate.

Under a project that's being rolled out at American's larger hubs, workers will be able to save time by instantly viewing a schematic from a ruggedized laptop, using wireless cellular service to connect to the corporate network. They can also view information such as airplane design plans to help them do their jobs more efficiently.

American Airlines is only one example of a company taking advantage of the ability to put more information at the fingertips of workers—thanks to dropping costs for cellular and other wireless services, laptops and handheld devices, as well as an increase in software applications for customer service, inventory management, logistics and sales.

For an entirely different example, look to Musco Food, a New York-based distributor of Italian food products. The company gave Treo handhelds with wireless service to its sales force so they could access an up-to-date electronic product catalog, instead of carrying around a loose-leaf binder and then calling in orders to a customer service representative. An immediate benefit: fewer errors in orders.

Showing hard-dollar return on investment is generally easier to measure for mobile field service applications than for sales setups, says Peter Semmelhack, chairman and chief technology officer of Antenna Software. His company sells field service software to Siemens, Toshiba Medical and Pitney Bowes, among others; it sells its sales application to Palm.

Of prime importance, inventory can be better tracked and managed when field service employees, such as computer or appliance technicians, immediately report the parts they've used instead of waiting until the end of the day, week or even month, according to Semmelhack. "Inventory today changes so quickly, it's very difficult to keep track of it," he says. "Suffice to say, making sure the data that goes into the system is accurate" helps control costs.

American Airlines declined to disclose details on the costs and benefits from its wireless initiative. But David Gaspar, principal architect of American's mobility solutions group, and Billy Sanez, an airline spokesman, say costs were held down by taking several measures, including these:

  • American is using Sprint's existing cellular network for the wireless service after weighing two other options: setting up its own wireless network at airports or running cables to work areas.

  • When one worker completes a shift, the next worker uses the same laptop, reducing the number of laptops needed.

  • Instead of building new applications, the airline is using the ones in place on fixed computers in the hangars.

    American's project has also resulted in unexpected benefits, according to Sanez and Gaspar.

    Consider a pilot who is flying a plane and reports that a light inside the craft needs replacing. A fleet service clerk is notified, requests a replacement bulb and then directs a mechanic to the correct gate—all before the plane lands. As Gaspar points out: "We have been able tocut down on the amount of time a plane waits."

    What advice does American Airlines have for other businesses looking to implement wireless access for workers? "Be as creative as possible," Gaspar says. "Don't limit yourself to your technology."

    —Anna Maria Virzi


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