Considerations for mobile device usage in the shop

It is important to employ best practices for assessing, selecting, and managing mobile devices such as laptops, tablets, and smartphones used by personnel in the shop.

Tablets help technicians that must move around the shop frequently and fit into tight spaces, like under the hood or vehicle.
Tablets help technicians that must move around the shop frequently and fit into tight spaces, like under the hood or vehicle.
Photo courtesy of Panasonic

When it comes to technology in today’s shops, mobile devices will continue to play a key role in improving shop efficiency and personnel productivity. Ruggedized laptops, tablets, and smart phones all have their place in a professional shop setting. It is important to establish best practices that standardize the usage of these products by technicians and other service employees in the shop.

When it comes to implementing a comprehensive mobile device management policy in the shop, it is important to understand the needs of shop personnel, decide key features and functions for these devices, and assess after-sales service and support.

Assess shop needs

When it comes to implementing a sound mobile device technology and usage program for personnel, a fleet must first assess the needs of the shop. Consider who will be using the devices in a shop setting and what tasks they need to complete.

Jason Lewis, national sales manager - enterprise, for Panasonic, explains fleets will typically consider one of two options for personnel to use as everyday workspace devices: A “clamshell” style laptop computer, or a tablet.

Panasonic offers products, services, and support for managing ruggedized laptops and tablets.

When it comes to laptops, Lewis explains, “Those are usually stationary on a cart that maybe moves around the vehicle but pretty much stays on that cart most of the time.”

Laptops also have more computing power to manage scan tool software products for diagnosing vehicles in the shop. Plus, dependent on the types of vehicles serviced, hardware with ports allowing access to older vehicle systems may still be required. These ports are known as legacy ports.

“A lot of vehicles ... in the service bay could be 10-year-old trucks. There are still plenty of those out there [large diesel engine vehicles] so we need some legacy equipment to hook up for diagnostics,” Lewis explains.

“Another benefit to a laptop is that it provides more I/O [input/output] ports than a tablet, especially for those diagnostic tools that need a legacy port like RS-232,” says Joe Guest, president, Durabook Americas.

Durabook specializes in the development of customizable rugged and semi-rugged laptops, mobile tablets, and all-in-one computers.

A laptop allows a user to type up more long-form text using a keyboard. A tablet offers the ability to easily take photos or videos to show other personnel, drivers, or customers.

Tablets may prove useful for technicians that must move around the shop frequently and fit into tight spaces, like under the hood or vehicle.

Lewis provides this example: “The type of vehicle they work on might be an air-conditioned [refrigerated trailer], where they’re climbing up on top of it, having to work on a compressor, as well as working on ancillary or accessory items around a large vehicle.”

It is important to note the devices mentioned by these manufacturers are designed specifically for extreme environments. Referred to as “rugged” or “ruggedized” by design, these devices provide additional protection compared to a standard consumer device.

“Fully rugged computers are able to withstand drops to concrete, spills, and maybe even bad weather if a car is being accessed outside,” explains Guest. “They offer the ultimate in reliability while sacrificing nothing when it comes to power and performance.” In addition, semi-rugged options provide additional durability compared to traditional consumer computers, but at a lower price point, he adds.

“The key is to assess the needs of your workers and to understand that a one-size-fits-all approach often isn’t the best solution,” Guest says.


Product features and functions to consider

Functionality goes further than deciding between a laptop or tablet design. There are a number of additional features to consider when assessing which mobile device to select for a shop, department, or technicians.

Consider the following features and functions:

Touchscreen functionality. “Think of a mechanic in a garage, who is working with greasy hands, turning wrenches, pulling diagnostics,” Panasonic’s Lewis explains. “Very quickly [they are] able to use a knuckle or finger [to] touch the screen [in order to] pull the schematics, hit it for a diagnostic read out when it's hooked up to the vehicle itself, or look for parts inventory right there in the shop.”

In addition, can the screen be accessed wearing gloves? “Not all technicians wear gloves, but not having to remove them to interact with the device means improved productivity,” Durabook’s Guest adds.

Screen brightness. For technicians working in very bright environments outdoors, extreme brightness and glare reduction should be considered. In addition, functionality to adjust to darker environments under a vehicle can help provide optimal viewing for users.

Connection capabilities. Does the device feature Wi-Fi functionality? Does it have Bluetooth connection capabilities? For mobile technicians, or personnel that may use their device in and outside the shop, does the device have a 4G LTE broadband connection capabilities for fast upload and download?

