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Mobile computing is more or less the same as any other computing these days – but you still need to consider how your mobile devices and software will be used, and how you will maintain them. That’s the crux of it – and there’s certainly a lot to think about.
Telematics and mobile data are now essential tools for organisations striving to manage costs, improve their performance and raise customer service levels.
However, as companies mobilise more of their business processes and more of their employees, managing it all becomes more complex. The range of mobile devices grows, as does the number of applications. That brings challenges in areas such as device deployment and management, application management and securing corporate data.
Telematics and mobile data systems can now capture vast amounts of data about what is happening in a logistics or service operation. When analysed, that data can deliver insightful business intelligence that companies can then act on.
More than ever, buyers need to focus on their business processes. That’s the first step in identifying tasks that can be made more efficient or need changing or eliminating, and in deciding what data needs sharing between various applications.
Once your data needs have been identified, you want the right solution. Integrated, one-stop solutions are now available from a variety of suppliers: tracking companies, fleet and transport management companies, hardware suppliers, software and app developers.
Many of these are offered as “cloud computing” solutions, accessed via a web platform. So if you already have a satisfactory relationship with, say, a vehicle tracking supplier of software company, it’s worth checking if they might also be able to meet your new requirements. Many tracking companies offer mobile workforce management software, for example.
The “big data” aspect has been the year’s biggest trend so far, having an impact on developments such as integrated fleet management and field service operations. However, taking advantage of big data does bring challenges for businesses. What do you do about legacy systems? Should you stay with tried-and-trust rugged hardware? Should you migrate processes to the cloud in the interests of integration and speed of development, or should things remain in house?
Automating of business processes and data collection is another big trend, for both logistics and service companies, covering everything from scheduling to final invoicing. It relies on integrating of all available data, and in some sectors this is increasingly being done in the cloud, on mobility platforms.
The more data that can be incorporated into scheduling systems, for example, the greater the likelihood of producing a realistic plan. This is true whether the schedule is for vehicle operations in logistics or for workforce scheduling in a field service situation. For instance, vehicle scheduling systems now routinely incorporate drivers’ hours data, holiday details and vehicle maintenance schedules.
Data inputs are important, but so are the software algorithms used to process it. For logistics there is a huge mix of constraints – vehicle sizes, vehicle access, driver shifts, time windows, despatch windows, product constraints, priority, and congestion at delivery sites. For service companies key issues often include matching skills to jobs, ensuring parts availability, and meeting contracted response times.
Increasing customer expectations of what constitutes good service have raised customer service to new levels for many organisations. Competition in sectors such as retailing is so fierce anything less than excellent service risks lost future sales and reputation damage via social media sites. Responses include shorter delivery windows throughout the supply chain, later cut-off times in the warehouse, and one-hour home delivery time windows. Yet all this has to be achieved cost-effectively.
Meeting these expectations is be impossible without real-time tracking and communication tools. Mobile data and telematics can help identify both where efficiencies combined with enhanced customer service levels. Continuous optimisation of schedules helps operators to accommodate new orders or to respond to urgent customer demands. Dynamic scheduling takes this a step further by allocating a delivery to a vehicle and route at the time the order is received, or finding an engineer with the correct skills to a customer visit.
Mobility platforms have become a hot topic to the extent that they are responsible for several new acronyms including enterprise mobility management (EMM), enterprise mobility platform (EMP) and mobile application platform (MAP). One of the chief attractions for logistics and field service sectors is the flexibility and scalability these offer and, for companies without in-house IT, the opportunity they bring to modernise legacy systems or adopt sophisticated workforce and fleet management tools without huge up-front investment.
Mobility platforms provide the integration between various back-office systems and the mobile employee.
Mobile device management is becoming partly submerged in the functionalities offered by mobility platforms, but that doesn’t make it less important. MDM has moved beyond basic provision of rugged device repair services, and now incorporates a more wide-ranging set of tasks, doing everything from speeding up device deployment to delivering business intelligence about operations and managing deployment of applications.
For organisations considering deploying non-rugged devices such as smartphones, MDM will be crucial in helping identify whether some environments are simply too harsh for a non-rugged device.
Basic MDM systems are reactive, providing remote helpdesk services, device-centric simple fixes and management of remote upgrades of firmware and applications. More advanced MDM systems are proactive, using the data captured about the operation to deliver analytic insight into the business.
The larger the deployment, the more essential MDM, otherwise the cost of supporting mobile workers will have an adverse impact on total-cost-of-ownership.
