All companies are looking for ways to improve their employees' productivity and cut costs. One way ArborMetrics Solutions Inc. (Hendersonville, North Carolina) is increasing the efficiency of its field personnel is through mobile computing. The company combines expertise, software, hardware and people to create mobile workforce solutions that streamline vegetation management programs for utilities and government institutions.

Two years ago, the vegetation management company began researching ruggedized notebook computers for its field employees. After exploring many alternatives, the company invested in 50 Panasonic Toughbook CF-19 convertible laptops. The company invested $5700 for each computer, dock, printer and software. Once ArborMetrics purchased the laptops, it also installed its proprietary vegetation management software on all the computers.

ArborMetrics employees use the rugged notebooks to capture data acquired in the field (such as a utility's vegetation inventory), create work plans for vegetation management, obtain homeowners' permissions for work, track work progress, conduct audits for quality assurance, create electronic time sheets or invoices, and generate reports.

Going Electronic

With its employees constantly on the go, ArborMetrics found that using a pen and paper to note job schedules and provide status updates proved to be both inefficient and time consuming. In the past, field workers would photocopy maps, highlight the work they were performing on the utility's right-of-way and then send the map to other employees through interoffice mail. Many times it would take a few days for the folder to reach its desired location, and in more than one instance folders would get lost in interoffice mail.

Now with the onboard, internal aircard that provides connectivity to wireless-carrier networks and enables instant mobile broadband access, workers can transmit files electronically. Personnel enter data into a database and then send it in real time to the electronic library. The data can then be shared not only with the utility's customers, but also with all the other parties who are affected by vegetation management issues.

For maximum efficiency, the company also has equipped its vehicles with field printers. If ArborMetrics employees need to print a document, they can go back to their truck's docking station and print as many copies as they need.

On the Go

By switching from paper-based documentation to electronic record keeping, ArborMetrics is helping its workers to be productive in the most remote locations. Whether they're zooming up the Cascade Mountains in snowmobiles or crossing the flood-stricken farmland of the Midwest, the employees can pack along their water- and spill-resistant notebook computers and tap into a wireless network through a built-in broadband module.

For easy portability, the Panasonic notebook computers are small enough to fit inside of a waterproof backpack, and they feature a built-in handle so users can grab it and go. Before ArborMetrics invested in the notebook computers, the field professionals used tablet PCs with a dock station and a keyboard. While a few of these computers are still out in the field, ArborMetrics plans eventually to replace all of them with the new notebook computers.

Because the Toughbook CF-19 notebook computer is ruggedized, it's designed differently than other, more-traditional laptops. For that reason, there is a learning curve when it comes to using the computer properly.

To teach the field workers how to use the notebook computers, ArborMetrics conducted one-on-one training, offered classroom training and used Windows Internet Messenger to show users where items are located.

Within a short period of time, all ArborMetrics employees became knowledgeable about the computers. Even two of the “non-computer” employees became experts. While they weren't sure about them at first, the employees now can't live without their notebook computers.

Cutting Fuel Costs

By investing in the notebook computers, ArborMetrics has also helped its staff members to save time when driving from one location to the next. The embedded global positioning system (GPS) provides voice prompts to guide employees while driving.

To increase crews' efficiency even further, the GPS system allows drivers to input multiple locations. They can then turn on an auto sort, which routes drivers in the most efficient way. For example, if an employee has to visit 20 poles, he or she can upload the locations into the system. That way, the driver doesn't have to think about which ones to visit first. This helps to save time, reduce the amount of wrong turns and improve the safety of employees. Rather than reading a map, the employees are instead focusing on driving. This feature is especially useful for new employees, who may not be familiar with the location of the transmission and distribution lines and assets in a region.

The GPS technology also helps the drivers when they are trying to reach remote locations. Many times transmission lines cross areas without roads. The technology allows the employees to create maps to note dead ends, pot holes or flooded areas that can damage a vehicle or endanger a person. They also can identify trails or routes that make life easier for other employees trying to reach the same location. For example, when workers travel up the snow-covered Cascades, they often need to monitor trees near transmission lines in rugged terrain. Because few people visit that remote location, it may be difficult for workers to find the transmission line and document any vegetation management issues. By inputting the longitude and latitude with the onboard GPS, ArborMetrics employees can make it easier for the next crews to find what they're looking for.

The company can then share the maps with other parties to make sure they won't encounter the same roadblocks. ArborMetrics employees also snap digital photos, which they can e-mail to utilities along with the maps. The field workers can send the documents and images in real time to the person who will need to respond. Crews can then determine whether they can get to the location with a bucket truck or whether it's necessary for a worker to walk into the area on foot. That way, other people know what to expect.

Data Transfer

The Panasonic Toughbook notebook computers permit ArborMetrics personnel to capture, process and deliver data from the field. With real-time communications between workers, databases and customers, ArborMetrics is able to streamline the entire vegetation management process.

When field employees go out and inventory trees near power lines, they document future concerns about the vegetation's encroachment on the utility's assets. With the ruggedized computer, the field crew is able to collect data in a quick, reliable and continuous manner. Every employee has the proprietary vegetation management software, so they're able to share the information with the utility in real time. This data helps utility executives to define a vegetation management plan for the utility lines.

ArborMetrics expects to have the Toughbook laptops out in the field for at least five years. The computers have made the employees' jobs easier and have been a critical tool for field operations. In the past year, the employees haven't had any problems to speak of and haven't experienced any downtime or lost time as a result of the technology.

By handing the workers a new durable and reliable tool to do their job, it improves the morale of the workforce. Also, by investing in this technology, the company has greatly improved productivity and reliability. In turn, ArborMetrics is able to offer its customers better results and boost its bottom line.

Scott Nelson is a project coordinator for ArborMetrics Solutions. He has been working in the tree-trimming industry since 1998. He has been working in the utility field for four years in Olympia, Washington.