Yorkshire buys into ToughBook

As part of a drive to improve customer service, Yorkshire Water has recently bought more than 450 Panasonic ToughBook CF-M34s. And it is currently planning to equip its field service technicians with them.

In August 2000, Yorkshire Water launched a pilot scheme to test Panasonic ToughBooks in the field. Previously, the mobile workforce of 400-plus either carried no communications equipment at all, or used conventional laptops.

As part of the drive to transform work management and finance systems throughout the organisation, a superior notebook solution was sought that would increase efficiency of the field function.

The main area of activity that the water utility was looking to improve was the relaying of job data and mapped pipe information from the site back to the call centre. To achieve this, its field technicians would need equipment with built-in GSM communications.

Yorkshire Water covers an area of 1.4M hectares with hugely diverse geographical conditions, and serves 4.5 million domestic and 150,000 trade customers. The Bradford-based call centre handles 1.6 million contacts annually.

With an operation of such size and scale, continuous and efficient communications between central management systems and technicians in the field is top priority.

Rugged local terrain and prevalent weather conditions can create a hostile outdoor work environment with exposure to the harshest elements.

Any solution introduced to improve field operations had to be sufficiently robust, resilient and durable to withstand wind, rain, snow and dust pollution from plant, as well as the unavoidable knocks and scuffs caused by repetitive loading and unloading from technicians' vans.

The equipment would also have to perform through long periods of use to meet the demands of a 24/7/365 service, and be easy to navigate in the dark.

Yorkshire Water invited competitive tenders from potential suppliers of the notebook solution through an entry in the European Journal. The following features were specified as essential:
  • Rugged build
  • Touch screen for drawing maps
  • Substantial hard disk for storing complex geographical information systems locally
  • A keyboard for drop-down pick lists and to type in customer comments
  • Built-in GSM mobile phone technology is utilised for connection and transmission of data to and from any location
All submissions were reviewed and both a technical and business evaluation was carried out. A short-list was then drawn up and product samples from the successful suppliers were tested in a hands-on evaluation.

One of the contenders was Panasonic's conventionally sized ToughBook CF27 but it proved to be too big for this application.

Yorkshire Water also rejected other models on grounds of cost per unit or lack of necessary features. But Panasonic's mini ToughBook CF-M34 was shortlisted because it met most requirements at a good price per unit.

Yorkshire Water negotiated with Panasonic to purchase the product through a third-party supplier, Concorde Informatics, which helped organise the NT build and liaised with Panasonic for the supply of components. It also provided a service package including a three-year service and support programme.

For the initial pilot, units were supplied to Yorkshire Water with several software packages installed. The organisation was one of the first to use the CF-M34s with Windows NT operating software. Email is provided via Lotus Notes, and Wings software enables the mapping facility.

MDSI Canada's Advantex software provides the work management systems that allow the company to schedule and organise the workload of their 400 field technicians.

According to Yorkshire Water, feedback from the 50 or so users was positive and very few problems were reported.

Although 450 CF-M34s with built-in GSM have been purchased so far, the project
is still being implemented and is run on a pilot basis in certain areas of the organisation.

About 400 of the units are not yet in the live environment, but those in use are giving the company an opportunity to test its communications infrastructure, as well as assessing performance of the equipment. Valuable feedback is also being collected so that Panasonic can continue to develop the system and tailor it to task requirements.

The deployment of new technology gives managers the opportunity to schedule work on a daily basis, identify high-priority jobs and assign technicians with the relevant skills more rapidly.

With GSM communications enabling the direct transfer of information between field and central management, daily travel patterns are changing, making savings on both time and expenses.

Paperwork and office use can be reduced. And, because systems are continuously updated, the current status of jobs is readily available to customers.

ToughBook's resilient build ensures that further savings can be made regarding repair and maintenance costs. Also, its compatibility means that other software applications can be introduced so more jobs may be completed by fewer people.

In helping to improve work practices by providing mobile communications, tailored software solutions and dependable weather and shock-resistant hardware, ToughBook is a match for the rugged features and challenging work conditions set in Yorkshire.

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