Whether it is an initial deployment or an update, smaller, flexible apps are the modern mantra. They can speed up deployment time and means any updates or revisions can be made more easily at less cost, giving business the agility to change according to their needs.
In the age of the app, we are used to downloading whatever software takes our fancy; but this can be a headache for IT professionals. On one hand they want greater control over non-company applications running on corporately-owned devices (and corporate data on employee-owned devices); but on the other hand, they don’t want to sacrifice any of the productivity benefits these apps give their employees.
One thing they’re particularly exercised about it the need to avoid the risk of a security breach. However, mobility management providers now talk about “wrapping” apps to protect against this, or having dual private and user profiles on a device.
A Mobile application platform (MAP) does all the behind-the-scenes work that allows apps to run on various devices and make use of various specific device functions. With this approach there is no need to compromise on device choice because of OS, or suitability to run legacy software. Some mobility platforms, including MDM platforms, also offer this level of functionality.
MAPS play a crucial role in the “write once, deploy many times” approach. Gone are the days have having to re-code all applications to run on different devices; the platform takes care of this.
This is also the age of partnerships, as suppliers expert in their own field team up with partners who have a different skill sets and knowledge.
The ruggedised hardware manufacturers have pioneered this approach through their “recognised partner” programs. Some value-added resellers are taking centre-stage in this trend, transforming themselves from hardware providers into solutions partners, about to fit together the different pieces of the jigsaw.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re looking at hardware or software; in either case, both refresh cycles and deployment time are much shorter these days. In this age of rapid technological advances, no company wants to be hindered by legacy tools that cannot deliver what the business now needs.
Concerns about this speed of refresh are prompting more companies to investigate flexible, modular cloud computing solutions and using lower-cost consumer hardware such as smartphones and tablets in place of much more expensive rugged equipment.
This “consumerisation of IT” trend means the fit-for-purpose and total-cost-of-ownership debate remains lively. “Fit for purpose” now typically encompasses environmental ruggedness, form factor and communications.
The encroachment of smaller, cheaper, consumer devices into sectors previously the preserve of ruggedised handheld computers and tablets continues. User appeal is now centre-stage, not an afterthought, and is recognised as an important contributor to the success of a mobility project. Many employees now have sophisticated smartphones and tablets in their private lives, and expect a similar easy interface with devices they use at work.
Of course, for some operations nothing less than a fully-rugged handheld computer will meet the business requirements. No device used in the warehouse or out in the field is going to survive without a few knocks, and investing up-front in devices designed to cope with this environment can pay dividends in lower repair costs and greater reliability.
The year 2013 saw a positive explosion of electronic proof-of-delivery solutions. The key drivers have been the lower costs of implementation on smartphones and Android devices, the need to integrate data from third parties, and the realisation that ePOD solutions can also capture other data such as manifest, arrival and departure time-stamping, journey mileage, proof of collection/delivery at site, images of location or product damage, and exceptions.
Demand for 2D and RFID data-capture solutions in the supply chain is increasing, say suppliers, as users invest in automatic data capture throughout their supply chain. Both RFID and 2D codes contain more data than the ubiquitous 1D barcodes.
In the field service sector M2M (machine-to-machine) data capture will become increasingly widespread, driven by developments such as smart meters in the utility sector and on-site equipment that automatically reports a fault.
Integrated voice-recognition capability is a growing trend, both for in-premise operations and in the field. Voice capability allows rugged devices to be multi-tasked, enhancing productivity and reducing the number of devices that have to be managed.
Demand for near-field, magnetic card and other forms of mobile payment looks set to grow over the next few years, as will use of mobile printers. 3D printers, however, are probably some years off.
One of the key ways to distinguish between rugged devices and smartphones is to check whether they have a dedicated scan engine for barcode-scanning, or rely on a camera (which themselves range in resolution from 2 to 8 megapixels), using an appropriate app to perform as a 1D laser or 2D imager. The camera option is slower, so not suitable for operations involving a lot of scanning.
Transport is one of the biggest costs for logistics companies. Route optimisation, tracking, delivery efficiencies, fuel economy and real-time data capture all figure large on operational managers’ target lists.
Shared-user, or collaborative distribution, is back in vogue, it appears. Operators are servicing multiple contracts with the same – fleet sub-contracting out less profitable jobs / loads to manage peaks and troughs in demand. However, telematics and mobile data are giving them the same visibility as they would over their own fleet.
Buyers should consider the operating system of a device before buying it, particularly where an application needs to run on various different types of device. Once derided as not fit for enterprise, the latest incarnations of Android address some of the issues perceived in earlier versions – notably security. It’s also popular with software developers, who like the open nature of Android.