Durability. “Technicians tend to treat their computers like they are tools, so it’s best to select devices that can live up to that treatment,” Guest says.

“They need to be able to withstand a 3’-4’ drop to a hard surface without an issue,” Guest adds, of mobile devices. “The right device won’t need a protective case.” He also suggests reviewing the device’s MIL-STD-810G ratings, which measure unit durability and confirm the distance for the drop test height.

In addition, consider the temperature ranges in and outside the shop. A device that can handle extreme heat and cold is beneficial.

Debris resistance. Liquid can be kryptonite to computer devices. Ruggedized mobile devices will offer added protection against the occasional fluid in the shop. “Knowing that you can rinse off a device that has a soda spill or motor oil on it is a plus,” says Guest.

In addition, general shop environments can cause issues. Screen and port covers can help protect the device from debris. “When you are working in a garage environment the dust… from other areas in the garage can be very heavy,” Lewis says.

Hard drive considerations. Computing power and memory is necessary for running different scan tool software programs. Instead of having a single computer for each scan tool program, consider swappable hard drives. “It can be difficult to place all OEM diagnostics solutions on a single drive, so the ability to swap a hard drive can make moving from one OEM vehicle to another simple,” explains Guest. “We’ve seen service bays that carry multiple laptops [in order] to address multiple vehicles, which can be costly.”

Sometimes a hard drive needs to be sent into the provider for service or exchange. A quick turnaround can help limit downtime of the device. “We offer hard drive exchange programs; or, if a hard drive were to go down, we'll ship out a new hard drive to you while you're shipping the other one back,” says Lewis.

Consider the reseller. “Another consideration is the vertical market reseller that is involved in the sale,” suggests Guest. One such example is AE Tools. According to Guest, resellers may provide any number of additional services and market expertise to fleets, including access to OEM-level diagnostics, dealer-level support for vehicle reflashing and reprogramming, assistance with immobilizer and security-related issues, and scan tool maintenance and repair.  

Purpose-built devices. “When you buy a consumer-centric computer, there are many trade-offs that you make, and those could impact productivity and profitability,” Guest explains. “For example, Durabook will custom-build a device with legacy I/O ports so that a company’s hardware investments can be easily utilized. With an off-the-shelf solution, you’ll likely need to invest in dongles to connect older technology to newer devices. Rather than skimp on the purchase, make an investment in technology that will deliver a solid return on investment.”

Services available for managing devices

A shop can partner with a service provider to assist with the selection of devices for the shop, as well as the deployment of these devices to personnel.

Organizations like Panasonic provide a customized approach to help ensure optimized use of the products in the shop.

After device selection, the products would be prepared and assembled into kits by the service provider. This means the service provider packages each individual device with all the necessary accessories, uploads all the proper applications, and ensures the device is in working order out of the box.

“When they open it up at their service bay there's a nice manual right on top, [and] a welcome letter,” Panasonic’s Lewis explains. “There's your service information, here's a couple of tips on the device and the software, [and] a website that you can go to that we've already checked on your browser for reporting any incidents.”

The service provider can then monitor to confirm when each device goes online and follow up to address any issues with devices that have not been activated.

VMware provides a similar service through its product VMware Workspace One. Companies like VMware specialize in endpoint management, which refers to managing all of the shop’s devices and associated software: the deployment of hardware, follow-up services and management, security measures to ensure no information is compromised, and updates and implementation of applications used by an organization or department. “[VMware Workspace One] brings together the management of all those components in one unified platform,” says Aditya Kunduri, group product marketing manager, unified endpoint management (UEM) team for VMware.

The benefit of using a service such as VMware Workspace One allows for a scalable solution throughout a department, or for multiple departments within an organization. This means the network of devices, applications, and services can grow as a company does.  The information is accessed and managed through cloud-computing. This means computer system resources are available on-demand through an internet connection, instead of being available at a specific on-site location.

Companies like VMware help to streamline the process of optimizing the user experience of mobile devices in the shop. They do this by managing the back-end details of getting the devices to the shop personnel, updating and uploading new applications, assisting with any device issues, security to ensure data is not compromised, and more.

“We are able to deliver content and applications on these devices, whether it is on demand, or based on a schedule, or even based on trigger events making sure that there's no downtime for these employees, especially when these are mission critical operations where time is money. And then of course, from an IT point of view, we also help them track the health and status of these devices in real time, making sure they are on top of their assets that are out in the field,” Kunduri explains.

