A utility field worker walks across a catwalk carrying a toolbox in one hand and a Zebra XSLATE L10 rugged tablet in the other.
By Bob Ashenbrenner | January 28, 2020

What Tablets and Tires Have in Common – and Why Every Field Service Organization Should Care

Just because something “could work” doesn’t mean that it will work in the exact way you need it to.

According to a report just released by Zebra called “The Future of Field Operations: A Look at the Energy and Utilities Sector Through 2025,” 73 percent of companies in the energy and utilities sector now consider themselves mobile-first businesses.

What does that mean?

They rely on mobility to conduct day-to-day operations. Handheld mobile computers and tablets typically serve as the go-to sources for enterprise intelligence, telling front-line workers where they need to be, when and why. And mobile devices provide detailed direction about what workers should do once they arrive at a job site, whether they’re tasked with delivering, installing, inspecting, servicing, repairing or removing something. Without the mobile device, the worker could be left in the dark – and the customer frustrated.

In other words, worker productivity, operational efficiency and business outcomes depend upon mobile technology utilization and performance.

Thus, the commonality between tablets and automobile tires.

Automobile tires have a set of specifications and ratings. These include the date they were manufactured, their size (i.e. the three dimensions), type, maximum weight load, expected life and maximum speed.  

A picture of a tire

This tire is 245 mm across, the sidewall is 45 percent of 245mm (110mm), it is a Radial, rim is 19 inches, 102 is a code for load of 1874 lbs. (per wheel) and V is speed rating of 149 MPH maximum.

The last spec, the speed rating, is usually 118 MPH (Rating “T”) for family vehicles as you can see in this next image:

A picture of a tire's rating specifications

That is more than enough for the vast majority of cars. But for cars driven on the track, or driven in Germany on some sections of the Autobahn, 118 MPH isn’t sufficient – and you wouldn’t want your tires to start coming apart at speeds over 118 MPH. In these cases, tires with a V rating for 149 MPH or a Z rating for 186 MPH would be necessary as they are specifically designed for exotic sports cars driven on closed tracks by highly skilled drivers and would provide the sufficient safety and performance for these vehicles.

But let’s say you are looking to replace tires for a 2015 Toyota Corolla LE. If you ask about a tire that has a speed rating of V (149 MPH) or higher, and accept the higher price, will the tire store talk you out of them? You won’t benefit from the higher rating, but they’ll happily sell and install those tires for you anyway.

The point here is that, no matter what you buy for personal or professional use, it is important that you don’t confuse a vendor’s willingness to sell you something with a reasoned recommendation of what best fits your needs.

This is especially true when it comes to mobility solutions for field-based workers.

The First Thing Every “Mobile-First” Organization Should Ask When Buying a Mobile Computing Solution

If you ask a company that sells field service-oriented software if it can run on a consumer tablet or smartphone, the answer could very well be yes. Many software providers make themselves device agnostic so they can support you no matter which handheld mobile computer, tablet or 2-in-1 you choose. But that does not mean that all of the Android™ devices capable of running their software are right for your workers, workflow or operating environment. In fact, I would bet that most software providers would probably not endorse the use of a consumer tablet or handheld in the field if they have been working with enterprise customers for a long time. Not because they are afraid of the software solution failing to work as it should on the consumer-grade device, but because they’ve seen firsthand how fast consumer-grade hardware can fail in field-based environments. I’ve said it a million times and I’ll reiterate it again: there are different flavors of “rugged” devices and not all rugged devices are built to withstand the constant exposure to weather or worker-induced hazards much less the chemicals, gasses, fluids and even tools with which devices may come into contact on a typical work day.

The point I am trying to make is that you, as the decision maker for your organization and the person who will be accountable 24x7 for the performance of your field workers, need to ensure both the software AND the hardware are appropriate for your unique workers, workflows and operating environments.

In fact, the type of mobility solution you need probably aligns closely with the needs articulated by respondents to Zebra’s 2020 Future of Field Operations Report. The newly-released report shows that energy and utility companies ranked these as the five most common software-driven functions among mobile application users, based on importance:

  1. Mapping/navigation
  2. Email
  3. Real-time database access
  4. Accessing supervisory control and data acquisition
  5. Utilizing geographic information systems (GIS)

If you’re reading this list and thinking, “They can all run on low-cost consumer-oriented devices,” then you would technically be right. In fact, if you are evaluating the user experience for these types of applications in your offices, you may in fact be testing them on consumer Android tablets or on your office PC (if you plan to use Windows®-based applications). I’ve done this too – it is a good way to focus on how the software runs and to identify issues with the GUI (Graphical User Interface) or other usability concerns.

Once you’re close to choosing the right application, though, you must stop to consider which mobile devices are best for your field-based workers and how that software experience may differ from them in a mobile workflow environment.

