FOR SERVICE contractors, hardware to run an efficient contracting business can be as humdrum but necessary as a reliable printer or as innovative as a wireless device and software that keeps communications lines open between personnel in the field and dispatchers in the office.
Sturdy workhorses in many larger contractors’ offices, laser printers are good choices even for small offices. They can print text pages quickly, quietly and at a lower cost per output than other types of printers.
We recently tested three laser printers: the HP LaserJet 1200, the Lexmark ES320 and the Brother HL-1450. While each offers high-quality output, there were subtle differences that could make users happier with one machine rather than another, depending upon relative space, noise or other parameters.
The Brother 1450 Monochrome Laser Printer can deliver up to 1200-by-600 DPI resolution, which is mighty fine for text and adequate for high-quality graphics. The unit has 8 MB memory standard (upgradeable to 36 MB), parallel and USB ports and prints up to 15 pages per minute.
The printer is about 14-in. wide by 17-in. deep, can handle manual duplexing, runs very quietly and has a relatively quick recycle (meaning it shuts up, fast, after each printing job). An optional network adapter is available. The 250-sheet capacity paper tray is safely ensconced inside the bottom of the unit, out of harm’s way; the paper path ends on the top of the unit, where the sheets lie flat until removed. The unit has a convenient on/off switch. Of the three units, the Brother was the quietest, by far.
Hewlett Packard’s HP 1200 LaserJet also comes with 8 MB memory and prints 15 pages per minute from the 250-page capacity input bin that, somewhat awkwardly, extends beyond the front face and, on a tight desk, is easily bumped out of position. In order to plug the parallel cable into the unit, it is necessary to remove the side panel, an inconvenience that also exposes the unit’s electronic components.
The 16.3-in. wide by 19.2-in. deep networkable unit lacks an on/off switch. Printed sheets lie on top of the unit. A major plus for some offices – an optional adapter facilitates conversion of the printer into a scanner/copying machine.
Sporting input and output bins that angle upward from the top of the unit, the Lexmark E320 is the smallest of the printers and could be a good choice where a small footprint is valued. Geared to the home office market, the 15-in. wide by 14.2-in. deep unit, with 600 by 600 maximum resolution, ships with 4 MB internal memory, prints 16 pages per minute, has parallel and USB external ports and holds 150 sheets of paper. However, the cooling fan runs for about 14 minutes after each print order (even if just one sheet), which would be noticeable in an otherwise quiet office.
etrace 3.0 (Gearworks, www.gearworks.com, 800/735-3457) is a mobile solution for dispatched service personnel that automates and manages data collection and other activities by workers in the field. It also provides communications between field and home office enterprise systems, expediting billing, tracking and other operations.
The solution, which can eliminate paperwork, redundant data entry and downtime in the field, consists of a wireless application that runs on an off-the-shelf handheld device that functions as an electronic clipboard, and the QuickConnect software module.
With its QuickConnect module, etrace easily exchanges data with existing enterprise systems. The module is designed using open-standard XML technology that complements customers’ existing systems. The integration allows contracting businesses to capture information at the point of delivery that can be used by a number of people.
Through the Electronic Clipboard field personnel can, in real time, exchange schedules, work orders, GPS-based routing, inventory, time-tracking, capture of electronic signature for credit card payment or proof of work completed and other data with the central office.
The “Mission Control” interface also enables dispatchers to plan, route and measure the performance of the entire mobile work force.
Dispatchers can send messages to a single service technician, a group of technicians or everyone in the field. They also can receive messages from several field personnel at once and then prioritize the requests and respond appropriately.
The interaction makes it easy to schedule new jobs, pass along data on change orders or provide any other essential information such as potential delays.
Productivity-enhancing features include customizable SmartForms that can pre-load repetitively entered data such as customer’s name, address and billing information. With the GPS mapping dispatchers can route service personnel, and the field personnel can provide the central office with current status of all active technicians as well as the status and location of all fleet vehicles at any time. They also can provide electronic notification of completed service calls as they happen.
William and Patti Feldman provide Web content for companies and write for magazines, trade associations, building product manufacturers and other companies on a broad range of topics. They can be reached at [email protected]