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Wireless apps in a blue-collar world

Wireless applications are rolling up their sleeves and showing they're not afraid to do some heavy lifting. They're building up popularity among construction firms and bringing digital age efficiency to the traditional workplace.

Wireless applications are starting to make their way into some of the smallest and least high-tech businesses in the country, and even there they are proving their value.

Construction workers, electricians and repairmen are hardly known for their high-tech approaches to doing business. In these blue-collar industries, much of the business is handled with the same old-fashioned, hardcopy work orders that have been used for decades -- the day's jobs are handed to a worker in the morning, and he goes out into the field and does his thing. If he needs to order a part, it's done over the phone, which requires more paperwork. At the end of the day, a stack of paperwork is dropped off on an administrative worker's desk for data entry.

Companies such as these could benefit greatly from automation and wireless technology, said Don Spear, CEO of Portland, Ore.-based wireless application provider BlueTech LLC. The company recently developed FieldRanger, a tool that is designed for field workers and which is intended to help small businesses gain efficiencies from wireless applications.

When Jim Rooney started his own electrical contracting and repair company, Greenway Electric, in Beaverton, Ore., he wanted to take advantage of new technology to have a more efficient business process. At his old company, there were three administrative workers for 12 electricians. He was convinced there was a better way.

He deployed FieldRanger and a half dozen Palm handhelds to his staff. The software includes a client for the Palm operating system and applications that let the device integrate with QuickBooks, a popular accounting system for small businesses. All data transmissions are encrypted.

With the wireless system in place, Rooney said, his workers receive their work orders for the day on their devices, which saves a trip to the office. When they arrive at a job site, they log on to a time-tracking system. When they leave, they log off, which eliminates inaccurate time estimates that can cost the company money. The invoice is sent over the wireless network back to the home office, where the QuickBooks application is automatically updated. The whole process saves time and money, Rooney said.

With this system, he only has two people in the office for seven field workers, and he said that he could expand to 20 field service people without having to add any additional administrative staff.

Companies like Greenway Electric can expect benefits from targeted wireless deployments, said Mike Disabato, an analyst with the Burton Group, a Midvale, Utah-based research firm. A number of blue-collar companies have already had notable success with wireless. "Federal Express and UPS are two examples of companies that have eliminated paperwork," he said. "The costs are dropping, and this technology is making its way into smaller businesses."

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