Is your organization weighing the pros and cons of authorizing consumer devices for field technicians’ use against an investment in enterprise-grade devices that would be issued to front-line workers? Are the devices expected to facilitate GIS accessibility and utilization? If so, then I urge you to consider the reasons why rugged mobile computers have proven most advantageous for utilities, energy companies and others with field-based workforces time and again, beginning with these five:
1. Computing power (and battery power) requirements
5. Device Reliability
Though experts have discussed these benefits in past blogs at a high level, I think it’s important to articulate these benefits in terms of GIS applications since those in the utility, mining, and oil & gas sectors indicated widespread adoption of GIS in Zebra’s latest “Future of Field Operations Report.”
1. Field-based workers need a mobile computer with enough processing power, memory and storage to properly manipulate GIS data and complex graphical interfaces common with such GIS applications. They also need to ensure that their GIS transactions, whether incoming or outgoing, don’t get interrupted by a dying device battery.
2. Along those same lines, workers must be able to at least download GIS data in areas where a reliable or fast data connection isn’t typically available, such as in remote locations where wind turbines, gas and oil pipelines and mines tend to exist. Now, there are two ways to deal with weak network signals, but both branches will ultimately lead you to the same place: the need for mobile devices that have been purpose built – and exclusively built – for use in these types of field operating environments.
Choice A is to depend on cloud access, in the hopes that it’ll simplify the specifications needed for mobile devices used in the field. But the design focus for most consumer and commercial devices is reliant on device users having a connection to a close-by Wi-Fi access point or cellular node. While close-by network nodes are common in homes and in office buildings, neither of these are available out in the field – especially not in highly remote or rural areas where utility infrastructure exist or natural resource extractions often occur. The best solution would be to opt for enterprise-grade rugged mobile devices since they are meticulously engineered to work in areas where wireless signals are weak. (Companies such as Zebra prioritize antenna and radio performance knowing that signal continuity is mission-critical for customers.)
Of course, you could always go with Choice B, which is to assume that a continuous and dependable network connection is not realistic. That will likely lead you to installing the GIS database and application onto the mobile device directly. Yet, doing so requires that mobile device to have enough processing power, memory and storage to handle large databases. Consequently, that means that the device needs a larger battery and hot-swap capabilities as well as a better way to manage heat than most mobile devices do since the device needs to be always available, even if the network isn’t. The only type of device that fits all of these criteria is a rugged handheld or tablet designed specifically to accommodate the demands of field workers, workflows and environments. And rugged devices that fit the above needs can also have other essential capabilities like integrated best-in-class barcode and RFID readers.
3. Either way you decide to manage your GIS database, the fact remains that front-line workers must be able to create new asset records or update data fields in a matter of seconds or minutes. Most of them aren’t assigned to update GIS data all day – such an action occurs in the course of their primary tasking – as they typically use existing GIS data to inform their assigned tasks, which could be installs, inspections, routine maintenance or repairs.
Therefore, the mobile devices you give them must have productivity-boosting tools. For example, they may first need to scan a barcoded label affixed to the piece of equipment – such as a transformer – to start the record or retrieve an existing one. Then, their mobile devices need to deliver accurate GPS coordinates via the GIS app’s application programming interface (API). Then they may need to report on the asset’s status, which is faster and easier with a keyboard and could then entail taking pictures or video to attach to the record or writing up more detailed notes.
Of course, security must also be considered. First, the data on the handheld or tablet is owned by the enterprise. Second, any erroneous or hacked changes to GIS data can cause lost time, incur costs or worse. Because of these cases, enterprise-level encryption, controlled and monitored by a full Mobile Device Management (MDM) solution or, better yet, a managed services solution such as this one, which are reliably found on mobile tablets and handhelds designed specifically for use in these types of field operating environments.
There are many ways in which field technicians benefit from GIS-enabled mobility solutions, as GIS overlays can dramatically improve just about every aspect of a company’s field operation, especially for those in the utility and energy sectors. Dispatch, ticket opening and closing, recording updates and fixes, tracking supplies consumed, and many other applications can be expedited and accurately executed when technicians are equipped with handheld or tablet computers.
Just make sure that whichever mobile devices they use can securely run GIS apps, connect to weak cellular signals and facilitate fast actions. They should also be useable when the bright sunshine is beaming on the detailed maps they’re looking at on their screens, the rain is pouring down on their devices, the vibration of the road is rattling the vehicle or they need to input or scroll through data points while wearing thick gloves.
At the end of the day, they just want to get the job done as quickly as you and customers want them to. Investing in the right GIS-powered mobility solution is the key to it all.