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Data on the run

Data on the run

Wireless applications save the day.

By 10am the day after the Newcastle floods hit in June, local plumber Joe Evers had 98 messages on his phone from desperate home owners ankle-deep in water. Dispatching jobs to his team of 10 plumbers, Evers quietly congratulated himself on investing in mobile data devices - i-mate JasJams at $1000 a piece - for his staff. His competitors were temporarily out of business, their offices wiped out by the floods. Evers' headquarters were flooded too, but his operation, The Plumbing Doctor, kept humming virtually uninterrupted.

Shelling out $10,000 for hand-held devices, plus $50,000 on custom-built software, appears an extravagant expense for a Newcastle tradie running a small business. However, Evers says he'll make the entire outlay back within a year, plus interest.

The Plumbing Doctor's annual consumables bill, including invoice books and printing supplies, will drop by $15,000 with orders, invoices and compliance reports flowing electronically from hand-held devices into the office computer system over Telstra's wireless data network.

Another $40,000 a year will be saved by eradicating two unproductive hours from each employee's day - hours previously wasted collecting daily work orders from the office and submitting invoices in person. These are now transmitted over the wireless network.

Fully automated stock controls will avert $10,000 worth of plumbing supplies going walkabout each year in cash jobs conducted on the side, or lost in employees' vans.

Evers can also hire another four plumbers without putting on more office staff. "That's $36,000 a year in wages I don't have to spend," he says. This means higher margins as the business grows. Although rival plumbing outfits operate at a field-to-office staff ratio of 20 to 7.5, The Plumbing Doctor runs at a slightly leaner 20 to five.

Difficulties involved with compliance are also alleviated using the mobile solution. Occupational health and safety laws require plumbers to fill out a job safety analysis for every job, big or small. Non-compliance carries a $50,000 fine, but it is a thankless task and often overlooked.

Determined not to run the risk, Evers built the mobile data procedure so that the OH&S forms are the first thing to pop up when plumbers arrive at a job site. "They can't access any details about the job, invoice it, nothing, until the job safety analysis is complete," he says.

Tallied up, The Plumbing Doctor will save $100,000 a year using wireless data devices, making the additional $100 a month it pays for Telstra's wireless data service seem a pittance.

Numbers such as these are cropping up in corporations around the world. Mobile data devices are producing some of the highest and most immediate return rates of any technology product, ever.

Aerospace giant Boeing, one of the biggest users of BlackBerry mobile email devices worldwide, conducted an audit to find out what return it was getting on its investment. "It determined that Boeing paid for every single mobile device, and everything connected to it, within 24 hours," project manager William McDermott says. "That was at a time when the [internal charge-back] rate was about $US189 a month per person. Today it's about $US19 per month."

McDermott says the most obvious benefit was realised by corporate executives. "They immediately knew they had a meeting to attend, a cancellation, or a critical document that had to be processed. It turned unscheduled downtime - meeting breaks, airport waiting times, taxi rides - into very productive time."

When Boeing experimented with BlackBerry devices in 2001, it was presumed that only top-level executives would receive them. "Initial thinking was that it would never exceed 400 users," he says.

Today, 10,000 Boeing employees carry BlackBerry devices, with a projected increase to 16,000 within three years. The vast majority have substituted their laptops for the lightweight hand-held devices.

"Management quickly realised this was a very productive tool," McDermott says. "Efficiency was going up. Productivity was going up. Downtime decreases for a worker because they're tethered all the time [to email and other office systems]."

There are, however, a few tricks to smoothly deploying mobile data systems. Most importantly, he says, get the best deal possible with telecommunications carriers. "That can make or break a mobile deployment if management gets wind that [mobile] data minutes are inflating operating costs."

Security should not be an afterthought. Boeing holds defence contracts bearing strict security measures so it blocks staff from having personal web-based email accounts such as Yahoo! or Gmail on BlackBerry devices.

"Boeing has learnt the hard way, along with other companies, that information is our most valuable asset and we need to protect it," McDermott says. "The ability to download third-party software - like Solitaire, for example - requires certain settings on the BlackBerry device to be left open, which poses a security risk."

If companies choose to lock-down devices, he suggests they do it from the outset. "Once people are familiar with having stuff on their device, they're highly resistant to change."

Boeing lets individual business units dictate which employees qualify for BlackBerrys based on their job description.

"We could dictate that policy but it's not practical," McDermott says. "The defence side of the house might have a different opinion on who gets a device and how it should be governed than the commercial airline side of the house."

Why wireless works

* Substantial annual costs reduction

* Can expand the business without increasing overheads

* Gives executives/business owners more productive time

* Tightens inventory controls, reducing lost or stolen stock

* Compliance is easier to manage

© Fairfax Business Media

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