1,300-Vehicle Mobile Computing Install Keeps Solution Provider Busy
TouchStar Americas spent two years on a project that required 1,300 mobile printers and handheld computers for a propane company's fleet of vehicles.
Sometimes, if you're lucky, a customer will call you instead of vice versa. Nevertheless, that doesn't mean you're a shoo-in for the sale. Such was the case solution provider TouchStar Americas, Inc. (Tulsa, OK) found itself in when Suburban Propane (Whippany, NJ) came calling. TouchStar is a manufacturer of mobile computing devices and a VAR of related hardware such as printers. In addition, the company designs its own software for specialty markets such as fuel and propane gas distribution - thus, the reason for the call from Suburban.
Suburban had sent out a request for proposal (RFP) for a way of printing customer invoices at the site of product delivery. The company sent the RFP to numerous vendors and solution providers. At the time, Suburban's drivers were only printing proof-of-delivery notices by using Telxon (now Symbol Technologies [Holtsville, NY]) handheld computers. "On top of the handheld units was a small printer with an adding machine-type of paper roll," explained Frank Munn, senior project manager at TouchStar. "These printers were becoming obsolete and the company was considering using a multipart, preprinted form instead."
He also explained that the handhelds were not connected to the trucks' delivery registers, which were located on the outside of the delivery trucks. (The registers, atop the trucks' meters, calculate and display the volume of gas delivered from a truck's tank.) Therefore, drivers would have to go back into the cab of their trucks and manually enter into the handheld the amount of gas delivered.
At the end of each day, the drivers removed the handhelds from the trucks and connected each, one by one, by cable to the main office PC running Suburban's billing software. Each day's delivery data was transmitted this way and an invoice was subsequently created and mailed to the customer.
How To Earn The Customer's Commitment
TouchStar eventually prevailed over the competition by combining an industry-specific solution with a commitment to learn Suburban's true needs. The latter came in the form of TouchStar's Business Process Review (BPR).
Key to TouchStar's typical business proposition, the BPR has a separate fee from the project and is performed after an initial commitment from the customer. It consists of assembling a cross section of employees and reviewing each of their normal daily duties as related to the overall project. In this case, the employees involved included the truck drivers all the way up to Suburban's senior management. The BPR is a formalized two-day review with all parties involved. Once it is completed, TouchStar produces information on payback and a detailed technical review of the project. "The big advantage of the BPR is it really gains the customer's commitment to a project," Munn said.
Choose Ruggedized Hardware For Field Applications
Suburban's goal for this project was more than just a printer upgrade. On the contrary, the real impetus for the project was the company's desire to improve customer service. "We were already redesigning our invoices in conjunction with this project," explained Neil Scanlon, applications director and project manager for mobile computing systems at Suburban. "So, TouchStar's capability to provide same-day invoicing came at a good time for us."
To accomplish such a feat, TouchStar designed a system that connected each truck's external, electronic register to a handheld computer and printer located in the truck's cab. All of the Telxon handhelds were replaced with TouchStar's TouchPC Eagle handheld computers running TouchStar's GasTrackSP software. The TouchStar handhelds have touch screens instead of keypads. By using a stylus or plastic tip of a pen, customers and drivers can sign directly on the handheld's screen, thus capturing an electronic signature. The handhelds are connected to ruggedized Cognitive (Golden, CO) Blaster four-inch, direct thermal printers. The printers are powered off the 24-volt side of the TouchStar integrated power supply, wired to a truck's main battery, and interconnected with the ignition switch. "We needed to install a thermal printer that would operate in extreme temperatures and withstand dust, rain, and extreme vibration," Munn said. "Reliability was critical. If a printer fails, the truck is unable to deliver due to the state Weights and Measures requirements for metering all fuel sold."
Once a driver is finished dispensing a customer's propane, the data from the register is transferred to the handheld and an invoice is automatically printed. The state Weights and Measures approved meter data is printed on the invoice along with customer information and how much propane was delivered. The invoice also includes a return ticket for the customer to send with payment. The printer can also print delivery notices, payment receipts (if a customer pays on-site), and end-of-day reports.
"A good deal of software integration was involved in preparing data from the accounting system to download to the handhelds," explained Munn. "Similarly, we had to ensure that daily transaction data from the vehicles' handhelds could be uploaded back into the host system."
A Two-Year Installation
Suburban's back office no longer needs to produce and mail invoices for customers appropriate for same-day invoicing (e.g. most residential accounts). Not only is the company saving on postage, paper, filing, and storage costs, more importantly, payments are being received quicker (approximately five days) than before. "One of the questions Suburban initially asked us about the new solution was how many printer ribbons each truck needs to carry," stated Munn. "But, the Cognitive Blaster is a direct thermal printer which needs no ribbon. Thus, that was another savings the company realized."
All in all, 1,300 vehicles at 330 customer service centers in 40 states were equipped with this new system during a two-year period. Munn said TouchStar performed the installation of approximately 300 of these vehicles and then trained Suburban's technicians to complete the rest.