The key will be to choose your technology products wisely, keeping in mind this need to integrate everything effectively. (Handheld US photo)

Technology for Technicians: 2013 Trends

Rugged smartphones and small handheld devices end up being a great fit for OHS specialists who spend time at a wide variety of work sites, from oil and gas wells to petrochemical plants to refineries.

It's a great time to be a technician using technology. Work done in the field is getting easier, more efficient, and more accurate as the tools we use get smaller, faster, and more precise. And we can perform new functions in ways we might not have imagined five years ago. Asset tracking, inventory, and cloud computing are three of the strongest application trends in 2013.

When it comes to technology, predicting very far into the future is a dicey proposition. But in the short term, it's possible to look into 2013 and see what's coming -- and it's exciting stuff. Below are what I expect to be some of the leading technological developments in the coming year.

The Next Level of Applying Technology
While there are holdouts in the working world still using pen and paper to work in the field, more and more organizations are already using mobile technology, and many of them are in their second or even third phases of deploying these advancements. Initially, they focused on the obvious gains technology provides -- such as field techs not having to do data entry back in the office at the end of a shift -- but now that they are comfortable with the tools and the technology, they are looking around to find out what else it can help them accomplish.

I think the biggest opportunity for today’s businesses is the multifunctional capability of newer mobile devices. People started by using simple handheld computers to jot notes or enter basic data. If we liken these first devices to screwdrivers, we can compare one of today’s single mobile computers to an entire toolbox.

Users will explore what more they can do with these toolboxes of capability. Today, you can easily find a handheld device that offers WiFi, GPS, barcode scanning, RFID, and a really good camera. When people understand those functions and take some time to think about how they can be used for various tasks, the horizon is going to get very wide.

Here are some examples that many leading companies have deployed and others will add soon:

  • Asset tracking. Techs take pictures of the condition of any asset, write up maintenance or repair reports, and transmit the photos and reports back to the main office instantly, using WiFi. Or, a field tech can use RFID or a barcode scanner to identify the asset and then send an associated report.
  • Inventory. Real-time tracking is a huge advantage; when someone in the field consumes a part or other asset, a real-time report and inventory update can be sent back to the central office, which can react automatically by ordering a replacement.
  • GPS. Advanced GPS functionality can be used to determine precise location information for workers or equipment or for efficiency improvements such as route optimization.
  • Wireless networks. Most devices are already solid in offering 3G-level wireless speed and access. And as 4G modems come online, they will be quickly integrated into the mobile form factors, which will allow for faster transmission of bigger files in both directions.

Other developments to watch for: Cloud computing (software as a service) lets users deploy new functions quickly and at a low initial cost because there is no up-front expense of buying software. Machine-to-machine communication, where remote sensors on field assets can communicate with a field tech’s handheld device, will let a tech know what to expect in advance, offering all sorts of efficiency improvements. And for retail operations and other functions that involve payment processes, several mobile payment companies are making it easier to take credit card payments on the fly.

These are just a few of the advanced capabilities that are available now and will continue to be adopted in the year ahead.

Smartphones are the New Computers
Another interesting development is that more people are doing their jobs with their cellphones. Members of the generation that’s entering the workforce think nothing of running their lives on little phones; their logic is, why not use them for their jobs, too? I see more and more demand for small rugged handheld devices or rugged smartphones. The rugged-technology companies that produce these tough devices build them to run the most popular and advanced mobile operating systems, such as Android, and offer all the latest mobile functionality in a device that’s also built to hold up to harsh environments.

These tools are made primarily for field workers, but as jobs become more and more mobile, people are discovering they're practical for any person who works on the go. So besides seeing a move toward mobile computers in general, we may also see a surge of devices that are even smaller than traditional handheld computers.

In the world of wireless, the capabilities that 4G networks make possible are going to change the way field techs work. The speed will let you do everything wireless faster, and the quantity of information you can send will be so much larger. You can even extend this scenario to streaming video and other rich media. Things that would have taken too long to send before -- including database files, schematics, maps, and photos -- won't slow you down any more.

Rugged smartphones and small handheld devices end up being a great fit for OHS specialists who spend time at a wide variety of work sites, from oil and gas wells to petrochemical plants to refineries. The hazards inspectors find aren’t just dangerous for the employees who encounter them day-to-day; they also threaten the inspectors and their equipment. Using a device that's small and light enough to be totally usable in one hand lets you move around questionable areas without extra bulk, and tools that are fully protected against environmental elements let you focus on your job without babying your technology.

The Role of Collaboration in Workflow
Applications called enterprise-collaboration tools -- essentially, social media within an organization -- offer the ability to connect employees across all levels of an organization. These tools are being used much more widely in 2013. Using these applications, field technicians can discuss problems with colleagues, not only with words but also with photos, Internet links, videos, chat functions, and more.

In essence, these types of collaborative tools will capture the collective knowledge of every single person in your organization and make it available to everyone, virtually anytime. Plus, their capabilities can extend beyond inter-organization communication. Smart outfits will find ways to use these applications to engage directly with customers. For example, how do you think customers would react to real-time updates on appointment times?

Bringing It All Together
One of the biggest challenges of all these new technological functions and capabilities will be to get all of the pieces to work together effectively. What you will need is a combination of devices, networks, applications, and overall integration. The burden here will fall on your organization's IT department to connect it all effectively.

From my point of view, the key will be to choose your technology products wisely, keeping in mind this need to integrate everything effectively. With the complexity of today’s technology configurations, the cost of deployment and downtime is very high if something breaks down on you. That makes it all the more important to be forward-thinking with your up-front planning and product choices. You want devices and applications that are rugged and reliable, so buy good, tough products the first time.

It is impossible to see very far into the future of technology, but I hope that I've been able to at least give you a glimpse of what to expect . Happy fieldwork!

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