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We are in the midst of a mobile device revolution. Smartphones and now tablet mobile devices are proliferating. In this article we will discuss what impact these changes will have on facility management.

Smartphones versus Tablets

According to Nielsen, just over a third of cell phone subscribers in the US now have smartphones. That is a cellphone with an operating systems resembling those of computers. Their share of the cell phone market is increasing rapidly. Popular models include Apple’s iPhone, RIM’s Blackberry devices, and the Droid. In essence these are mini computers which provide a range of tools and importantly Internet access anywhere, via cell or direct broadband access. But the primary function of the smartphone is communication, both by voice and text. Their small size means they are easy to transport, particularly compared to the tablet.

Tablet mobile devices are relatively new. The Apple IPad was the first major tablet launched, and remains the most popular. The Samsung Galaxy and BlackBerry Playbook are two recent releases, more are planned for later in 2011. Tablets are less communication devices more mobile computers. They have more computing power than smartphones, a larger screen (between 7″-9″ versus 3″-4″ on a smartphone), no voice phone, but Internet access via 3G or direct broadband.

Many applications have been built for mobiles. IPhone and IPad applications are available from Apples App Store, BlackBerry have their own App World, even Amazon now provide mobile applications. The small screen size and low computing power means that smartphones are suitable for some but not all applications. As an example, reading detailed text on a smartphone, has its challenges. Tablets provide a new platform for application development, without some of these smartphone restrictions.

Let’s consider these device types individually, starting with the smartphone, and discuss applications which will potentially help with facility management.

Smartphone Applications for Facility Management

Applications running on smartphones, which are both portable and Internet accessible, will provide key benefits in a number of areas of facility management. These include:

  • Data collection
  • Field Worker Reporting and Tracking
  • Asset Maintenance and Location

Field data collection still relies on paper and pen. Its also involves the use of printed maps, drawings and various forms. Both smartphones and tablets will dramatically change field data collection, not only allowing direct digital input, but a single device to access all supporting tools. Smartphone data input will be for limited data sets, maybe utilizing list or check box selections. Visualizations will be snapshots, so summary data shown on maps or graphs for example. The built in voice recording and camera capabilities will provide key ways to collect data. Collected data can quickly be uploaded directly to a centralised computer system. All data collected can have GPS location and timestamps attached to any and all uploads. Texting and video conferencing capabilities can be tied into smartphone applications to help coordinate workers in the field. The portability of smartphones is an important benefit.

To field technicians smartphones will become essential tools. Coordination and management of these field workers will also be revolutionized by smartphone adoption. Let’s walk through a potential scenario. A field technician starts his day by logging into the company system via a smartphone. His schedule for the day will be shown. But not just listed; mapped. And beyond that an optimised route based on the location of each call. So the most efficient route to service each respective call. He drives to his first call and on arriving, again using his smartphone, logs into the company systems. The smartphone passes his current location, using the built in GPS, and time to the company server. This then maps or checks him into his first call. When the tech is finished he again uses his smartphone to communicate that the call is finished. This system is both simple and cheap to implement. From a coordination perspective companies can both improve the efficiency of field workers, through optimum routing for example, and easily track their field workers location. Having check-in, check-out and time stamp data provides a new level of field worker tracking and accountability.

SmartPhone Application

Figure 1 – SmartPhone Facility Management Application

Sensors or data chips will in the near future provide an easy and inexpensive way to track assets. It is now possible to place a sensor on all assets individually. These sensors can provide both location and asset metadata. Picture a hospital. Assets need to be found sometimes in emergency situations. Imagine you are able to open an application on your smartphone. A map of your floor appears. You search for a specific type of respirator, and immediately all respirators of this type are shown on the map. Checking the metadata on the closest respirator, again using your smartphone, you see that it is beyond its replacement date. You check and finally use the next closest option. This type of mobile application could not only dramatically improve efficiency, it could also save lives.

Tablet Applications for Facility Management
  • Data collection
  • Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

Tablets provide the potential for more in depth data collection. Not only are they equipped with similar tools to smartphone; camera, video, GPS, voice recording. But they have larger screens and greater processing power. Data input is easier with a large keyboard. Screen real estate is such that methods of inputting data are more varied than for the smartphone. So detailed data input is easier. Visualisation will also be improved. So viewing the data in more complex and varied ways is possible. Collected data can quickly be uploaded to a central server, or stored on the device for later upload.

Mobile Tablet GIS

Figure 2 – Mobile Tablet GIS

Geographic information systems or GIS, is used extensively in facility management. These systems are often crucial for both long and short term facilities planning and management. A GIS provides the ability to store, query and visualize spatial data. Imagine using a GIS in the field. Both geolocation and context are two key advantages. Geolocation provides the ability to query based on current location. Using a GIS in an office lacks context. Imagine managing a military base. You have a requirement that certain key buildings on the base need a buffer, or defined zone inside which no vehicles can be parked. Using your mobile tablet, you open your ArcGIS application. It zooms you immediately, using GPS or geolocation, to you current location. Three of these high security building are in front of you. Using your buffer tool you buffer each of the buildings in the GIS viewer. By comparing what you see in the field with what the GIS viewer shows, you can quickly and accurately plan this buffering implementation.

Developing Mobile Applications – Technical Considerations

Mobile application development in facility management offers the potential to dramatically improve current workflows, and provide additional tools. But there are a number of issues one needs to consider before developing a mobile application:

  1. Hardware – As outlined, smartphones are quite different to tablets. Build applications which are suitable for the hardware. Simple data input works well on a smartphone, more in depth detail might work better using a tablet.
  2. Platform – Many of the mobile device manufacturers – Apple, RIM, Nokia etc – offer mobile devices which run with different operating systems. The operating systems or platform impacts what can be run on individual devices. For example, the Apple IOS will not allow installation of the Adobe Flash player. So Web applications built using Adobe technology will not run on the IPad or IPhone browsers.
  3. No cell or Internet access – Users may enter areas where there is no network access. Applications need to be designed to allow for this possibility. Some mobile applications may not function if network access is required, using a viewer which relies on an external ArcGIS server for example. But storing data on the device for later upload, when in network range, can be built into a mobile application.
  4. GPS, Sky View and Accuracy – To take advantage of GPS or geolocation, a ‘sky view’ is usually required. Indoor geolocation, relying on cell triangulation, is possible. But often a check-in application will need activating outdoors. GPS accuracy is also a much discussed issue. There remain errors with current satellite systems reporting device location. This can be mitigated in an application, but needs consideration.

We have only touched the surface of the potential uses of mobile devices for facility management. Both smartphones and tablets could revolutionize the work-flows and tools available to companies involved in facilities management. Mobile application development is relatively new. Careful consideration need to go into the design and building of new mobile applications. The combination of mobility and geolocation, offer exciting future possibilties.

What other areas in facility management could you see benefiting from the use of mobile applications? Let me know at [email protected]

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