Wireless technology provides on-the-job access to everything a technician needs to know about a particular project. Shown is Wennsoft's MobileTEC unit.

Jim Wenninger


Jim Wenninger, president and chief executive officer of Wennsoft, New Berlin, WI, says the greatest challenge in perfecting wireless field systems for contractors has been the cost associated with the supporting infrastructure. "Five years ago," says Wenninger, "before PDAs became popular, the best a contractor could do was purchase heavy-duty laptops, which cost between $6,000-$7,000. Contractors saw little sense in giving technicians such an expensive item for just field use."

Today, the price for wireless service has leveled off, and it is much more accessible for contractors.

"Today, you can get a $400 PDA phone to run the software; you can get the wireless service for $49/month, and the PDA doubles as a cell phone.

If you want to interrogate equipment you can buy a computer slate, which costs about $1,200."

Simplification will lead to a better appreciation for wireless communications.

"Contractors still question whether they have the ability to roll it out and manage the infrastructure, and other functions," says Wenninger, "and that's the area we've been working on. We're trying to make it a 'field wireless for beginners' kind of thing, featuring a plug-and-play scenario: all the technician has to do is turn it on, log in, and it automatically down-loads everything he needs. If he breaks it, you give him a new one."

Wireless continues to improve. However, according to Wenninger, there's a void of information among many contractors over everything that wireless can accomplish for their businesses.

Commercial contractors seem to be most plugged into what wireless systems can accomplish, due to their daily involvement with building HVAC controls.

"Those contractors are aware that they can attach a small box to a rooftop unit to operate, manage, and track its data for up to three months before it has to dump the data."

Commercial contractors also realize the tremendous service enhancements they can give customers with improved access to more information.

"When you give your technicians a laptop they can use in the field, (at a cost of about $1,500), they're able to retrieve work orders, the history of the facility, how the work is to be done, customer contact information, what has to be signed, parts history, and the rate to charge this customer," says Wenninger.

"The technician can complete everything on the work order, get the customer's signature, and e-mail or fax a copy of the work order to the office.

"All of a sudden, they find they've just done a phenomenal job for the customer, thanks to their ability to access all this information about the facility." Wireless is also helpful when it comes to billing "extras," the additional work the customer decides they want the technician to take care of while on site.

"The technician just clicks a button that says, 'add a new call,' and fills in the description, records time and material, and he's done. It's that simple to create an extra," Wenninger says.

"For that reason, most contractors are amazed when they get into wireless, and they see how many more additional billings they can come up with that they never had before."

Start Fresh
A new wireless system will likely not be compatible with existing software. Too often, contractors want to attach wireless to their old system. What they don't understand, says Wenninger, is that it costs two to three times more than the software to integrate the new wireless with their old system. And often, the old software is not able to process the greater amount of information included in the wireless data.

"Their old system doesn't know what to do with the information," Wenninger says, "so they lose a third of the benefit that the mobile offers when they try to tie it to their old system."

Integrating old and new systems can be expensive; therefore, consider the total cost of owner-ship when considering software options.

"I spoke to a contractor who paid $30,000 for wireless software, and wound up with a bill for $100,000 by the time they were done because they were trying to get the new software to talk to the old system," says Wenninger. "He could have replaced the base system and field mobile units for that price."

Integration Brings it All Together
Integration is a major component to wireless business communications. With an integrated solution, diverse elements (dispatching, inventory control, ordering products, payroll, and accounts receivable) can be properly condensed and managed together.

"If you're having a conversation with a vendor, and you ask him how it integrates to your existing system, and he says, 'We do that on-site,' that should a red flag," warns Wenninger.

"That's where most of the vendors will tell you 'It's hard to budget.' They have no idea what it will cost."

The most complete software packages are those that come with a mobile extension. Wennsoft's MobileTEC, for example, is an add-on module to an entire service dispatch system, including financials.

"You don't have to buy the mobile product up-front, but you have the ability to add wireless at anytime," says Wenninger. "We give you a set of 'reg' keys that give you access to the product, you contract with a network carrier (Cingular, Verizon, etc.), and you're ready to go; the mobile functionality is already built in."

DATA TRANSFER SHREDS PAPERWORK

Del-Air Heating, Air Conditioning & Refrigeration, Inc., Lake Mary, FL, realized that manual data entry for time sheets was robbing the company of time and money.

A joint technology solution from Nextel Communications and Xora, Inc., greatly improved Del-Air's field-to-office communications.

