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Technology to the Rescue

July 1, 2009
There are many technology-based products available to contractors these days, from tools and calculators to fleet management tracking software and tablet PCs, all created to make the job of a contractor easier while increasing overall accuracy and business productivity.

Technology has evolved throughout the years, in the field and also in the office, helping contractors streamline a variety of processes and procedures. There are many technology-based products available to contractors these days, from tools and calculators to fleet management tracking software and tablet PCs, all created to make the job of a contractor easier while increasing overall accuracy and business productivity.

A technician uses the SeeSnake DVDPak monitor, which includes DVD burning capability.

This year, Ridgid upgraded the recording capabilities of its SeeSnake line of drain and sewer inspection cameras and monitors with the SeeSnake DVDPak monitor and DVDBase recording accessory. The SeeSnake DVDPak monitor features an OLED display monitor, providing clear imaging even in temperatures below -30°F. With the SeeSnake DVDBase recording accessory, service technicians can record DVDs of their inspections to present to homeowners. Both accessories feature DVD burning capability and voice-over recording on inspection footage through built-in microphones and can be powered by either a lithium-ion battery or AC power.

Another Ridgid product created to simplify drain inspection is the compact microDrain inspection system. A 30-ft. flexible cable and a small diameter camera head allows for more accessibility and efficiency in inspection jobs. The flexibility of the cable and tight turn radius of the camera head allows for access through many toilet traps and small P traps without the need to disassemble or dismantle plumbing fixtures.

“As technology advances, we find it imperative to offer our professional users the tools and resources they need to make their daily jobsite experiences easier,” says Sarah Golish, Ridgid director of inspection systems and networks.

Two more technology based-products created to help the contractor are the Pipe Trades Pro and PlumbingCalc Pro calculators by Calculated Industries. Both calculators are lightweight, easy to carry, work with feet-inch fractions and include built-in pipe data tables for various pipe types, materials and sizes of pipes. They both provide a simple way to deal with conversions and calculations, including flow rates, velocity, force, pressure, volumes, slopes, percent grades, drops (run, rise and pitch), basic offsets and fill weights, and include a built-in right angle math and pressure drop for pipe size, type or distance. Both calculators are rugged — cases have a rubber base and a plastic cover. Plus they are dust, shock and moisture resistant.

“Having the answer to these complex calculations within easy reach, in a fast and accurate form is much easier than trying to remember the formulas or going through the trouble of looking them up in a reference book,” says Mark Paulsen, vice president of marketing at Calculated Industries.

Tablet PCs

Another rugged product for the jobsite is Motion Computing's Motion F5 tablet, built for data input and gathering in the field. The Motion F5 has an Intel Core 2 Duo processor with integrated features and a digitizer input, enabling users to access files and move easily between programs.

The F5 also has a 2.0MP integrated camera, allowing field personnel to add photos to jobsite records. Users can access a linked set of drawings, specifications, shop drawings and other documents when in the field. It is lightweight, has a slip-free grip and molded handle, and has integrated equipment that reduces the amount of gear and batteries that has to be carried and managed.

According to Michael Stinson, vice president of marketing at Motion Computing, the Motion F5 enables better management of resources through real-time information sharing, improves productivity, decreases office paperwork, improves collaboration through electronic documentation, enables contractors to “go green” by reducing the use of paper, increases billing cycle times and improves the documentation process.

The company also launched the J3400 tablet this March. The J3400 has a 2.0MP digital camera, a 12.1-in. screen, I/O ports, and is resistant to dust and moisture.

At 1-800-Plumber, a new franchise based in Houston, service technicians use custom-designed software on a tablet PC. Technicians receive all the customer information, the company pricing guide and a home analysis of customers' plumbing fixtures, which recommends and keeps track of future procedures that are needed. The software also plays presentations for homeowners — technicians can show homeowners what needs to be done by running a presentation or video on the tablet PC. A credit card swipe, built-in handwriting feature, small keyboard with a stylist, and touch and print application are also included on the tablet PC.

“There is no other company doing something like this,” says Keith Glass, director of technology at 1-800-Plumber. “This tablet PC will take a technician through the entire sales process at the customer's home.”

Push-to-talk technology

Push-to-talk is another technology useful in the field. Version Wireless' G'zOne Boulder push-to-talk phone lets users initiate and participate in group calls with as many as 50 participants. Users can view who is available and contact anyone on the jobsite. Regular wireless calling ability is also on the phone, so there is no need to carry two phones when in the field. The device is rugged and loaded with features such as a speakerphone, camera, electronic compass and field force manager capability.

Another push-to-talk product is the Motorola Tundra, a 3G device with a rugged exterior. The product combines optional workforce management tools with navigation capabilities and access to the Web. The Tundra features voice activation, a rugged antenna and keys that can be easily pressed. The Tundra also features access to AT&T Navigator and enables location and optional add-on tracking services, such as TeleNav Track workforce management tools.

Mobile workforce solutions

TeleNav Track offers mobile workforce management tools and GPS fleet management, and incorporates GPS, mobile and Web technologies with back-office applications.

“Using a mobile resource management solution like TeleNav Track provides a number of benefits to contractors,” says Keith Halasy, senior marketing manager of B2B products at TeleNav.

According to Halasy, these solutions can reduce fuel cost by approximately 13% and reduce mileage by approximately 19%; worker utilization has increased by 25% percent; and the accurate tracking and dispatching of workers has also improved customer service expectations by 22%.

