How mobile apps are improving field service management efficiency
Photo by Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
Field service management mobile apps are replacing the conventional methods that involved paper trails and manual work. These app are used by technicians, repair personnel, and inspectors in oil, mining, forestry, and transportation industries. We even met with a coffee shop supplies company who is maintaining espresso machines in a wide network of coffeeshops and needed apps to create work orders, order parts, and invoice their customers on their mobile devices.
What is a field service management app?
The use case scenario is when a technician or inspector receives a work order to visit a job site where industrial equipment are located. These equipments are either owned by the company or a client who purchased or leased them from the company. The technician or inspector perform a series of tasks such as filling out surveys, going through check lists, ordering parts, accessing the product or customer history, creating reports, and invoicing customers. They also provides real time information access to the company’s network in the cloud.
Companies who have to monitor their environmental impact may require to stay compliant with regulations and therefore fill out check lists and reports that follow an international standard such as ISO14001. Having a system that keeps track of historical paper trail and timelines helps the organization avoid fines and maintain a good public image.
Currently a lot of the workflow is done using conventional methods such as pen and paper forms or Microsoft Office Suite on desktops, smart phones, and tablets. Access to the information isn’t realtime. The process is slow and predisposed to mistakes and inaccuracies. Also compiling all these data to gain better insight about the overall state of equipment and worksites requires a lot of manual data entry and hiring data scientists to search for recognizable patterns that may lead to useful insights for the decision makers.
A mobile cloud architecture increases the business process efficiency, reduces paper work, and provides real-time access to the information. It is also more secure since all the exchanged information between the personnel and the company’s network is via secure connection. The data that gets pushed in the cloud may contain useful metadata such as timestamps, geolocation, and even atmospheric data.
A field service management app helps the organization with compliance. The software architecture becomes the backbone of the business workflow, it also maintains the history of work orders, timestamps, locations, and the relations to all the people involved. You can even develop surveys and checklists to comply with industry standards. These records can be used for future audits, generating reports, and avoiding fines.
Photo by Michael Coghlan
Here are some of the important features that are in a field service management app:
Cloud App and API
The brain of the system is in the cloud. That is where all the information is stored and fetched from. It is also the most complex part of the overall system. Mobile apps connect to the cloud app via an application programming interface (API) which is simply how websites and apps communicate with each other. The combination of the mobile app and the cloud infrastructure is called a mobile cloud architecture which is what mostly used in todays mobile apps.
This may seem redundant because end-users will be accessing the information on their mobile devices after all, however at least for the administration and content management purposes a desktop access is absolutely necessary.
Custom Form and Checklist Builders
Every organization has unique requirements for their check lists, work orders, and surveys. Generally a field survey management system needs to provide a form builder in the cloud app. Administrators build and maintain different type of forms and checklists that later become available to all the mobile users so they can perform maintenance and inspection procedures.
There is a caveat. Creating and maintaining custom forms is resource consuming and adds to the complexity of the system. Form builders are only needed if you are creating or modifying your forms frequently. Some organizations make adjustments to their work orders and checklists once a year or once every few years. In these cases custom forms can be hardcoded in the apps by a software development team and this will greatly simplify the overall architecture of the system.
Inspectors and technicians may not always have live Internet access. Sometimes they are working in remote worksites, inside concrete buildings, or underground. In these scenarios the mobile app keeps a copy of records on the mobile device and then pushes them to the cloud as soon as the device detects an Internet signal.
The mobile app may need to sync with the cloud for the most commonly used information and content.
All mobile devices can read GPS data and include the location information while the user obtains a signature or submits a form. This not only adds more information to an existing work order, invoice, or survey, but also have big data value in the long run. For example the administrators can create a map where all incidents and reports from different locations are rendered and the frequency of these incidents in different regions are highlighted. This way the organization can make more informed decisions about reallocating resources and personnel to different work sites.
Sometimes a checklist, invoice, or work order needs to be signed by the personnel or customer. Signature pads can now be implemented in all mobile devices that provide a touch screen. We have done an example for Lafarge that you see on their ePod Android and ePod iOS apps.
