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PowerBuilder Success Story: Service Automation

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

To test the early version of the mobile offering and make sure the software addressed issues that directly impacted a field technician's efficiency, Haycraft spent two days riding in his customer's service trucks and shadowing repair technicians. He found the technicians liked the handheld system because it saved them effort, especially when performing the mundane tasks. For example, a high percentage of the service calls had the same work description with information like, "The unit was inspected, the problem was located, the faulty part was replaced and the unit was verified to be in working order." With a single selection on the handheld, the technicians could add this description they previously wrote several times a day by hand to the invoice. The description could be dropped in as-is, or changed slightly to fit specific circumstances. This feature alone won immediate points from the technicians.

Efficiency Gains at the Dispatch Desk
Haycraft also discovered he had a winner with the dispatch scheduling operation. Mobile connectivity gives the home office dispatcher a look-ahead capability for scheduling the technician's time. According to Haycraft, "As the technician was finishing a call, the next call was already downloaded to the handheld and ready to go; he didn't have to communicate with anyone. This technician was doing residential servicing, and so back at the office - because the service technician was synchronized - the dispatcher could see when they had arrived at the job. The dispatcher then called the next customer to tell them the technician would be there in about an hour. As is often the case in residential work, the customer might not be home so the dispatcher could simply move to the next available customer. This process seamlessly keeps the technician's job queue filled without interrupting the technician with scheduling-related phone calls."

Mobile Eliminates Data Entry Back at the Shop
Charles Haycraft explains that it is not just the field people who see the value of mobile technology, "Part of the exceptional value of an integrated system with a mobile piece resting on top is that the home office is no longer getting handwritten invoices back from the field. They don't have to decipher what was written and what services were rendered. All they're doing back at the office is verifying the correctness of the information and either posting it to A/R to be collected or entering the cash. It really saves a lot of time at the home office, as well as in the field."

SQL Anywhere Studio - A Local Database Differentiates Handheld Applications
Autonomy is a critical differentiator with handheld applications. Connectivity is not ubiquitous; dead zones are common. To be useful, a mobile product needs to continue functioning in the absence of a connection. The SAWIN Pocket PC uses SQL Anywhere Studio's UltraLite database, a small footprint database designed to minimize memory and system requirements in handheld devices. "A mobile online system utilizes the Internet through cell phone sites." Says Charles Haycraft, "If you get out of range you lose your connection, so if you are trying to complete something like credit card verification and you can't communicate, you have a problem. With the UltraLite database, even when they are out of range, the technicians can work the call, create an invoice, and get the credit card information. Once they get back in range all the information is synchronized."

Rolling Inventory - Trucks Become Mini-Warehouses
A service and repair provider shop has a significant investment in inventory that comes in through shipping and trickles out the door onto the trucks, eventually to be incorporated into a customer's plumbing or air conditioning system. Inventory in these types of shops can be notoriously difficult to track; the parts are often small and relatively low-ticket items. Tracking these parts is labor intensive, and therefore commonly overlooked in both inventory migration and customer billing.

Service Automation has created a multi-warehouse inventory system for service provider shops, which manages the main warehouse and then treats each truck as a mobile warehouse. As parts are transferred between the main warehouse and a truck, the parts are scanned with the handheld's infrared barcode scanner and added to the truck's inventory. Charles Haycraft explains the jobsite process of inventory tracking, "Say they need a part from their truck. If they have the bar coding set up and they have all their parts or their bins bar-coded, all they would do is scan the part, or the bin the part came from, and it would pull that part into the service call, price it accordingly, and remove it from the inventory."

This dramatically increases the accuracy of the inventory, and even the small parts are accounted for in the final customer billing. This is a boost to both the technician's efficiency and the accuracy of the bill. The multi-warehouse feature also helps locate key parts scattered across a fleet of trucks and improves reordering the home office stock because it provides a true accounting of the inventory, both in quantity and location.

Wireless Warehouse Inventory Management
SAWIN Professional already contained a popular, mature warehouse inventory management module with advanced functionality including G/L interface, A/P invoice validation, audit trails, stock inquiries, and purchasing histories. Adding handheld capabilities was icing on the cake.

To use the handheld in the warehouse, they set up an 802.11 local area network and connect to the SQL Anywhere database. They use the UltraLite database for some of the inventory tasks that need to be managed through a middleware layer that reconciles information before sending it to the main database. As with the trucks, they can transfer parts and equipment to other warehouses by scanning barcodes on the items. A handheld is especially useful when performing physical inventory because it accurately reads the barcoded product numbers and - for big ticket items - serial numbers. Handhelds also remove the labor-intensive, error-prone intermediate step of transcribing paper tallies to the main system. A Pocket PC with a local database and barcode scanner was an exceptional complement to SAWIN Professional's existing inventory module.

PocketBuilder - Mobility from a RAD Environment
PocketBuilder is essentially PowerBuilder running on a machine with a small screen and less memory. According to Charles Haycraft, PocketBuilder development does shift the programmer's awareness to different aspects of the environment, "PocketBuilder has a lot of features that bring value to our product - features like tabbed notebook controls. Tabbed notebook controls are available in PowerBuilder and they are especially valuable in the handheld arena where you work with limited real estate on the screens. Transferring features like the notebook control forward from PowerBuilder into PocketBuilder was a great leap for us."

Combining PocketBuilder with a SQL Anywhere database puts a PowerBuilder programmer in his comfort zone. The differences are the scale of the target machine and the experience of working in the intriguing area of handheld technology.

Watching an Excellent Product Get Even Better
Using handhelds in a warehouse is not a new idea, nor is providing field technicians with handhelds. What does differentiate the Service Automation solution is how it captures the complete picture from start to finish, of all aspects of their customers' business cycle. What is also interesting form a business standpoint is Service Automation's ability to apply Sybase PocketBuilder's rapid application development environment and existing PowerBuilder skills to quickly and economically develop a handheld extension to their existing, successful PowerBuilder product suite. In many ways, Service Automation mirrors PowerBuilder. As PowerBuilder adds new capabilities to track with evolving technology, Service Automation can quickly and affordably take advantage of these new advances using a familiar rapid application development environment.

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This article is reprinted with permission from Sybase Incorporated.

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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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