What to do when your phone upgrade demands brawn over beauty

When Ferguson Enterprises decided to upgrade mobile phones for thousands of employees, the plumbing supplies distributor opted for a chunky, 12-ounce handset with a 3.7-inch screen, running a version of Microsoft Windows Mobile, and able to stand up to repeated 6-foot drops to polished concrete. Hadn't they heard of the iPhone? Or the Samsung Galaxy S III?

In fact, iOS devices are the corporate standard, for some employees. But the phone upgrade was for Ferguson's army of truck drivers, who deliver plumbing and other building supplies to industrial customers or outdoor construction sites, often in rain, snow, sleet or hail, and all stuff that goes with them.

BACKGROUND: When devices just can't break -- how handhelds are designed to withstand target practice and spilled lattes

"We've been very hard on our devices," says Joseph Zanette, solutions manager at Ferguson's Newport News, Va., headquarters. "There is a huge difference between a consumer device and a commercial ruggedized device, especially when you are working within our environment."

The company has long been using rugged handhelds, from Psion, (as of Oct. 1, a unit of Motorola Solutions) in its warehouse operations where the handhelds are routinely dropped, banged, hit, and sometimes run over by forklifts. The industry average for repairs of such devices is 19%, says Zanette. "We have historically always exceeded this number, so we know we're rough on them. We assume our truck drivers will as well."

Ferguson, a subsidiary of U.K.-based Wolseley PLC, was founded in 1953. It's the largest wholesale distributor of plumbing supplies in the U.S., with 1,300 locations and $9.5 billion in sales last year. It has a fleet of 3,400 trucks, whose drivers had been outfitted for years with Nextel mobile phones, to keep them in voice communications with dispatchers. The trucks, in a sense, were filing cabinets on wheels: Department of Transportation manuals, delivery tickets, routing documents, and a host of other forms and paraphernalia, including maps.

As part of its strategy to improve fleet management and product delivery, Ferguson in 2010 began deploying a route optimization application, by Descartes, in conjunction with a drive to automate its dispatching process. These efforts led Ferguson toward a mobile solution for drivers that could leverage fully these new capabilities.

Initially, the dispatching-routing upgrade goal was to create efficient routes for product deliveries, a process that's less about minimizing the distance traveled and more about minimizing the time spent traveling. This involves creating or adapting routes that minimize back-tracking and left-hand turns across traffic, for example, while creating the shortest possible time from the last delivery location back to the distribution center.

And in Apple's App Store, there's apparently not really an app for that. You can find personal routing apps, such as Route4Me and Smart Route but comments by users show these have a variety of limitations for commercial use, such as handling no more than 10 stops. Some apps may simply create the shortest distance between points without regard for the overall efficiency of the route, including the return trip.

As Ferguson worked with Descartes on preliminary requirements, Zanette says, the company saw more and more potential for an appropriate mobile device to leverage capabilities such as electronic proof of delivery and turn by turn navigation. Descartes suggested considering Psion's EP10 device, which Ferguson evaluated in late 2011 and began initial deployment in early 2012.

"It's a little bigger than a standard smartphone, and it runs Windows Mobile [technically Windows Embedded Handheld 6.5.3]," says Zanette. "It has the full range of voice, data and GPS capabilities that you'd get in a typical smartphone. But it's much more rugged than a consumer-grade smartphone."

And it looks it. The Psion EP10 is 6.2 x 3.1 x 1.2 inches, weighing a hefty 12.2 ounces with the rechargeable Lithium-Ion battery, which is available in standard or high capacity options, and able to run for a full shift.

The front combines a 3.7-inch 480 x 640 VGA backlit, "sunlight readable" touchscreen (stylus or finger) with three keyboard options. It packs a 800MHz ARM Cortex A8-based CPU, with 256MB SDRAM and 2GB of flash. It has 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR, and support for multiband HSPA+ or EV-DO Rev. A 3G cellular networks.

There's an extensive security portfolio: 802.1X, WPA/WPA2-Enterprise, a selection of EAP authentication protocols; and several encryption options, from simple to complex. Sensors include: accelerometer, digital compass, gyroscope, light sensor and proximity sensor. There's built-in scanning for data collection, with a 2D omni-directional imager. It has a 3.2 megapixel color camera.

And the EP10 is tough: It meets standards for rain and dust protection, and its drop rating is based on surviving 26 5-foot drops, on each edge, corner and surface, to polished concrete, and "multiple drops" of 6 feet.

The EP10 can support an extensive stack of Microsoft mobile applications, such as Internet Explorer Mobile and Office Mobile 2012. But Ferguson treats the device as a pure business tool: It runs the Descartes dispatching/routing client and the client for B2M Solutions' Mprodigy mobile device management suite, which Psion offers as part of a managed service that includes Level 1 and 2 help desk support.

With this combination, Ferguson dispatchers and administrators have real-time location of all trucks, updated estimated-time-of-arrival, and an array of other location-based data, real-time data capture at drop-off sites, as well as full visibility into every EP10.

The route optimization and estimated arrival times now can be shared with customers, so they can meet the trucks on-site. Delivery documentation is on the device. Once the products are unloaded, a series of screen prompts guide the drivers to report "exceptions" (a delivery refusal due to an incorrect order, for example) or damaged products. With real-time data, customer service reps can contact the customer at once and start a credit process or work on arranging for an alternate product source.

Collecting signatures on the EP10's screen is a critical change. "It helps reduce the number of claims and disputes after the fact," Zanette says. The built-in camera is used to document delivery and the condition of the products.

So far, with the new system deployed on more than 800 trucks for less than a year, Ferguson calculates that it has realized about $3 million in savings. The device will be rolled out to drivers for the remaining 2,300 or so trucks by March 2013.

The new system has reduced paperwork and administrative overhead for both drivers and distribution center staff. And Ferguson can now track customer satisfaction metrics, such as on-time arrivals at site, and on-time departures from distribution centers. It can now measure the average time-on-site for its drivers.

Eventually, the overall fleet management system will be expanded to monitor driver behaviors (excessive idling, hard braking, even fuel consumption) and capture vehicle monitoring and maintenance data.

"The more we progress with this, the more opportunities we're discovering in terms of enabling savings or customer service benefits," Zanette says.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World. Twitter: @johnwcoxnwwEmail: john_cox@nww.com

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This story, "What to do when your phone upgrade demands brawn over beauty" was originally published by Network World.

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