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Repairman's Hardware: Wrench, Pliers, Laptop

Workplace: Sears exemplifies the benefits of a mobilized work force. It uses cell phones, portable PCs to improve efficiency, save millions of dollars.

April 18, 2002|BARBARA ROSE | CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BLOOMINGDALE, Ill. — Russ Molitor is asleep when a computer at a Sears product repair center dials a laptop in his suburban Chicago home and sends his work schedule for the day.

By the time he finishes brewing coffee, the 30-year-old technician for Sears, Roebuck & Co. has consulted the laptop for a color map of the day's route and a list of customers.

His first call is with a homeowner in Glen Ellyn who says her dishwasher is "making noise." She plans to pay cash for the repair, and she prefers that he enter by a side door. As Molitor heads out his driveway, his laptop begins reading him driving directions.

Although much of the buzz about mobile computing has focused on consumer applications, such as buying movie tickets or making dinner reservations on the go, mobile technology's biggest influence by far has been inside corporations.

Companies such as Sears are putting computers in the hands of repairers not only to make them more efficient but also to streamline and speed basic functions, such as billing, to save millions of dollars.

"The technology, even though it's not perfect yet, is good enough to drive very significant value," said Martin Dunsby, a partner at Deloitte Consulting in Atlanta. "There are substantial paybacks even on expensive systems."

Sears' experience with mobile technology, starting in the early 1990s, illustrates how far "m-business" has evolved. Workers' attitudes toward the new technologies have changed dramatically through the years, and companies have rallied to the benefits of having a mobilized work force.

The retailer's HomeCentral operation says it is the largest appliance repair firm in the country, with 13,000 technicians who make 11 million in-home repairs a year.

Sears won't disclose how much it has saved since it began equipping service reps with laptops and cell phones in 1993, but it says the payback has more than covered its investment.

One easily quantifiable gain: Sears saves more than $3million annually in the cost of telephone calls to order parts.

Molitor is part of a pilot group testing Sears' newest wireless systems, a $70-million investment in hardware and software that the retailer expects to roll out to the rest of its technicians by next year's first quarter.

The hardware includes sturdy laptops with color touch screens and glow-in-the-dark keyboards by Itronix Corp., a Spokane, Wash.-based maker of rugged mobile computers. Sears' service vans have been converted into wireless network base stations using equipment developed by Calgary, Canada-based Wireless Matrix Corp.

A software team of 15 at Sears' headquarters in Hoffman Estates, Ill., created applications that run on a Windows 2000 platform.

Among the software improvements: a more powerful search engine that can sift an inventory of 5million parts using descriptions ("dial" or "knob"), an image, product, brand or code number.

Service reps can rotate images in schematic drawings or see a blowup of a single part by running a finger around it on the laptop's touch-screen, leaving the schematic displayed behind it.

Sears expects a payback on the new technology in three years, a timetable that Deloitte's Dunsby suggests may be conservative based on his experience with similar projects.

Molitor's assessment of the new technology: "It makes the job easier." He likes the search tools and the global positioning technology. "Ninety-five percent of the time the computer leads me right to the customer's door," he said.

All the information he needs to estimate repair costs, order parts, fix appliances, bill customers and process payments is available on his hard drive or via wireless networks that connect him with Sears' computers around the country.

Antennas hidden in a dome on the service van's roof connect the van with a business data network operated by Cingular Wireless. When Molitor is making a repair, his laptop communicates with the van over a shorter-range wireless network.

A 13-year Sears veteran, Molitor remembers a time when he started his morning by driving to a service center to pick up a batch of work orders, then sat down to figure out his route and call his customers. At the end of the day, he drove back with his completed paperwork.

"You basically shuffled your paper all day like a deck of cards," he said.

Reaction was lukewarm, at best, when Sears decided to remove the paper by introducing cell phones and laptops to a work force that had no experience with keyboards or computer mice.

"The old guys were totally against it," Molitor said. "We buddied them up with younger guys."

But typically within about three months, he said, "if their computer broke they were whining."

The transition wasn't easy.

"You were literally changing your culture overnight," said David Sankey, Sears' director of process and technology for product repair services. "There were a lot of people who needed a lot of help."

There were technical hurdles as well.

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