Two workforce management solutions that have worked well for TeleNav Track customers are the wireless forms and time cards. When an employee starts their day, they don't have to go into an office to track their work time. Instead an employee uses their mobile phone to bill their time on a wireless time card, eliminating paperwork and making billing accurate. Timecard data can be integrated with back-end systems like accounting and payroll for reduced administration, and faster billing and cash flow.

When using TeleNav's wireless forms, a company can take a paper form that is central to the business, and make it wireless, so every mobile employee has access to it while in the field.

For example, a wireless form can help track parts used for each job and provide instant inventory updates for parts delivered at a jobsite. Wireless forms have also been used in the field to protect against customer complaints by capturing the image of the customer's signature on a completed job.

“By using image capture of a completed job and receiving customer sign-off on the work completed directly from a wireless form in the field, contractors are able to protect themselves from being liable in situations where work completed by another company, such as a drywall crew, damages the contractor's work,” explains Halasy.

Exaktime offers a PocketClock/GPS product, which is a mobile time-clock that tracks time and attendance through GPS technology. It automatically records the location of workers when they clock in and out, and worker activity. Once the time and attendance records are entered into TimeSummit, the software program presents the records in a concise report. The report can be edited, overtime can be calculated and reports printed. TimeSummit also tracks where workers clocked in and out, and a geofence can be set up to monitor whether employees were within the perimeter of the job when they clocked in and out. Records can also be exported into most accounting packages and payroll services with AccountLinx software.

The JobClock, another portable time clock by Exaktime, is suited for long-term construction projects. It is battery powered and locked down at each jobsite. Workers carry keytabs on a keyring, which identifies them in the system when they clock in and out. Supervisors then collect time and attendance records with a PDA. The in and out records can be previewed right at the jobsite. To transfer records from a JobClock to a computer, a palm or Windows PDA will be needed.

Both these product can be used alone or as an integrated JobClock System. Workers can clock in and out on either PocketClock/GPS or JobClock throughout the week, and timekeeping and location information from both devices is automatically updated into TimeSummit software.

Dexter + Chaney offers Spectrum's full service construction management software, which creates a seamless process for the service technician. The software has a call, schedule and dispatching function. The service technician uses a laptop to access Spectrum to view their schedule, work orders, job history, items fulfilled under a contract, plus anything else that must be tracked during the job.

“We put a laptop in front of the service technician, so they can access Spectrum, so when someone is dispatched they can view the schedule and see work orders,” says Brad Mathews, vice president of marketing at Dexter + Chaney. “If something changes about the job, the service technician will see it on their laptop computer. With Spectrum the service technician is tied into the software so they can do a multitude of things.”

When using Spectrum, many companies implement a pilot program, so the manual dispatching and billing process is eliminated slowly at the same time the software is rolled out. At the moment, Standard Heating and Air Conditioning Inc., Omaha, Neb., is implementing the software with a pilot program.

“Using Spectrum gives us the ability to get information out as quickly as possible to the technicians,” says Greg Hultine, service manager at Standard Heating and Air Conditioning. “Once these employees — the ones that are first to use the software — bought into this technology their excitement grew and created an energy level, so other technicians want to use Spectrum too.”

Another company offering a mobile field service application is Penta. The Penta field service solution enables field service professionals to receive dispatched work order details on a mobile device, and capture real-time status updates. They can review the account history and enter all the work — time, labor and expenses — done at the jobsite on the mobile device. The customer then signs on the device to approve the work completed, eliminating billing discrepancies and speeding up the billing process.

“This is one of those few applications where there is customer satisfaction pay back, time savings, which equates to dollar payback, and the idea of getting cash quicker, which is real hard dollar savings,” says Harvey Shovers, Penta's vice president of sales and marketing.

Fleet management tracking

GPS is another popular technology many contractors use to increase productivity in the field. With GPS tracking, companies can locate fleet vehicles, route technicians to jobs efficiently, monitor excessive engine idling and increase fuel savings.

According to Pete Desiderio, fleet management specialist at Vehicle Tracking Solutions, the reduction in operating and fuel costs and an increase in efficiency and productivity make the fleet management service they provide a win-win tool for many contractors.

Vehicle Tracking Solution's Silent Passenger tracking solution has a real-time true speed notification system called the SpeedGauge, which compares a vehicle's speed to posted speed limits. It notifies the driver if the speed limit is exceeded. The business owner is also notified of this by a red triangle displayed on the computer screen, by e-mail or text message.

“This eliminates the most dangerous speeding incidents — those which occur in residential areas,” explains Desiderio. “This feature helps business owners protect their company's reputation, their employee's safety, avoid increases in insurance costs and control fuel costs.”

Intergis, a single-source provider of mobile resource management and logistics solutions, also offers GPS tracking and reporting of vehicles, workers and heavy equipment.

Intergis' Vericom MRM Solution allows a company to capture and record vehicle statistics, such as idle time, speed, mileage, etc. with in-vehicle and handheld devices. In-vehicle devices capture vehicle statistics while handheld devices provide managers with valuable details about service. Office personnel can view an entire fleet or zoom in on individual vehicles with a live mapping tool.

To track heavy equipment, Intergis uses Kuva Asset Tracking Solution to pinpoint the location of vehicles and heavy equipment within and outside of the Global System for Mobile communication wireless coverage area. The asset tracking solution uses GPS to acquire location, time, date and motion data points. The device then transmits that data to a remote server via a wireless network. The server then processes the data, converting latitude and longitude location information into a street address and posts it to a Web- or PC-based application that includes GIS mapping and satellite imagery.

Kuva devices can be integrated with a company's existing logistics management systems, are self-contained and battery-powered. Devices are made of water-resistant plastic casing.

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