Whether it is an Android, Windows or Apple Tablet Computer they all are terrific field tools for a variety of work – construction, geology, forestry, surveying, etc. For myself, and many of my forestry colleagues, they have become an indispensable piece of field equipment. And there is a good reason for this – we find that we are more productive, have better access to information and consequently make better, faster decisions. This translates into an improved bottom line.
In my experience the most important considerations in developing a business case for the use of these devices must include:
- Navigation – to see your location on a map or satellite image along with GPS capabilities make navigation a whole lot more efficient than a map and compass.
- Annotation of Images – typically Photos & PDFs
- File Transfer – an efficient way to get data on and off the mobile device.
- Data Management – this is the big picture of how your data is managed across serves, desktop computers and tablet computers. Without a good system for managing the data you can create a mess in no time!
- Database Applications – the capture of data in the field with a database application can pave the way for seamless updates of corporate data.
Whether flying in a helicopter, driving or walking the ability to efficiently find your way to and within a work site is a big time saver. I find that I usually save 30 to 60 minutes each day because I am much more efficient than I am with a map, compass and GPS unit. PDF Maps by Avenza is simple to use application for working with Geo-Referenced PDF maps on both Android and Apple devices. For Windows and Android tablets Terrago makes an excellent GIS application that uses GeoPDF maps. Often I will use an application that shows my location on a Geo-Referenced PDF in conjunction with a GPS application and will switch between them depending on the task at hand.
The ability to draw on a variety of image types just as you would with a piece of paper is essential if you are going to be able to go without paper. There is no shortage of excellent annotation applications available for all operating systems. Look for something that allows you to annotate photos, PDF maps and Fillable PDF Forms.
There is good reason to go without paper! The cost of using paper is substantial – especially if you have to keypunch the information from a paper form. To avoid keypunching you will need a database application (see below). However, even without the necessity of keypunching the cost of filing, storing and retrieving data stored on paper can be a couple of dollars per document. However, the most significant cost can be lost data. Paper is easily lost whereas digital data is easily backed up – even when in the field.
Read more information on the cost of using paper.
Most field users of tablet computers also have a desktop computer. For those using a Tablet PC it could be their only device for both field and office. However, most users require an efficient method of transferring data between the desktop (and/or server) and mobile device. With both Android and Tablet PC devices this can be as simple as plugging into the corporate network or connecting to your desktop with a USB cable. However, for Apple devices it is not as simple right out of the box, but there are several applications that make this process work efficiently. My “go-to” application for an iPad is Docs To Go.
No matter which operating system you choose, transferring this information digitally is far lower cost than paper. It can be as simple as “copy and paste” or even better just push “sync”. No more hours spent in front of the photocopier and then putting paper into binders so that it is available in the field. I have clients that spend thousands of dollars annually printing maps and other documents so they are available to field staff and contractors. This is an easy one for most businesses to quantify when working on developing a business case.
In order to fully leverage the capabilities of these mobile devices, systems must be developed to facilitate access to information on servers, desktops and mobile devices. Also, methods of syncing the data across all these platforms, is essential if you want to avoid the creation of a data management nightmare! Of course once you have this data on your mobile device you need to be able to find what you need, keep it organized and ready to transfer back to your desktop or server.
If your business is still relying on paper for the storage of information then moving to tablet computers will be a big leap. There may be many data storage systems that will need to be converted to digital equivalents in order to be able to easily transfer the data onto your mobile devices. I can tell you that from my own experience that it is a fairly painful process to go through. One of the things you can do to reduce the cost (and pain) of making the transition is don’t scan all your paper documents. Take a hard look at what you will really need to access digitally and keep the paper files in an archive so you can still retrieve the information if you really need it. When I was with my previous employer we did this and it greatly reduced the time and cost of making the transition. Put some time into figuring out what your current paper based system is costing for filing, retrieval and storage and compare that to what it will cost to store the same information digitally. Go online to get estimates of what others have found the true cost of managing with paper to be.
When capturing data in the field it is often better to record it in a database. This will make updating corporate databases much more efficient when a method of seamlessly transferring this data is developed. However, don’t think that all your data needs to be captured with a database application. For data that does not require analysis or is not used to update corporate records it is hard to beat a fillable PDF. By capturing the data in a database application your business will avoid the cost of having to keypunch it. Also, this will eliminate one potential source of errors in your records. This can be one of the most significant benefits of going paperless.
Depending on your business there can be several other benefits that can help build a business case for the use of tablet computers. These could include:
- Demonstration of Due Diligence – capturing information with a tablet computer or smart phone adds the ability provide documentation with geo-referenced photos that you can annotate.
- Access to Information – the benefit of having access to the information required to make a good decision on the spot is hard to quantify but should be considered.
- Document Control – when paper documents are updated it is a challenge to ensure that all of the out of date documents are replaced. When this information is managed digitally the new documents can be “pushed” out to mobile devices to ensure that everyone always has the current version of the documents.
The list above is certainly not complete but it captures the most significant items to consider when developing a business case for the use of tablet computers. It can be a challenge to quantify the benefits but it is not too difficult to come up with a reasonable estimate. I have found that by the time I add up the time saved in preparing to go out in the field (copy, paste, sync instead of print and collate), and time saved on navigation I have more than enough cost savings to provide a solid business case without even considering all of the other benefits. In most cases I expect that your business will recover the investment within a few months or even as little as a few weeks!
If you need some more ideas, Apple has assembled some good reference material in the form of case studies that cover a variety of industries. They do a great job of illustrating the business case for the use of any type of tablet computer.