About 200 of Del-Air's installation technicians were given Nextel mobile phones running the Xora GPS Time-Track service. The phones are used to clock in and out, and to record break time. A job module records start and stop times for projects, and the status of each job. The information is sent by phone to the Xora website, where it can be seen by Del-Air supervisors in business report format.

Field technicians no longer need to keep hand-written notes to keep track of their hours, and office managers are spared from entering time sheet data in the payroll system. Del-Air also arranged for scheduled exports of time sheet data to the payroll system.

If the records were not accurate, the actual cost of a particular job would be skewed, hindering Del-Air's ability to estimate the cost of future jobs. As with the payroll data, project information was exported from the tracking solution directly to the Del-Air cost accounting system. "We saved at least $250,000 in 2004 from implementing Nextel and Xora, and that's based only on the automated time cards capability," says John Rucker, Del-Air's chief information officer.

"Add another $30,000 or so we saved by reducing data entry with the scheduled reports feature, and the cost of the Nextel/Xora solution more than paid for itself."


BOTTOM-LINE QUESTIONS

— Thomas A. Winstel

Many practical questions that need to be answered before you choose a wireless system. Some of these questions relate to the "bells and whistles" of wireless technology, but others relate to field use, portability options, and the total cost of implementation and training.

Questions your CFO may ask include:

  • What's the cost for these hand-held devices, and for heavy-duty, hardshell laptops?
  • Who in the field uses gloves while working, and may require a full-sized keyboard?
  • What are the monthly costs for handhelds and service?
  • What units may require a large amount of storage space for photos or schematics?
  • Coverage: will these devices be able to transmit throughout hilly terrain and/or the third level of the basement?
  • What's the estimate for writing the templates everyone fills in on the jobsite, and/or serving the needs of the job?
  • What will the implementation team require in time and money to analyze the system requirements, install the software, & train the associates?
  • What's the projected hardware expense for the hand-helds, servers, and associated on-going maintenance and service?
  • Who will take the place of key employees implementing the project?
  • What's the cost associated with licensing the middle software and on-going support?

BRING WIRELESS ISSUES TO THE TABLE

At Engineering Excellence, Inc., our selection of a wireless technology platform is a hot topic in our regular strategic planning sessions.

Our chief financial officer — responsible for the bottom line and all issues related to information technology — has been meeting with everyone who has a stake in how we use information technology. Our company computer experts are certain that virtually any new hardware and software can and will pay back significant dividends.

The CFO, however, has a simple way to evaluate wireless technology: "Show me the money." In other words, how will wireless technology help grow the bottom line?

Our computer experts insist that not everything can be measured in dollars and cents, and have a rather persuasive argument that merits some review. Their logic starts off with the drivers for the project:

Improved quality and better customer service should be our top priority. And, unless we can deliver critical information in real time, we're not keeping in step with the client's needs.

It's very true that today's construction managers must be able to forecast the day the project will be completed, the milestones along

the way, and provide methods to measure daily progress. I think all will concur that project information that's received only after the work has been completed is comparable to receiving last week's newspaper.

Instant Information Sharing.
Wireless technology can support an instant transfer of time metrics, task completion descriptions, and purchase order costs for each phase of the job; all the project foreman has to do it fill in the information template and hit "send." A great variety of project information — from delivery tracking, to engineering, to tool inventory or usage factors are important job cost items that can be updated on-the-fly for thorough project analysis.

It's also handy for the office project manager to sit at his desk, scroll through the GPS readouts, and be able to determine if his personnel are on the job, picking up materials, or in transit.

Tracking Profit Factors.
It makes sense to have the "back-office" software simultaneously massage the submitted data and report the "variance" from budget for key indicators of success or problems.

Having the ability to capture customer comments or a signature to grant approval for extras, or to confirm that the work to date is acceptable can minimize possible delay of payment for creative client reasons and accelerate billing schedules. Bi-directional transfer of schematics and drawings for electronic updates or future storage can minimize lost or poor documentation and help differentiate us from our competitors.

Construction Managers' Viewpoints. Our construction department managers are excited about the potential for sharing schematics and drawings at all levels in the field at very small expense; for receiving confirmation they have been received; and for the customer satisfaction that might pay off down the road.

The efficiencies gained from eliminating manual data entry are significant, however they may not be the only reasons to make the switch to wireless. The impact of measuring and sharing job progress each day, as compared to our schedule could perhaps be the most rewarding return on investment.

Thomas A. Winstel, chief executive officer, Engineering Excellence, Inc., Cincinnati, OH.

Photo courtesy Wennsoft.