Operations Engineer explores what mobile workforce management software is and the benefits that it can bring to the field

If there is one word that sums up 2020 so far, it is probably ‘strange’. Due to the Covid-19 outbreak, office and factory workers went from going about their normal work lives, including the daily commute, to working from home or being furloughed and not having to leave the house (www.is.gd/uwuboc). And since then, some have returned back to their normal working lives, albeit with social distancing measures in place.

However, not all workers are, or have been, in such a position. Some job roles – before, during and after the peak Coronavirus crisis in the UK – and typically within the servicing and transport sectors, require members of staff to travel from site-to-site to perform jobs roles, such as maintenance and repair tasks.

Field workers or field teams, also sometimes called remote workers or mobile workers, typically work outside of the office and travel to different locations. An engineer in the power generation sector, for example, may be in charge of checking and maintaining electricity pylons within a certain radius, while a heating engineer or compressor specialist may carry out different maintenance and repair jobs at private and commercial premises within a certain town, county or region.

With such a wide scope of work over a wide radius, efficiency – a word that is often thrown around in wider industry – is key to getting field work tasks complete. And it is here where mobile workforce management software can play a role in supporting such work tasks.

ABOUT

The mobile workforce management software market is flooded with different companies offering their own products. Other names that may be used include field service management, job scheduling software, job management software and service management. Ultimately, this software connects field workers, office staff and customers by automating the entire end-to-end workflow process and replacing manual planning, information sheets and paper job forms.

Field workers typically use an electronic device, such as a tablet, mobile phone or laptop, on which they can receive their jobs from a control room or the back office while out in the field. Workflows are then completed via the device, with tasks verified as complete when out in the field and the customer and back office notified.

One company with complete buy-in to this technology is Leeds-based BigChange, which offers JobWatch, a mobile workforce management system that launched in 2013. The system was even awarded a Queen’s Award for Enterprise earlier this year, which celebrates businesses who excel at international trade, innovation and sustainable development (www.is.gd/bebipo).

JobWatch connects mobile workers, back office staff and customers, providing a paperless means of planning, managing, scheduling and tracking operations. The mobile application offers several functions to mobile workers, including jobs and workflow systems, messaging and sat-nav, time sheets and expenses and signature and photo capture (www.is.gd/ucasaz). The JobWatch Office application, meanwhile, enables back office users to create plans and schedules, live alerts, message and live track, as well as view reports and performance and conduct invoicing, among others.

The system is reportedly used by 45,000 mobile workers and back-office personnel at 1,300 organisations across the globe. Contego Environmental Services, a pest control service, is one company that has deployed JobWatch. Its CEO Michael Taylor explains: “Contego started life in 2004 as a one-man-band specialising in bird control and has grown to become one of the largest national pest control businesses in the UK. BigChange has ensured our operations could keep up with that level of growth. It gives us complete visibility of our operations and allows us to manage our national workforce centrally from our base in County Durham.”

Ficep, which installs and maintains structural steel and plate fabrication equipment across the UK and Scandinavia, is another user (main image). Richard Clark, UK service manager at Ficep UK, says: “It used to take two or three weeks to get a quote out to a customer; now we achieve that within 24 hours. It’s the same for invoices and with electronic sign offs from customers on-site, we can invoice almost immediately. As a result there has been a much better and quicker conversion rate of quote to order, and queries on invoices have virtually disappeared.

“The tablets have really revolutionised the way we work, giving engineers instant access to the information they need. We now have service sheets customised for each machine that identifies the correct parts and even gives the engineer a complete history of previous service work and parts used. It really helps them do a good job every time and helps ensure machine downtime is minimised. Customers have been markedly impressed with the system and the information it provides.”

EFFICIENT

Of course, this is not the only systems available to industry. A simple browse online produces results for a range of companies offering their own mobile workforce management software. Examples include Vodafone (www.is.gd/xekalo), Totalmobile (www.is.gd/kujose) and Oneserve (www.is.gd/axajax). Earlier this year, ABB also launched ABB Ability Augmented Field Procedures, a technology aimed at digitalising the field operator experience and improving interaction between field and control room operations.

The solution, developed specifically to meet the needs of field operators, is an example of ABB’s support of workforce management enterprise applications designed to allow workers to work anywhere and manage the system on their own. According to ABB, the technology empowers seamless integration between the field and the plant distributed control system, offering improved safety, reducing the risk for human error and making field operations more efficient.

It adds that the solution enables consistency when executing manual procedures, standardising operating procedures and maintenance or repair techniques in the field, tightening field to control room integration and digitally recording notes to ensure operational knowledge is captured and utilised. Among the many features available to field workers are step-by-step instructions, picture and signature capture, supporting information and augmented reality hands-free help. Office users, meanwhile, have the ability to configure workflows and dispatch jobs, among other options (www.is.gd/ubirah). A short video on the system is also available here: www.is.gd/anulaq.

Chris Naunheimer, digital lead for energy industries at ABB, explains: “Human error continues to be a significant contributing factor to safety issues, as well as production downtime. Engineers spend considerable time using and interpreting data. With this solution, we intend to address these challenges and truly transform the future of work.

“ABB worked with customers to develop a solution aimed at making operational site procedures more consistent, data-driven and digitally-led. Our solution ensures these procedures are in place for field workers performing tasks when and where they need them. This increases safety and operational efficiency and leads to significant operational expenditure savings for our customers.”

Box out: Gritting operator AA Salt doubles productivity
Winter maintenance company AA Salt has doubled the productivity of its gritting operators following the introduction of JobWatch mobile workforce system from BigChange.

AA Salt clears and grits private roads and estates, such as car parks at retail sites, universities and industrial estates. Jobs are scheduled in BigChange and allocated with jobs sent directly to the gritting operators’ tablets. The firm has also mapped and geo-fenced each site, and using the JobWatch app, operators can see job specifications and notify of any issues with time and location referenced photographs on location.

The productivity gains are said to have come from improved routing and job scheduling and greater efficiency through the elimination of paperwork. As part of the system, its fleet is also fitted with GPS tracking so gritting operations can be monitored 24/7.

“As demand for our gritting service increased we knew we had to automate more. When the Beast from the East hit the country in 2019 we had just started using BigChange. Without the system we would never have coped with the demand and BigChange has basically allowed us to double our business,” says Ben Tanner, sales and operations director at AA Salt. “Through work optimisation and digital reporting, we reckon we are saving five minutes per job and reducing driving time by a total of four hours each night. From just 100 jobs a night we can now do up to 450.”