Technology: A marriage of software and GPS

GPS can deliver a multitude of benefits on jobsites, such as tracking equipment and helping guide dozer, grader or excavator earthmoving tasks. But the newest way to improve day-to-day operations out in the field includes mobile resource management software as well. The emergence of customizable mobile resource management systems, or specifically software and GPS combined, can do much more for your business’ bottom line when it comes to field service calls. MRM technology can change as your fleet changes, so it can adapt for use with one service truck or a much larger fleet.

Heeding the call
As GPS technology and business management software continue to improve their ease of use, more operations are banking on the benefits of integrating the two. Warren Power and Machinery, a Caterpillar dealer headquartered in Midland, Texas, with 17 locations for the Texas panhandle region and Oklahoma, is a prime example, but construction companies with medium- to large-sized fleets can also employ MRM to reduce equipment downtime, maximize service technician efficiency and cut operating costs.

Typically, Warren fields 60 service calls per day at each location and sends approximately 165 technicians to customer sites. Improving service expectations became the highest priority after a survey found their customers expected a technician response within a 24-hour window – and that’s where the idea for a pilot program to test MRM systems came in.

Using Six Sigma, a methodical approach using statistics to improve business processes, Warren measured a set of performance criteria against 22 software vendors to determine the best fit for their business. After narrowing it down to three vendors, potential users from the dealership network tested each software package using scenarios Warren had created.

“We wanted software and GPS devices that would give our dispatchers focus and allow them to make better business decisions in regards to the customer and technician’s time,” says Warren’s Mike Elliott.

The dealership chose InterGis’ Visual Control Room scheduling, routing and dispatching software, because it offered testers ease of use and a customizable platform capable of importing existing records, vehicle inventories, work histories and other data from a server system. “Through VCR, any number of users can share the same real-time data, even if they are in different locations,” says Steven Brown, president, InterGis. “And for security purposes, a primary user sets up the system so others can access only information needed to perform their job functions.”

So far, it is estimated the pilot program has saved the Warren dealerships around $60,000. “By the end of the year, we should see savings closer to $100,000,” Elliott says. When all 165 technicians begin using the program, Elliott anticipates an annual savings of around $3 million.

A well-traveled accomplice
Once software selection was complete, Warren equipped five of their service trucks with NovaTracker Maya GPS-enabled wireless devices. The Maya unit – which is about the size of two decks of cards – transmits truck tracking information through the VCR in real-time so dispatchers can schedule, route and track each vehicle on the VCR’s full-color, graphical map.

“We wanted a clean system,” Elliott says. “We didn’t want technicians having to punch stuff in, because they use laptops to stay connected. And when they want to communicate with dispatchers, they have the capability of using Bluetooth through the Maya unit.” Bluetooth technology uses a wireless personal area network for short-range transmission of digital voice and data through a secure radio frequency. With Bluetooth, you can exchange information between mobile phones, personal computers, laptops, telephones, GPS receivers and more.

Many of the GPS units considered for the pilot program had large dead zone areas, such as rural areas where satellite reception was blocked. But the Maya GPS unit continues to store information, logging the truck’s locations and activities, such as mileage and stopping points, even if a technician gets into a limited coverage area.

“A tech may be out of a service area for just a short period of time, but the information will still come back in to the dispatchers and show up on the VCR after the truck returns to a working area,” says David Leis, chief marketing officer, NovaTracker.

The Maya also offers start and stop times, and a “dream mode,” which continues to report data to InterGis’ VCR after the ignition shuts off. “Users can control how often they’d like the GPS to report location information after the truck is off for up to 24 hours,” Leis says. “You can also set this function to report at specific times once the ignition turns on.”

If a report hasn’t been sent when requested, the VCR will send an e-mail or text message to alert the primary dispatcher or user.

On the straight and narrow
With the introduction of the GPS and software system, a typical day for Warren’s field service division will now start with a dispatcher setting up the schedule and VCR presenting an estimated amount of miles the technician will drive, including the stops he’ll need to make for the day.

While technicians may get a sense big brother is watching them, Brown says the goal is to offer a more efficient way of approaching service jobs so companies can save time and money by seeing where extra miles have been driven. For instance, if needed, the VCR can replay the places a technician has traveled – information that’s available to the dispatcher only. At the end of the day, VCR shows the exact amount of miles traveled, relative to the miles proposed at the beginning of the day.

But the key highlight Elliott says will help meet Warren’s service response time expectations is VCR’s optimization tool, which enables users to quickly modify and prioritize schedules.

“If a technician happens to finish a job early, the dispatcher can see if the tech has time to schedule another service call before their next scheduled stop,” Elliott explains. This method, which he calls “leap frogging,” should improve chances of meeting customer requests within 24 hours.

“We will now be able to see where everything is taking place and be able to keep ahead of the work load,” Elliott says. “Before we had no idea what was going on at our other locations.”

Out with the old, in with the new
Prior to the pilot program, Warren used a notebook, a large white erase board and cell phones for scheduling service calls. But the notebook was often misplaced, the board got accidentally erased, or a tech would call in sick and everything had to be redone.

“Now, we just put the information into the InterGis system and the user can go in and pick up right where they left off,” Elliott says. By clicking the mouse and tracking truck locations on the VCR map, jobs can be assigned and given priority by dispatchers, instead of having to call to find out each technician’s availability. This works especially well when an emergency service call pops up.

This marriage of software and GPS not only helps streamline users’ duties by prioritizing repair calls, it also saves companies time and money by allowing businesses to focus on their divisions as a whole.

Currently, the system only serves the field service side, Elliott says, but one of the additional reasons Warren chose InterGis’ VCR scheduling software is that it had an open architecture, meaning it could integrate other divisions’ tools if needed. Warren plans to explore the possibility of incorporating the scheduling tool into its transportation and rental divisions and hope to eventually link it to their customer sales management applications, as well.

“We’re looking to rollout the field service management system to six of our major dealerships by the end of July or around August 1st,” he says. Elliott expects the field service program to be up and running in all of the Warren locations by the end of the year.

According to Brown, InterGis and NovaTracker plan to partner to streamline the remaining Warren field service operations, and are working to develop complete systems to integrate the additional business divisions for each Warren location.