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September 24, 2015

Is a field engineer ever actually offline?

A field engineer without a mobile device or Internet connection: In 2015, that’s a bit like someone going on a road trip without a navigation system. You know you could probably manage without, but in reality, it’s almost unimaginable now.

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For those who haven’t lived through the paper era and experienced life before the introduction of applications and mobile devices, the life of a field engineer was a lot more complicated. Each morning, technicians received paper work orders, and on completion of a job, they had to complete a form (perhaps including comments). This work order was then sent back to the office by fax, or it may even have been submitted in person.

When the first applications hit the market, the life of the field engineer became a little easier. At the start of the workday field engineers could log in at home or at the office to retrieve and print out work orders. At the end of the workday, they entered the details into the system and everything was synchronized. This system was already an improvement, but it was still convoluted and error-prone.

It’s only recently that mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets have become universal. These devices have rapidly been adopted with great enthusiasm, and most of us cannot imagine our day-to-day lives without them. As I wrote in a previous blog, a field engineer not only has access to electronic work orders anywhere at any time, but also can retrieve other relevant information such as the service history and the available materials. Work orders can also be completed in the application.

In fact, online and offline applications often still exist alongside each other for field engineers. Someone temporarily without a connection can work in offline mode. This differentiation stems from the period when an Internet connection couldn’t be taken for granted. If the field engineer had no 3G or WiFi where they were working, then they could still access the work order offline. Once they are online again, the data would be amended and synchronized automatically.

But what I’m now curious about is whether these offline applications are really still needed in 2015. How often does it actually still happen that a field engineer finds himself or herself somewhere without a signal? In fact, isn’t there WiFi, 3G, or even 4G everywhere now—even in the most remote rural areas? Hasn’t the offline application had its day by now?

After all, there are disadvantages to the offline version for both the field engineer and the application’s supplier: it has limited functionality, and having access to current (online) data is always better than having to synchronize it later.

Now I don’t want to suggest that the offline applications should be phased out, but I am justifiably curious as to how often it still happens that field engineers do not have a signal.

Nico van Dijk
Product Manager Maintenance Management