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What to do when your phone upgrade demands brawn over beauty

Largest US wholesale plumbing supply company, Ferguson Enterprises, needed rugged handset to support route optimization and customer service apps

By , Network World
December 13, 2012 05:17 PM ET

Network World - When Ferguson Enterprises decided to upgrade mobile phones for thousands of employees, the plumbing supplies distributor opted for a chunky, 12-ounce handset with a 3.7-inch screen, running a version of Microsoft Windows Mobile, and able to stand up to repeated 6-foot drops to polished concrete. Hadn't they heard of the iPhone? Or the Samsung Galaxy S III?

In fact, iOS devices are the corporate standard, for some employees. But the phone upgrade was for Ferguson's army of truck drivers, who deliver plumbing and other building supplies to industrial customers or outdoor construction sites, often in rain, snow, sleet or hail, and all stuff that goes with them.

BACKGROUND: When devices just can't break -- how handhelds are designed to withstand target practice and spilled lattes

"We've been very hard on our devices," says Joseph Zanette, solutions manager at Ferguson's Newport News, Va., headquarters. "There is a huge difference between a consumer device and a commercial ruggedized device, especially when you are working within our environment."

The company has long been using rugged handhelds, from Psion, (as of Oct. 1, a unit of Motorola Solutions) in its warehouse operations where the handhelds are routinely dropped, banged, hit, and sometimes run over by forklifts. The industry average for repairs of such devices is 19%, says Zanette. "We have historically always exceeded this number, so we know we're rough on them. We assume our truck drivers will as well."

Ferguson, a subsidiary of U.K.-based Wolseley PLC, was founded in 1953. It's the largest wholesale distributor of plumbing supplies in the U.S., with 1,300 locations and $9.5 billion in sales last year. It has a fleet of 3,400 trucks, whose drivers had been outfitted for years with Nextel mobile phones, to keep them in voice communications with dispatchers. The trucks, in a sense, were filing cabinets on wheels: Department of Transportation manuals, delivery tickets, routing documents, and a host of other forms and paraphernalia, including maps.

As part of its strategy to improve fleet management and product delivery, Ferguson in 2010 began deploying a route optimization application, by Descartes, in conjunction with a drive to automate its dispatching process. These efforts led Ferguson toward a mobile solution for drivers that could leverage fully these new capabilities.

Initially, the dispatching-routing upgrade goal was to create efficient routes for product deliveries, a process that's less about minimizing the distance traveled and more about minimizing the time spent traveling. This involves creating or adapting routes that minimize back-tracking and left-hand turns across traffic, for example, while creating the shortest possible time from the last delivery location back to the distribution center.

And in Apple's App Store, there's apparently not really an app for that. You can find personal routing apps, such as Route4Me and Smart Route but comments by users show these have a variety of limitations for commercial use, such as handling no more than 10 stops. Some apps may simply create the shortest distance between points without regard for the overall efficiency of the route, including the return trip.

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