The phenomenal acceptance rate of smartphones and tablet devices among the general public is slowly creeping its way into trucking. Fleets have long sought out technology to streamline operations, but now many are also finding that by putting these devices into the hands of their employees, not only do they have more efficient operations, they also have happier employees.

But while smartphones, tablets, and ruggedized computers can help fleets interact with their workers on a daily basis while also offering more efficient management options, simply purchasing the latest in technology can be nothing more than dumping money on the information superhighway if you don’t ask the right questions before purchasing.

Mike Lee, CEO of Airclic, a provider of mobile software solutions for supply chain, logistics, and field service operations, recently spoke with Fleet Owner in an exclusive interview talking about tablet devices and the questions that need to be answered if your operation wishes to maximize its return-on-investment.

“What we’re finding is that companies have made investments in the back office, in the trucks themselves, and now they’re starting to look at [devices to streamline operations],” Lee says. “I do think things like tablets, smartphones, and even the new ruggedized devices, from a price-point [perspective], they’re moving into a sweet spot where it’s cost-effective.”

The problem, though, is that many fleets entering the marketplace don’t have a current mobile platform strategy. “[Almost] 95% of Airclic’s new customers don’t have any mobile platforms,” he says.

And that leads to decisions that aren’t always in the best interests of the operation long-term. Before purchasing tablets or smartphones for your employees, Lee advises asking a few simply questions:

  • How are the workers going to use the device?
  • What kind of environment is the employee working in?
  • How much barcode scanning will be done with the device?
  • Will the employee be using the device as a phone as well?

These are just some of the basic questions that must be answered. For instance, Lee points out that for some workers, a ruggedized device might be appropriate, while others can use a tablet such as Apple’s iPad, Samsung’s Galaxy, or RIM’s BlackBerry Playbook device. Still others can function quite nicely with a smartphone.

And if the employee needs phone capabilities, but also the functionality of a tablet device, then that limits the choices as not all tablets can act as a phone, Lee says.

Tablet devices are becoming more popular and a nice fit for many applications, Lee says. First, the functionality is similar to a laptop computer but in a more manageable size. Still, the overall footprint of the device is large enough that it provides “more real estate” for the user to interact with the information.

“It enables them to have more of an interactive experience because of the bigger footprint,” Lee adds. “And they have the ability to [easily] navigate forms that require input.”

A tablet can also provide a portable device that eliminates unnecessary paperwork.

“If you have a tablet, you could actually walk a customer through a training program and then get a signature right on the device,” Lee says, adding that it can also be used for delivery receipts, including signature capture.

But for all the benefits of tablet devices, they do have a few drawbacks when it comes to trucking fleets. Primarily among these is the environment the employee will be working in.

“You want to make sure the employee is not dropping the device,” Lee adds. “I’m sure shortly we’ll see more ruggedized tablets, but you need to consider the environment.”

Also, heavy barcode scanning, such as what occurs with P&D fleets, can tax the tablet, Lee says. A key question to ask here is whether the tablet has a built-in laser scanner, Lee said. Many do not, and while a laser scanner can be added, it does add costs.

Also, adding a tablet usually means the fleet wants real-time access to data. Not all tablets have that ability without purchasing a data plan. Lee says to check how the device transmits data – does it need its own data plan? Can it transmit through WiFi or cellular network? Or does it need an Ethernet connection?

“If you are using the tablet, you want to be pushing information to the mobile worker and have that information coming back,” Lee says.

The final bit of advice Lee offers is to seek input from a number of people, including your current software provider, before making the purchase.

“Are they device-agnostic?” Lee suggests asking, “that is can you run [your software] on any tablet, or on any smartphone? Also, does the tablet work on only one carrier’s network?

“[Airclic’s] view is to help customers have flexibility over time; we have to be carrier-agnostic and device-agnostic,” Lee adds. “The reality is not a lot of the software providers have the ability to run on all the devices.”

Lee advises managers to discuss the purchase of devices with their providers first to ensure that not only current products are compatible with the device, but also future products and updates. He also said that the end-users such as drivers, should be consulted – at least a sampling – to ensure they will accept the usage of the devices and the devices are appropriate in their daily work.

“We’re seeing a demographic shift in drivers, whereas technology wasn’t in the hands of drivers for many years,” Lee points out. “In our latest research, we’re finding that the drivers are asking for technology…we’re finding it’s an approach to retaining drivers.”