Technicians used to show up at Metavante Corporation’s headquarters each morning, get their assignments, and then hit the road. Now they get out of bed, look at their handheld device, and decide which job is closest to home before scheduling their day.
"It saves a lot of time," says Hank Kollross, a systems analyst who oversees facilities technology at the company’s headquarters. "There’s no need for technicians to come to [the] shop every morning."
As with many businesses, the use of wireless and handheld technology plays a crucial role in streamlining communication between facilities managers and their employees. And in an industry that relies heavily on maintenance contractors, the increased efficiencies as a result of faster response times are all the more evident.
"It’s no secret that requests are constantly changing," says Kollross, and saving time ultimately means saving money.
Smart phones, PDAs (personal digital assistants) and other wireless devices have had a tremendous impact on the jobs of facilities managers. "Typically, facilities managers were always on a pager," says Geoff Williams, an Information Technology Council board member for the International Facility Management Association (IFMA). "To respond immediately to stuff without having to drive to a phone booth — that’s huge."
Smartphone — Whether for instant communication with maintenance, cleaning or other outsourced services, Kollross says most facilities managers are migrating toward cell phones with wireless functions such as email access.
"We can broadcast the work that needs to be done wirelessly," he says. "If somebody happens to be at a building and another request comes in for that same building, they can just handle that next ticket."
Wireless scanner — Handheld scanners communicate with Metavante’s inventory systems and keep everything up to date. "We use [them] heavily every day," says Kollross. "When I need to replace belts on a machine, they’re quantity-counted and bar-coded," so the system automatically records when a part is used or replaced.
Palmtop — For access to drawings, for example, some facilities managers use palmtops, or handheld mobile computers. Some of these technologies can be integrated, such as a pocket PC with a barcode reader built into it.
RFID — Similar to barcode scanners, people are using RFIDs (radio frequency identification technology) "for inventory of assets, from major mechanical equipment to chairs and desks," according to Williams. These are devices with automatic identification technology that uses radio waves to provide real-time, wireless transmission of data without a scanner.
The extent to which facilities use wireless communication varies, of course, but the trend is here to stay.
While some smaller facilities may only rely on BlackBerries and PDAs, systems like the one at Metavante are more comprehensive. Of about 115 people in the company’s facilities organization, everybody in one way or another receives wireless notifications, whether from Kollross, a call center or monitoring system that integrates much of the equipment.
"We now have the ability to send real-time updates to craft people," says Kollross. For example, one of the 20 HVAC units Kollross oversees recently suffered a belt failure, and a technician was automatically paged with the air handling unit number and the error code, without any human intervention.
As it absorbs new technologies, the industry poses some unique circumstances. "The biggest challenge of getting a computer in your hand is making sure it bounces," says Williams. "If you’re a plumber performing a work order, you need a device that’s sturdy." For this reason, he recommends rugged notebooks and other devices built to withstand physical impact.
Though he can’t say how much money wireless technology saves his company, Kollross says more work can be done with fewer people — resulting in less of a need for manpower.