Often there is a point-person or team within a fleet organization managing the relationship and communication between an outside vendor, such as Panasonic or VMware, and the rest of the internal organization. Typically, this is personnel in the information technology (IT) department.

VMware also assists with training fleet IT personnel to remote into devices to assist with updates and troubleshooting.

There may be instances where an employee already has their own personal mobile device, such as a smartphone, that they’re using in a work setting. This is sometimes referred to as BYOD, or, “bring your own device.”

VMware offers the ability to provide “containerized” productivity applications – meaning the data within the application cannot be shared outside the application. This is also sometimes referred to as sandboxing. “As part of these productivity applications, you can enable these employees with e-mail access, with secure browsing access, a secure tunnel or VPN type act to connect to your internal company resources through an encrypted medium,” explains Kunduri.

Operating systems like iOS for Apple products, or Android, also offer a separation of personal and enterprise profiles on devices, allowing employers to set up profiles.

“For example, Android provides a work profile, where there's a clear separation of work data, as well as the personal data that sits on a device… making sure that there is no transfer of data between personal and work applications, while the employee[’s] privacy is maintained,” Kunduri says. Known as dual persona mobile application management (MAM), this function allows an IT department to access only the work-related profile and applications on an employee’s personal device, allowing personal data and applications to remain private.

Whether it’s a personal device used for professional work, or a professional device where some personal information or applications will be downloaded, fleets can also select specific applications – either by whitelisting or blacklisting the available applications to be used on the device.

Whitelisting is more strict, advising users of a very specific set of applications that can be downloaded and used on the device. Blacklisted means specific applications are restricted from being downloaded or used on the device.

Another benefit to working with a service provider is security. If a device is lost or compromised, it can be shut down and so no sensitive company information is accessible.

From a security standpoint, Kuduri says these devices also have controls in place such as “imposing passcode policies on these devices, [and] being able to remotely wipe the data off the devices if it gets lost or compromised.”

After-sales support and warranties

To vet the credibility of the company you partner with, consider the markets it serves, says Durabook’s Guest.

“Manufacturers, like Durabook, who focus exclusively on vertical markets, bring a level of expertise that you can’t find in all vendors. You want to know that if there is an issue, someone with market experience will be there to help,” he says.

When it comes to warranty, oftentimes devices designed for rugged use will still operate just fine but will require significant updates to software or hardware that deem it unusable or outdated for the shop.

When assessing the product, be sure to consider the total cost of the device, versus the upfront price tag. Warranty and unit downtime should also be considered when determining total cost of the device.

If a shop is considering a traditional consumer device and opts for an extended warranty, Guest stresses a shop may still experience downtime. “You can pay for an extended warranty on a less robust device, but then you also need to consider the downtime you will experience when a device fails, the need to have extra devices to accommodate downtime, the increased need for IT support, and device management,” he says.

If that device is out of service, consider how long it will be unusable. “How quickly can your manufacturer turn around a broken device if needed? If the answer isn’t 48 hours, then that could be a problem,” says Guest.

Companies should have a comprehensive program for replacing the devices, Panasonic’s Lewis adds.  

“[If] the device goes down, we FedEx you a box for you to put [the inoperable device] in,” says Lewis. “We pay for shipping both directions overnight to have it repaired.” He says it is a rare occurrence, but the company has procedures in place to expedite the replacement process when it’s needed. “People often ask ‘How can you afford to do that?’ It's actually very simple; if it doesn't break, we don't have to do it very often. So, if it does break, we owe it to you to make sure it's back in your hands in as soon as possible.”

Sometimes, though, the actual device will continue working long after its warranty expires. There are other issues users face as a device gets older.

“In many cases, the limiting factor is the changes in software demands that require a new processor, not the device itself,” says Guest.

Lewis adds to this, explaining that shops will usually go another three to five years after the initial five-year standard warranty period on the company’s devices. These devices still function, but some applications and hardware become outdated.

“The problem is the application begins to change and you don't have the hardware necessary to run it, or the technology has changed and you're going to have to have new ports or new connections,” Lewis explains.

To address this, Lewis suggests fleets confirm with the manufacturer about after-warranty support, including parts and service availability. “For instance, [with] Panasonic, because of being the core manufacturer we guarantee parts and service for seven years after end-of-life, he explains.

Lewis emphasizes the difference between a traditional consumer computer, and devices designed specifically for extreme environments like a maintenance bay. “These are people’s tools,” he says. “They get their work done with it so it’s important to look at it from that same perspective. You wouldn’t go replace a screwdriver every three years.” 

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