The Rugged Tablet Takeover

To stay competitive in the current technology landscape, businesses are mobilizing--and at a rapid rate. Tablets are no longer simply personal accessories, but a staple of the workplace.

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By Jim Plas

To stay competitive in the current technology landscape, businesses are mobilizing--and at a rapid rate. Tablets are no longer simply personal accessories, but a staple of the workplace. The bring your own device (BYOD) trend made them common in the workplace, but now entire organizations have caught on to the boost in productivity that tablets provide. Company wide distribution is underway in many enterprises.

The tablet revolution, however, is not limited to the office. Rugged tablets are being deployed in field service industries such as utilities and telecommunications in increasing numbers. With tablets in hand, field workers interact with clients, perform diagnostics, collect data and communicate with the central office more effectively. As a result, companies are reaping the rewards of improved productivity, better real-time decision making and reduced operating costs.

Having tablets as a key productivity tool in the field is a decision companies need to fully prepare for because most devices are not developed with challenging environments in mind. Heights, the elements, extreme temperatures and debris are some of the hazards encountered when taking devices to challenging locations. Organizations will be better positioned to achieve positive return on investment if they equip their workforce with devices that can handle more than the confines of a conference room.

Why Tablets?

The popularity of tablets is the result of one key factor: mobility. Always-on connectivity, intuitive touch capabilities and portable design cater to transportation and handling. For field service workers, who carry their device to many different sites during the course of a day, mobility is important.

Tablets also have the upper hand in price, battery life and data entry. Many might think laptops and devices with attached keyboards are superior for data entry, but this is not the case for a field service worker. If a worker needs to read a meter, take a customer's signature, or even climb a utility pole to check power or communications lines, the keyboard is obsolete. With a tablet, data can be entered while working, without having to find a stable platform on which to type.

And, because of the growing popularity of tablets, more commercial touch-optimized applications are available each week--in addition to the growing number of companies that are creating mobile versions of their in-house applications. In addition, improvements in handwriting recognition make written data input simple. So, expect ease of use to get better and the need for a keyboard to decline.

Why Rugged Tablets?

It's difficult to dispute that the portable design of tablets makes them convenient for mobile field service workers. But mobility is not the only concern. Field service organizations of all types employ tablets for highly specialized tasks in challenging outdoor environments--different uses than for a typical consumer. Companies that choose consumer tablets end up paying the price. Integration is more difficult, tablets break on the job, and a lack of features means paying more for additional equipment. And there are the productivity loss and customer satisfaction issues a company risks when a field service worker can't complete his or her day's assignments when the consumer class tablet fails because of an accidental drop.

1503up 16Rugged tablets offer the best of both worlds. They pair the portable design of tablets with enterprise-ready technology, security features and durability. Many come integrated with specialized tools for field service applications or have a variety of inputs for connecting with field equipment such as serial and RJ-45 ports, bar code scanners or radio-frequency identification (RFID) capability.

How Are Field Workers Using Tablets?

Field service companies continue to find new ways to use rugged tablets across their workforce. Tablets frequently are a vastly improved stand-in for the more traditional pen-and-paper data collection and can be used for meter reads, billing information, work order management, interactive troubleshooting guides, asset management and more. Using tablets to enter information or collecting it through an integrated scanner minimizes mistakes from data re-entry and allows for immediate processing of data through wireless connectivity. In addition, tablets that perform tasks using integrated tools (e.g. HDMI-In/Ethernet for cable and Internet validations) can collect diagnostic data live and then upload the results directly into a reporting system.

Tablets are also being used to run sophisticated geographic information system mapping and dispatching software. Utility workers, for example, can locate water mains or electrical lines using highly accurate maps or have instructions and routes delivered while on the road. And, all types of field service organizations can use tablets for interactive safety inspections leveraging 3-D models and integrated diagnostic software.

By equipping workers with rugged tablets, companies also improve face-to-face interactions with customers. Collecting information from the customer is more efficient, and personnel can pull up relevant information instantly, such as warranty information or billing information. Companies are also able to enhance their customer service by monitoring execution of duties in real-time, responding to changes quickly, and instantly sharing that information with its employees in the field.

For many companies, rugged tablets have become a key part of their field service workforces. By employing rugged tablets to automate data capture, communicate with field personnel in real-time, and report on and monitor performance, organizations are seeing reduced mistakes, improved customer satisfaction and large boosts in productivity. So, while some employees can expect to see their company slowly deploy tablets in the office environment, those in the field will be part of the rugged tablet revolution. And that's a takeover companies can support.

About the author: Jim Plas is the vice president of marketing and sales for Xplore Technologies. In this role, he oversees Xplore's development and execution of marketing, channel and sales operations, as well as the respective strategies and plans. Prior to joining Xplore, Plas served as vice president of product management and marketing and also as vice president of customer data integration at Acxiom. He was also the senior manager of enterprise services at Dell, a principal consultant at Data General and Microsoft, and an IT operations manager at DST Systems.

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