By David Kroutil

Handheld computers are no longer futuristic technology. They’ve become a necessity for companies in delivery/service industries—no matter how small or large the company. This article addresses the purpose, uses and benefits of implementing such tools.

Implementing handheld computers has many benefits. Most companies find they save time, reduce data entry errors, increase communication channels and, ultimately, save money.

Saves time
Incorporating handheld computers into your bottled water route operations will save your office staff many hours of manual data entry. Service technicians can quickly record items repaired, products sold, payments collected, and customer signatures on their handheld unit. This not only eliminates the need to manually enter route tickets on the desktop but also dramatically reduces check-in time at the end of the day.

Reduces errors
When manual tickets are being produced at each stop, it’s easy for data entry errors to occur. If your service technicians have unsightly handwriting, it may be difficult for your office personnel to read the invoices. Extending line items and applying sales tax are always challenges. With handheld computers, all the mathematical and sales tax calculations are done automatically, so these types of errors are virtually eliminated.

Some software programs will allow you to validate transactions before the information is saved at the office. As the information is transferred back to the desktop computer, a batch file is created. This allows office personnel to look over the day’s data to make sure everything is accurate. It’s then posted to customer accounts and becomes a permanent record.

Increases communication
Because information is updated on the handheld daily, the unit can function as a valuable reference tool while servicing your customers. Messages can be created by the office and downloaded to the handheld for each service technician. These special instructions are available at the touch of a button, thus eliminating printing messages and excess phone calls. Likewise, most handheld computers have the ability to store handwritten notes, so the technician can write a note for the office. Additionally, the driver will have access to customer delivery and payment history.

Saves money
When considering handheld automation, it’s very important you look at your long-term savings. While the initial investment can be substantial, the value and savings are incomparable. Not only will you save in your direct operating costs for labor and supplies, but you’ll also see “soft” benefits with reduced phone calls, less special trips and follow-up calls—items that lead to an overall more efficient operation. Route automation can take your company to the next level in growth and service.

If shelling out a large chunk of cash up front doesn’t appeal to you, then ask your potential vendor about leasing options. This allows you to spread out the investment to more closely match your savings cycle.

It’s also important to hold your vendor’s feet to the fire and prove your ROI (return on investment). A recent unscientific survey by one vendor found that the average payback for a handheld system is about eight months. Make sure you’re comfortable with the numbers presented.

Handheld integration
You may have looked at handheld computers but have been uncertain about what type of unit to buy. There are a variety of models currently on the market. In general, there are two major categories of handheld units—consumer and commercial.

Consumer — These units are designed for personal use. Most small, consumer-type units are compact, very high speed and may have full-color screens. They work well in many business environments and are very affordable. The average life span of a consumer-type handheld is one or two years. This short life span will allow your company to replace the units with the latest technology as manufacturers are introducing new models every few months. Palm, Compaq, Hewlett Packard, Casio and Toshiba are a few companies making personal computing devices, often called PDAs (personal digital assistants). Prices start at $199.

Commercial — Industrial strength units are more rugged, waterproof and have rated drop specifications to concrete to assure they can absorb high impacts. They’re best suited for extremely harsh conditions. They’re built to be durable and can withstand heavy use. The average life span for an industrial-strength unit is about four or five years. Symbol, Casio and Intermec (Norand) are a few companies that make commercial-type handhelds. Prices range from under $600 for consumer units to $2,500 for commercial models. Printers, scanners and other extra features can be provided at an additional cost.

It’s important to remember that there isn’t a handheld on the market that’s indestructible. Units will be damaged and destroyed no matter what model you choose. It’s an expense of automation, but the benefits of handheld computers definitely outweigh the cost of hardware repairs and routine maintenance.

Most handheld computers today use touch screen technology, which allows your service technician to operate the device with a stylus pen. It also allows your technician to obtain a signature while on route. Most units use removable memory cards such as compact flash, or secure digital media to store the data. This makes it easy for the information to be transferred back to the desktop. Plus, it also protects from data loss in the event that the handheld is broken.

Infrared (IrDA) technology allows the handheld computer to communicate with a printer so you can leave a receipt. Much like a remote control to a television, the information collected on the handheld can be transferred to a printer, a meter on your equipment, or another device without having to “plug it in” or use bulky cables to connect the hardware.

The models that are currently available run on one of two operating systems, Microsoft Pocket PC (Windows CE) or Palm OS. There are pros and cons to each operating system, so make sure you carefully research both the units and software when selecting a handheld (see Table 1).

Case study
A typical day in the life of a service person is to start by downloading data from the host (desktop) system to the handheld. This takes about a couple of minutes. Before leaving the yard, inventory is counted, the load verified and then the driver heads out on route.

On route, the first stop is shown on the screen and the field person can determine what’s required. Once the work is done, it’s quickly recorded into the handheld, a signature is captured, and the customer gets a receipt on the spot. If a payment is collected, it’s also entered — even credit card data.

As stops are completed, the data for each are being safely stored on a data card that can be removed if anything happens. Unplanned customers can be quickly serviced as the system holds as much data as is required. At the end of the day, the route is balanced out and inventory again counted. Data are uploaded and the employee finishes a half-hour earlier than he did without a handheld.

Clerical staff reviews the work the following day and then post the transactions. Customers get an accurate bill at the end of the month and appreciate the professional-looking materials they receive.

Handheld technology is here to stay. The use of handheld computers has revolutionized the way route delivery and service companies do business today. They are valuable time-saving tools that not only accurately record services and deliveries in the field, but also effectively update information in the office allowing your staff to work “on” the business instead of “in” it.

About the author
David Kroutil is president of Advantage Route Systems, of Turlock, Calif., a pioneer of handheld computers for on-route data collection. For the past eight years, Advantage Route Systems has offered a handheld solution to delivery companies around the globe. Its desktop accounting package, Route Manager 2000, is a native Windows-based application. Kroutil can be reached at (209) 632-1122 ext. 222, (209) 632-6868 (fax) or email: http://[email protected].


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