In most cases users ought to authenticate themselves on the mobile app in order to access the information in the cloud. All communication and data exchange between the mobile and cloud app must be encrypted.
Normally data scientist are hired to analyze the data but a good system provide detailed analytics about people, places, and things. This is about connecting the dots and gaining insight about the state of the worksites and sometimes even making predictions. Good analytic tools help decision makers make more informed decisions based on evidence and data rather than ideas and opinions.
What are the available options?
There are 4 main categories:
Turnkey solutions are what IT departments normally purchase for their organizations. Also since they are supposed to work out of the box and meet the needs of all kinds of organizations, they often deliver a long list of features and point-and-click configuration options. All these features add to the complexity of the system. In order to keep the profits coming, the vendors need to deliver more features every year and convince their customers to upgrade and as a result the technology becomes feature bloated over time. Turnkey solutions require upfront licensing, installation, configuration, and training fees. Unfortunately companies who have been suppliers of turnkey solutions have not innovated and made significant progress in the mobile space.
Software As A Service (SAAS)
Software as a service are apps running in the cloud that the vendor maintains and they grant access to their customers through monthly or annual subscription fees. Mobile apps are often free and they communicate with the cloud apps via API calls. Users can download apps on their mobile devices and use the SAAS solution. The cost is much lower than turnkey solutions to the point that users can put it on their company credit card without having to get a purchase order. SAAS solutions are also maintained and upgraded on a regular basis by the vendors. That means the IT staff will not be involved. IT managers have mixed opinions about SAAS solutions. Some view it as a threat to their control and job security and others view it as a positive move to free up resources and reinvesting them where they are most needed within the organization.
Data ownership and privacy are some issues. Using SAAS your data is often stored in the vendor’s cloud and they may or may not provide data export in usable formats. That means the more you use a SAAS, the more difficult it will be for you to switch vendors. Also your data is more available to the government agencies who wish to have direct access to your information and that is a privacy concern. In Canada medial organizations and universities are often required to host their data and files on the Canadian soil or on the premise.
SAAS solutions could become feature bloated over time just like the turnkey ones. That depends on the quality of product development on the vendor’s side.
Platform As A Service (PASS)
To prolong the lifespan of a technology and help it evolve, there has been a shift from product to platform development. That means companies decide to deliver a Platform As A Service (PASS) rather than a SAAS solutions. Unlike SAAS or turnkey solutions, a platform offers only the most essential features needed and no more, as well as a rich API for a software development team to build custom solutions for you. PAAS vendors also provide mobile software development kits (SDKs) to facilitate development of custom mobile apps on top of their platforms.
This will address the feature bloated-ness problem that both turnkey and SAAS solutions suffer from, however the data ownership and privacy issues are similar to the SAAS. You also need to engage a software development team to build you all the specific features that you need which the PAAS isn’t providing. You can sign up for a PAAS solution by paying monthly or annual fees.
Custom Mobile & Cloud Apps
This is the most tailored solution to fit your organization’s need and can be done either by an in-house or 3rd party software development team. A custom solution provides what you need and nothing more. You can choose where to store your data and how to store them. Have your forms, checklists, work orders, and surveys custom built as well as your business workflows and logic. You can also design all the user interfaces according to your organizations branding guidelines.
But there is a catch! Having custom mobile and cloud apps developed for you can be costly and it won’t just end at the version 1.0 launch. The first release of your app will contain only the absolute essential features that you need and for the upcoming development cycles, every year, you will be doing additional improvements and maintenance on the codebase. That is how you develop a product that is so user friendly that everybody wants to use. Also if you carefully edit the feature list throughout the process, you can make sure that your apps does’t become feature bloated over time.
The cost of mobile and cloud app development may be too high for the small to medium size companies, unless they gain a significant competitive advantage in the market and justify the return on investment.
The cost is affordable for enterprise companies, however the idea of agile development and investing time and financial resource for annual updates, maintenance, and development may go against their organization culture and workflows. Which is why these sort of projects are outsourced to agile development software companies who can iterate and innovate much quicker than enterprise companies.
rmdStudio is an enterprise mobile app development and consulting company specialized in knowledge access apps and services.
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