Microsoft’s tardiness in releasing a roadmap for 6.5 embedded and CE (now renamed Windows Embedded Compact 7.0) combined has not helped.
Tablet manufacturers are the latest to offer Android as an alternative OS.
Remember, however, that different operating systems can make managing legacy applications a headache; they may require quite different software development tools. Also, check which version of Android is being used; earlier versions may not support the functionality your application requires.
Many legacy warehousing applications still run under terminal emulation, so the device OS doesn’t need to be complicated. Windows CE is popular for in-premise operations because it simplifies transfer of legacy applications to new mobile computers.
The trend towards modular platforms is now firmly. Software companies can make changes to data capture, options, for example, without compromising the device. Device manufacturers are adding functionality so that software developers can exploit the capabilities of the device to customise end-user applications.
Processing power is the key if you intend to run multiple applications, and several devices now incorporate dual processors. Whilst this approach might seem over the top for compact devices, there can be benefits. For instance, advanced power management chips help preserve battery power when running multi-applications. Typical speeds range from 450MHz to 850MHz, but some cheaper devices may have older, slower, processors.
Mobile devices are now available with a wide range of different form factors, from 2.8in screens on smartphones to 10in screens (or bigger) on tablets.
Screens can be glass or polycarbonate. Glass is more fragile and scratch-resistant. Polycarbonate is flexible and scratch-prone. On larger screens a flexible toughened glass such as Corning’s Gorilla glass is widely used.
Some data entry tasks require a hard keyboard, but for others a touch screen or virtual keypad is acceptable.
User experience with consumer smartphones is helping to create demand for larger screens and touch screens in the business world. So while 2.8in or 3.5in screen size is typical, the latest generation often lose front navigation keys to accommodate larger screens up to 4.3in.
Screens themselves can be glass or polycarbonate. Glass is more fragile and scratch-resistant. Polycarbonate is flexible and scratch-prone. On larger screens a flexible toughened glass such as Corning’s Gorilla glass is widely used. Some manufacturers now incorporate bonded screens that are as scratch-resistant as glass but more flexible, enhancing resistance to drop damage.
Some devices incorporate the capacitive touch screen technology found on smartphones for touch entry and navigation. Other manufacturers have opted for resistive technology; this is responsive to touch when the finger is wet or gloved, but in the past has been less responsive than capacitive to bare fingers. The latest generation of resistive screens now have finger-touch input as well as stylus.
For outdoors operations, buyers need to pay attention to sunlight-readability (the Nits rating) and viewing angle.
Some of the latest generation of rugged devices claim impressive battery life of up to 20 hours, achieved not just with better technology and high-capacity batteries, but also through smart battery-life management and multi-processor architecture.
Smart battery management is now a feature on many devices. Light and proximity sensors trigger the switching on and off of a device or application, and battery-condition monitoring and reporting are included.
Some features (GPS location fixes, for example, and 3G or 3.75G communication) are notoriously power-hungry. If the task will be particularly demanding on battery life, do check how the stated life was calculated. Some manufacturers now quote different hours between recharges for different operations, such as on a WLAN network and for WWAN and GPS applications.
Long battery life also reduces the total cost of ownership by reducing the number of replacement batteries required. The more discharges, the shorter the battery life. Consideration must also be given to recharging options and comparative costs of types of in-vehicle chargers.
Rugged smartphones may not last a full shift, but usually have a standard phone charger. This eliminates the need for an in-vehicle dock, but not the risk of running out of charge mid-shift because the worker forgot to plug it in.
IP ratings (for Ingress Protection) show how well a mobile computing device is sealed against water and dust ingress, with the first figure indicating dust-resistance and the second effective sealing against water.
An IP67 rating is usually considered the most rugged, with an IP54 rating the minimum requirement. IP65 is a common rating, with the “5” indicating resistance to water spray, rather than immersion.
Take care, when comparing drop-test performance; don’t assume just because manufacturers say their devices are “designed to meet” or “compliant with” IP ratings, drop-tests or MIL-STD test, that they have actually been tested or passed.
The drop-test cites the number of drops a device can withstand on to plywood- or steel-covered concrete from heights of 1.2, 1.5 and 1.8 metres.
The US Department of Defense devised the MIL-STD-810 shock standard quoted by many device manufacturers. Most rugged manufacturers quote MIL-STD 810-E, 810-F or 810-G.
Some manufacturers’ tests are more rigorous than others. The “tumble test”, for example, is designed to simulate what happens when devices are dropped on their corners or sides.
Ambient temperature can affect results, as can where the test is done with the device.