PowerBuilder Authors: Chris Pollach, Yeshim Deniz, Jayaram Krishnaswamy, Kevin Benedict, Avi Rosenthal

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PowerBuilder Success Story: Service Automation

Taking advantage of new advances using a familiar rapid application development environment

Mobility is a key factor in Service Automation's recent success. Providing handheld Pocket PCs to their customers' mobile workforce has added dispatch, multi-warehouse inventory, and field force automation capabilities to their product line.

Key Benefits

  • Field technicians can focus on their skilled task, rather than filling out paperwork.
  • By saving time on paperwork, technicians can complete more service calls in a day, resulting in increased revenue.
  • Invoices are submitted in the field and better reflect both the actual time spent by the technician and the parts installed at the jobsite. The home office needs only to verify completed work instead of transcribing handwritten job invoices.
  • Increased inventory accuracy as parts are tracked from the moment they enter the warehouse until they are installed at a customer site.
  • Dispatcher can fill technician job queues based on the handheld's current job status.
Customer Profile
Service Automation sells integrated accounting, payroll and inventory systems. The company's customer base includes organizations with technicians and trucks in the field performing services. Service Automation is a textbook example of a company positioning itself to progressively expand into complementary areas as new technology becomes available.

Business Challenge
With a suite of back office application packages for mobile service and repair shops, Service Automation needed to extend their product offering out to mobile technicians.

Sybase PocketBuilder, combined with Sybase SQL Anywhere Studio and its UltraLiteTM database for handhelds, gave Service Automation the necessary tools to extend automation to their customers' mobile workforce. SQL Anywhere's Adaptive Server Anywhere (ASA) database powers the home office systems that aggregate the handheld information and use it in accounting, payroll and inventory applications. Synchronization between the handhelds and the home server is managed by MobiLink.

On average, by using a mobile solution to dispatch service technicians into the field, the gains in efficiency save enough time for each technician to handle an extra call each day. The home office no longer needs to compile invoices from the field; this eliminates transcription errors and removes a significant data entry cost. Inventory location and usage is more accurate because each truck in the field acts as a mobile warehouse and parts are added to invoices by simply scanning a barcode in the truck.

Why Sybase?
Sybase's mobile technology matched the business and technical requirements. Service Automation has used Sybase PowerBuilder since 1994. Sybase solutions have worked so well and become such an integral part of their own products that Service Automation has become an authorized Sybase VAR.

Field service, handheld/wireless computing, field force/office automation, field service

Taking It to the Streets
The average day of a journeyman plumber or service technician has a surprising amount of time spent doing tasks not involved with actually performing the skilled job or driving to the worksite. By necessity, these professions have a seemingly inescapable burden of paperwork, the bulk of which is created by the skilled tradesman at the customer site. This includes writing cost estimates, tracking time, noting any parts used on the job, writing invoices for the work and parts, and gathering information on the next site to visit. Cumulative inefficiencies add up and a shop with a fleet of trucks sees each truck and worker in the field acting as a multiplier because the skilled tradesmen are spending a significant percentage of their time engaged in the necessary evil of paperwork.

Service Automation recently extended their integrated service management product, SAWIN Professional, so it addresses and eliminates not only the inefficiencies engendered by service technicians in the field, but also the staff at the home office who sort through field paperwork dumped on them at the end of the day. The new mobility layer of their flagship product, SAWIN Professional, uses handheld Pocket PC computers in the field connecting to the home base accounting, inventory, and dispatch systems.

The company's customer base includes HVAC, plumbing, garage door, refrigeration, and mechanical contractors - companies with technicians and trucks in the field performing services. Customers range from service shops with five or six technicians to large outfits using 200 technicians in the field.

SAWIN Professional's architecture relies on Sybase PowerBuilder and ASA-based back office applications communicating with field technicians using handheld devices running a Sybase PocketBuilder application that utilizes the UltraLite database. Connectivity and database synchronization issues are managed by SQL Anywhere'sMobiLink technology.

The net result of this assembled technology is a highly efficient mobile workforce connected to back office systems populated with current information on all jobs being worked by the mobile tradesmen.

Injecting Mobility into an Existing Solution
Service Automation is based in Houston, Texas. In 1994 Service Automation began developing SAWIN Professional, a PowerBuilder-based integrated system that included inventory, job costing, general ledger, accounts receivable, payroll, counter sales, order entry, and marketing functionality. SAWIN Professional is a comprehensive solution for installation, service, and repair shops; its features address the specific needs of service shops and the product has been installed in more than 200 locations.

Owner Charles Haycraft foresaw mobile technology coming into its own. Haycraft had been involved in the computer industry since 1969 and was part of the barcode/handheld revolution that swept the supermarket industry in the 1970s. When he outlined the architecture of the SAWIN modules, he made sure a future mobile solution could overlay the base system.

Service Automation's customers had highly streamlined back office systems, but each day their disconnected fleet of trucks produced a sizable load of paperwork that needed to be entered into the back office systems. The field technician's productivity was also hampered by the task of generating the paperwork. A mobile solution that automated both sides of the equation - home office integration and tracking field work - would be a boon to their customers. Another feature included with handheld technology is the ability to scan barcodes. Inventory can be alarmingly fluid in a small shop with a mobile staff. Parts move from the shop to the truck and onto the customer site. The detail involved in tracking the inventory migration further decreased the field technician's productivity.

When Sybase announced PocketBuilder in 2003, Service Automation was one of the early adopters. PocketBuilder gave them the ability to use their PowerBuilder coding skills to move existing code to handhelds and develop a new class of add-on modules that integrated with the existing system and targeted the inherent inefficiencies resulting from fielding a mobile workforce. PocketBuilder additionally provided an opportunity to enhance Service Automation's product offering by adding new features for dispatching and inventory that had direct applicability to their customers.

The company had built a solid suite of integrated back office applications and Sybase PocketBuilder gave them the tools to complete their product offering, closing the loop between field people and the home office, and extending the inventory and dispatching capabilities of the product.

Efficiency Gains in the Field
Service Automation implemented a Pocket PC product extension named SAWIN PALM. SAWIN PALM and its supporting software, the SAWIN Field Automation System, extends their customers' reach from the home office to a fleet of trucks spread across a local geographic area. As with their existing product modules, the Field Automation System is an integrated solution that ties into the back office software. The mobile product layer includes dispatch, work order download, part and service pricing, credit card processing, and customer signature capture. Each truck has a printer for invoices. A technician's time is tracked on the handheld; the technician starts the clock when they begin the job and they can stop it for breaks. The actual billable time is then included in the invoice.

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PBDJ News Desk monitors the world of PowerBuilder to present IT professionals with updates on technology advances, business trends, new products and standards in the PowerBuilder and i-technology space.

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