Field service automation is one of the most advanced areas for mobile applications development among enterprises, and at US$280-million-per year laundry services provider Mac-Gray, IT managers say such a project has helped the company clean up both its operations and fuel growth.
Tracing its roots back to 1927, when the publicly-held company became the nation's first certified distributor of Maytag brand washing machines, Mac-Gray currently provides laundry outsourcing services to an estimated 58,000 U.S. locations.
Customers of its services -- which include apartment buildings, colleges, and other multi-tenant locations -- typically pay the company to provide and service all of their coin-operated laundry equipment under a lease relationship and then split the revenues generated via use of the machines with Mac-Gray.
In 2003, as the company found itself looking to grow rapidly via the acquisition of smaller rivals and simultaneously hoping to better optimize its workforce of machine service technicians and money collectors, Mac-Gray leaders decided to replace the voice-based field force management system with a pair of data-driven mobile applications that also embraced geo-location.
Four years later, having roughly tripled both the size of its workforce and its annual revenues while dramatically increasing productivity and lowering its consumption of fuel, company executives are heralding the applications -- developed using mobile platform software provided by Vettro -- as a resounding key to its recent success.
"The impact of the applications we've built is fairly evident as it's helped us to triple in size since we rolled them out, and there's no question that they have also made us a more competitive company in a lot of ways," said Mike Lento, vice president of operations at Mac-Gray. "We wanted to become more efficient in terms of saving time and money while bringing onboard a lot of smaller companies, and adopting these mobile applications allowed us to do that quickly."
Mac-Gray's workers had already been using their company-issued cell phones to communicate with dispatchers, receive assignments, and call in progress reports on their appointments for years. Through the creation of its new applications -- dubbed internally as TechLinx and CollectorLinx -- the company's service technicians and money collectors, respectively, now send and receive text messages about their status instead.
In addition to cutting the workers loose from their dispatchers and saving the employees an average of one working hour per day previously spent doing business on the phone, the application is also used in geo-location tracking to maximize the routes workers drive and the assignments they receive to save fuel and mileage on the company's 500 vehicles.
Over the course of the project, the system has helped cut fuel expenses and driven down the miles traveled each day by an average of 15 percent per vehicle, Lento said.
The tools also channel other vital information back to Mac-Gray's central business operations, including the average time it takes for each transaction to occur and real-time inventory updates of all the parts being used by the company's techs.
In that sense, the applications are helping the firm better account for all of its assets and plan for the future, he said.
"We had a system that had workers spending a lot of time on the phone in the morning and evenings trying to communicate their progress back to the company, and it was very manual and inefficient," said Lento. "Now our workers act more independently and get more work done, and we use the environmental benefits of the mobile system as a marketing tool."
Among the major benefits of using New York-based Vettro's 360 mobile software delivery platform, which helps companies map and create workflow for their applications and tailor programs to run on different types of devices, was that it allowed Mac-Gray's own IT workers to retain complete control over their back-end databases, which could be quickly integrated with the tools, according to the executive.
The applications have also proven simple enough to work well on low-cost devices and for most workers to pick them up without extensive training, leading to further savings, said Lento.
Industry watchers have observed that while traditional providers of enterprise applications have struggled to find the right mix of technologies to push mobility into many types of large businesses, customers like Mac-Gray who can embrace the tools to streamline logistics have been among the first to benefit from the systems.
"Companies in businesses such as overnight shipping and with significant filed force populations have been among the first to truly embrace enterprise mobility, and they will likely continue to find ways to use it to promote real business improvements," said Maribel Lopez, analyst with Forrester Research. "In a lot of industries people still don't have the business case to defend the investment in handhelds and related technologies, but those companies who can apply these tools to logistics will continue to be among the leading adopters."