To streamline dispatching and execution of field operations, field crews are equipped with mobile devices and mobile applications integrated with Work Force Management (WFM) systems or being parts of such systems. In some cases, standard mobile WFM clients are not sufficient to fulfill complex integration and business-process related requirements. Recently Globema released a customized mobile application to GE Field Force Automation (FFA) that enabled one of our customers to meet all their needs in scope of mobile WFM.
Effective work force management
Management and execution of field operations are the most cost-expensive operational processes, especially in telecommunication and utilities. Challenges faced by such companies include:
- effective material and human resources management
- keeping proper relation between planned and emergency tasks
- efficient and effective task assignment and management, with accordance to employees’ skills, authorizations, working hours and tool availability rules
- rout optimization (in terms of distance and travel time)
- exchanging and collecting data from multiple IT systems
- creation, updating and storing technical documentation and documentation required by formal regulations
- ongoing trainings for employees to empower crews to execute complex, rapidly changing business processes.
Work Force Management (WFM) systems are the response to these challenges. The Field Force Automation (FFA) system, by General Electric, is one of the world’s leading WFM systems. The tool is used, for example, in telecommunication and in utilities. FFA optimizes the full life cycle of field service operations, including the creation of work orders, scheduling and dispatching field personnel, tracking equipment under warranty, managing spare parts inventory and receiving real-time reports from the field.
FFA platform includes:
- The Planning Module – for strategic, tactical, and operational work order and resource planning
- The Execution Module – for the office and field workforces
- Monitoring Module – for executive and operational management to receive current work status information
- The API Module – for FFA system implementation, integration and configuration.
A highly-configurable mobile application is a part of the FFA platform. In most cases it meets all customers’ demands. However, sometimes it turns out that the requirements exceed even the most advanced configuration capabilities. This is particularly visible on the highly regulated electric energy and gas distribution market. When it becomes necessary to adapt the system to specific needs and requirements of a customer then a custom mobile application can be a solution satisfying all requirements.
Custom mobile application
Our team took such challenge. We created a dedicated mobile application for one of the leading Central European suppliers of gas and energy. The solution was integrated with FFA while supporting highly complex business processes, governed by a number of constraints resulting from specifics of the local market. Here are some numbers, which illustrate the complexity of customer’s requirements:
- almost 130 different tasks executed within processes
- about 100 data entry forms compliant with local regulations
- over 1000 possible transition paths available when executing various tasks
- 30 dedicated controls to support data entry
The application is utilized in the production environment and at the same time it is continuously developed to support all 24 business processes related to field operations.
Behind the scenes
The mobile application was intended to operate on as many devices as possible. Using the latest version of the Java platform and JavaFX graphical interface, the solution supports touch screens, virtual and standard keyboards, built-in camera, GPS, etc. The application runs smoothly in versions for Windows, Linux and MacOS environments. Additionally, a dedicated mobile application for Android devices was developed.
The application operates in semi-connected mode – that means it does not require a permanent network connection. It can work in two off-line modes – with manual data synchronization (at the user’s request) or with automatic synchronization (performed periodically or when the application reconnects to the Internet). Communication utilizes WebServices and Axis2 library ensuring rapid integrability with new FFA data sources (currently there are 25 such data sources).
The application was deployed with an integrated local database, which didn’t require additional installation. The local database is an ordinary file, which further facilitates the troubleshooting process (it is enough to send this file for analysis). The application development process utilizes continuous integration tools, static code analysis, which allow new and stable versions of the application to be delivered in very short cycle.
The main purpose of the mobile application is to improve the company’s field tasks and resource management processes. By synchronizing the work progress, network data, locations and statuses of mobile teams it’s possible to determine optimal (in terms of finances and time) routes and effective tasks allocation (taking into account various factors, such as: skills, certifications, technical expertise, etc.). All this contributes to reduction of maintenance costs.
Users equipped with mobile devices running the application can freely access a map indicating their current positions and destinations. Location tracking utilizes all available sources (GPS, cellular network, Wi-Fi networks, etc.) and so it allows to achieve the required positioning precision regardless of atmospheric conditions. Therefore the application completely eliminates the need to use the additional navigation equipment.
The application supports all complex business processes of the customer, which are executed in the field. This translates to a simple and understandable sequence of tasks and instructions to be executed one after another, requiring no additional training. There is no longer needed to learn and to memorize details of individual processes. Application guides the user and adapts to available and entered data as well as to specific decisions of the user.
Using the camera, users may create photographic documentation of the work place (damages, measurement values) and speed up data entry using the bar code scanner. Each photo is accordingly classified and attached to the final documentation of the user work.
Filling service request forms in electronic format ensures data reliability (extensive validation) and its up-to-date status (full synchronization with external systems). This brings enormous savings of time and paper. Previously users were filling forms manually (and each user did it their own way), and were entering (copying) the information to external systems.
Application complexity in numbers
During the analytical works almost 130 types of various tasks, for which multiple ways of proceeding and many alternative solutions existed, were identified. The number of all possible combinations exceeds 1000 (ability to withdraw, loop or to dynamically create content for certain processes). Each performed action can automatically cause execution of additional activities, e.g. alerting the dispatcher, sending messages to other teams/crews or sending back data and documents supplemented by the user to an external system (also in the final paper documentation form, required by regulations).
The application is integrated bi-directional with 6 external systems, including 4 various sources of tasks, a warehousing system, a costs settlement system and a document archiving system.
There are over 30 controls dedicated for electronic forms, which facilitate documentation completion and data entry (e.g.: a selection list with permitted values, a dictionary-based list, a camera image, a bar code scan, dynamic tables, customer signature field, contextual field completion basing on the contents of other fields, etc.).
The application also features an inventory module, which stores the information about hardware and materials available to various users. With this, when supplementing the data, the user can pick the right element from the list of all available ones, instead of entering the data manually. Additional data related to the entered elements are completed in the background. The information related to material usage is sent to an external ERP system. It is also possible to automatically calculate incurred costs.
The solution supports communication between application users (i.e. users of the mobile, as well as the dispatchers’ applications). There is no need to use SMS messages, phone calls, etc.
Implementation and utilization of the FFA solution to support execution of field tasks brings measurable benefits, including:
- reduction of dispatchers’ work time by about 33%
- reduction of `operational costs by 25 – 35 %
- improvement of operational efficiency due to almost 5-fold increase of the number of tasks handled by a single dispatcher
- reduction of vehicle fleet and fuel consumption
- significant reduction of phone calls and paper consumption
- reliability of network data, which is constantly remotely updated by field employees
- increased customer satisfaction level by meeting SLA requirements and by providing ongoing notifications on the work progress.