The phenomenal acceptance rate of smartphones and tablet devices among the general public is slowly creeping its way into trucking. Fleets have long sought out technology to streamline operations, but while smartphones, tablets, and ruggedized computers can help fleets improve efficiency, simply purchasing the latest in technology can be nothing more than dumping money on the information superhighway if you don't ask the right questions before purchasing.
Mike Lee, CEO of Airclic, a provider of mobile software solutions for supply chain, logistics, and field service operations, recently spoke with Fleet Owner in an exclusive interview talking about tablet devices and the questions that need to be answered if your operation wishes to maximize its return-on-investment.
“What we're finding is that companies have made investments in the back office, in the trucks themselves, and now they're starting to look at [devices to streamline operations],” Lee said. “I do think things like tablets, smartphones, and even the new ruggedized devices, from a price-point [perspective], are moving into a sweet spot where it's cost-effective.”
Before purchasing a tablet or smartphone for your employees, Lee suggested answering a few simple questions:
How will workers use the device?
What kind of environment is the employee working in?
How much barcode scanning will be done with the device?
Will the employee be using the device as a phone as well?
For instance, Lee pointed out that for some workers, a ruggedized device might be appropriate, while others can use a tablet such as Apple's iPad, Samsung's Galaxy, or RIM's BlackBerry Playbook device. Still others can function quite nicely with a smartphone.
And if phone capabilities are needed as well, that limits the choices as not all tablets can act as a phone, Lee said.
The functionality of tablets is similar to a laptop computer but in a more manageable size while the overall footprint of the device is large enough that it provides “more real estate” for the user to interact with the information, Lee said.
A tablet can also provide a portable device that eliminates unnecessary paperwork. “If you have a tablet, you could actually walk a customer through a training program and then get a signature right on the device,” Lee said, adding that it can also be used for delivery receipts, including signature capture.
But for all the benefits of tablet devices, they do have a few drawbacks when it comes to trucking fleets. Primarily among these is the environment the employee will be working in. Also, heavy barcode scanning, such as what occurs with P&D fleets, can tax the tablet, Lee said. A key question to ask here is whether the tablet has a built-in laser scanner. Many do not, Lee said.
Also, adding a tablet usually means the fleet wants real-time access to data. Not all tablets have that ability without purchasing a data plan. Lee said to check how the device transmits data — does it need its own data plan? Can it transmit through WiFi or cellular network? Or does it need an Ethernet connection?
“If you are using the tablet, you want to be pushing information to the mobile worker and have that information coming back,” Lee says.
The final bit of advice Lee offered is to seek input from a number of people, including your current software provider, before making the purchase.
“Are they device-agnostic?” Lee asked. “That is, can you run [your software] on any tablet, or on any smartphone? Also, does the tablet work on only one carrier's network?
“[Airclic's] view is that to help customers have flexibility over time, we have to be carrier-agnostic and device-agnostic,” Lee added.
Lee advised managers to discuss the purchase of devices with their providers first to ensure that not only current products are compatible with the device, but also future products and updates.