For example, energy and utility sector companies that participated in Zebra’s recent “Future of Field Operations” study revealed that overcoming these five challenges are a priority for them and therefore warrant consideration when it comes to any technology purchase decision:

The top 5 challenges facing utilities and energy companies over the next five years per Zebra's Future of Field Operations vision study.

Think about it: if your field workers are expected to maintain an “immediate response” posture at all times, and you require them to always be connected, then you need to ensure they have mobile devices equipped with radio systems designed for places were wireless signals may be weak or unpredictable – not a consumer device that assumes that the wireless access point is behind a sofa or that a cellular tower is just outside the coffee shop where they may be taking a break.

And if your field force needs to work outdoors to quickly respond to major weather events, they need devices that run the software that supports your SOP (Standard Operating Procedures) to minimize safety risks. Their handheld mobile computers and tablets must also feature screens that are just as viewable in bright sunshine as they are at night, aren’t fazed by rain or very high temperatures and could survive a drop while climbing up a ladder.

Of course, utilities and energy companies know better than anyone that customers expect – really, they require – on-time service. Usually when they call, it’s because they need their power, water or gas back on, or shut off, immediately. For that reason alone, your workers need enterprise-grade handhelds or tablets configured with geographic information system (GIS) technologies in order to run dispatch apps and quickly locate infrastructure assets. (More to come on the importance of GIS-enabled mobile devices in an upcoming blog post.) It is also another reason why they need the most reliable and durable tablet or handheld on the market, regardless of the cost. (There are many, which we’ll talk about in the coming weeks.)

Remember, a mobile device that fails for any reason costs you a lot more than the upfront price of the device – there is the upset customer, idled field worker, IT costs to re-provision a new device (and un-provision the old one) and much more. Which is why you really need to be weighing the “total benefits of ownership” when comparing your mobile computing device options.

If your field workers use wrenches and other tools, climb poles and crawl into small spaces, then they need rugged mobile devices that will survive being dropped – and having tools dropped on them.

If your field workers need their handhelds or tablets to interact with the equipment they are servicing – whether that be via USB connections, serial ports, reading barcodes or NFC tags – then they need devices that come with the proper input/output (I/O) ports or scanning systems. (And not just a check-box port; they need a true serial port – or a built-in 1D/2D barcode reader instead of just a camera.)

The Takeaway

Don’t just assume that because a highly-valuable piece of software can run on a lower-priced consumer device that the software provider is recommending that device for your particular use cases or operating environments. They are ensuring compatibility, but it is up to you to determine which mobile computing platform is ultimately best for your operations.

So, as I’ve recommended for years, be sure to first pick the software that best matches your workflow. (Don’t change how you do things to fit the software; that’s backwards.) Then, once you’ve selected the right software, you can start considering which hardware devices might serve your needs. By following this process, you’ll be able to answer one of the most fundamental questions when evaluating the viability of different mobility solutions for your enterprise applications: “Can the hardware run the software I need/want?” Further, “Can the device be configured with all of the specialized capabilities and features my workers need to fully utilize the software application and be efficient and effective in every likely situation in the field?”  

Remember: the value of your field service operations is defined by your ability to prevent and fix customer problems. Being on site at the right time with the right capabilities and the right people is the holy grail. No disappointed customer is going to say, “My equipment is down for an extra day because your tablet failed, but that’s OK because you saved a lot of money on it.”


Editor’s Note:

Tune back into Your Edge in the coming weeks for more insights from Bob on how to properly calculate the “total benefit of ownership” when evaluating the different mobility solutions available to you today.

In the meantime, download “The Future of Field Operations: A Look at the Energy and Utilities Sector Through 2025” report to see how your organization’s technology goals and challenges compare to others in the industry.

Energy and Utilities, Field Operations,
Bob Ashenbrenner
Bob Ashenbrenner

Durable Mobility Technologies, LLC, under the direction of Bob Ashenbrenner, works with Zebra Technologies to develop future-proof mobility solutions for customers across multiple field service and industrial sectors. As an industry consultant, Durable Mobility Technologies, LLC, is focused on optimizing rugged tablet-based solutions for mobile workers of all kinds, including utility and public safety professionals. Ashenbrenner is particularly committed to helping customers identify mobile devices that survive a tough work day, run all the software and tools needed today, and will remain flexible and scalable to adapt to evolving technology applications as business needs dictate.

Ashenbrenner has more than 25 years of computer engineering and engineering management experience, with 18 of those specific to mobility and the field requirements that enable real work to happen. He was previously a Solutions Architect with Xplore Technologies and Motion Computing for 13 years. In that role, Ashenbrenner led the development of a suite of rugged mobile tablet computer, services and software, with an emphasis on supporting the whole mobile work environment.