In 1991 a national service manager with Du-Pont medical products approached us with a classic service problem. His service engineers were responsible for both break/fix service and for preventive maintenance service on their products. He was wrestling with this issue – if an engineer is sent to St. Michael’s Hospital on a repair call, wouldn’t it be great if he could also easily check to see if any preventative maintenance was due? If one was due, he could perform that work right then, while he was on site already for the repair call. Saving even a few additional trips per week would have a big cost benefit.
It was this scenario that lead to Mobile Techlink being born. It seems almost laughable in retrospect, but the state of the art in portable computing at the time was the HP 110. That diskless, clam-shell PC had 640 Kilobytes (Kilobytes, not Megabytes) of RAM. In that space we had to store the data, the operating system and the Mobile Techlink application. Can you say ‘efficient programming’?
While developing Mobile Techlink, data synchronization was one of the most difficult problems we had to deal with. It took years to work out such questions as “Who has the right to update what data?” and “What if the same data element is updated by two different people on two different computers at the same time?”
Since there was no wireless or broadband to speak of back then, connection was via phone lines. Some of the engineers used acoustic couplers (you are officially old if you remember them). Even though the data was, generally, only updated once a day, the benefit of current data available when the engineer needed it was huge.
Some of the technology has improved – handhelds are much more robust and laptops (with much more RAM than 640K) are standard issue. In addition, wireless and broadband have become cost-effective and widely available, aiding the access to data while in the field. Some technologies have arrived that weren’t possible then – signature capture is one example.
But all of this technology has not made the Field Service Engineer as connected as I would have expected. I think part of the reason is the devices themselves – is a cell phone a reasonable form factor? Is a full keypad needed? (I for one am glad to be past the Graffiti® stage.) Will there ever be a truly usable tablet device?
Mea Culpa, software must also take some of the blame. It still has room for improvements on features, speed, configurability and usability (and we’ve re-written Mobile Techlink four times in the last 15 years to tackle many of these). I think we are much better than we were, but still not quite where we need to be (but – shameless plug – we are pretty proud of our most recent release of Mobile Techlink).
And ten years from now, will the equipment be contacting the engineers devices directly? I’m not sure I’m mentally prepared for my washing machine to speak up and tell me it has logged a service call for itself and the tech will be here Tuesday at 8:15. Although, now that I type it, if it could send me an e-mail instead of talking…