INTRODUCTIONRetriever Communications was founded in 1996 with the sole mission being the development of a Mobile Application Service to be delivered on hand held, laptop computers and smart phones, over public mobile telecommunications.Since then, Retriever has established itself successfully both in Australia and overseas, specializing in offering companies a wireless (mobile) service for field force automation, which allows dynamic scheduling of field technicians and the replacement of paper in the field with fast, secure digital data capture. Although established in Australia, twenty percent of Retriever’s annual revenue is now derived from exports. Thus the successful export of its products and services is of great importance. In 2003, Retriever Communications successfully delivered a wireless in-field logistics system for the postmen of HK Post. This system allows postmen to use hand held computers, both in depot at the start of day and then dynamically through out their delivery and pick-up runs. The wireless system is also fully integrated to HK Post’s dispatch and spatial scheduling system. Though Retriever specializes in such wireless field force automation the HK Post project presented the additional telecommunications challenges of:
Working across private and public wireless networks seamlessly and the management of reconnections,
Data management when network ‘blackholes’ were encountered.
Retriever regularly had staff on site in HK but all design, development and unit testing were conducted in Retriever’s Australian offices. HONG KONG POST WIRELESS PROJECT HK Post is a government owned postal agency that services both the island and the main land. It does everything of a typical post office, such as hand mail and parcel delivery, but it also handles the collection of parcels. HK Post prides its self on being a very innovative company involving a great deal of technology and infrastructure. The project, in which Retriever became involved, initially started in 2002. With over 500 field staff at HK Post performing collection and delivery services, there was a need for a mobile technology that could improve efficiency and use the real time information that was being generated by the postal service offices. Their solution was to equip the field staff with hand held computers linked wirelessly back to the mail centres that would run geo spatial mapping systems for intelligent routing and scheduling operations. Intergraph, a partner of Retriever, offered HK Post such a service and Retriever designed and supplied a mobile extension to the dispatch and mapping systems.The extent of Retriever’s project was to provide a mobile solution to enable HK Post to:
Track parcel collection & delivery information of both domestic and international consignments
Track the transfer of consignments between field staff and distribution centres.
Track mail collection from post box
Assign jobs online and send them dynamically during the day to workers in the field. Provide a range of information about HK Post services (such as pricing, weight tables, etc)
HK Post had many stringent requirements placed on the mobile solution to be offered by Retriever, far more than experienced in local projects. These included all areas of work such as handheld hardware, software, usability, localization, system reliability, communications, security, project management, testing, integration and more. TECHNICAL CHALLENGES OF THE HK POST PROJECT The HK Post project consisted of numerous challenges across a variety of aspects in the system. Below is an outline of some of these that are related to telecommunications:Mixed Networks and ReliabilityHKP wanted to make use of a mixture of network technologies to maximize connectivity and reliability whilst minimizing infrastructure and operational costs. When a worker was out in the field the public GPRS networks provided by one of the local telecommunications companies was to be used, however, as each worker arrived back in to a depot a local and secure WiFi (802.11 b) wireless network would take over as the preferred communications channel. In the event of neither network being available, the devices could continue to work offline and data communicated when the device is placed in to a cradle dock with Ethernet LAN access. In addition, the system was to automatically reconnect in the event of transient network loss, such as drop outs and black-spots as workers traversed the many building lifts and car parks in the heavily populated areas of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.At the time, no software existed to provide all the functionality required, and Retriever extended its original product line of GPRS support to include WiFi with authentication and encryption to HK Post standards as well as the roaming between networks types. Testing was made locally in Hong Kong to verify the communications worked correctly in the production environment.Handheld DevicesThe device selected for use by the workers is of critical importance. The device hardware must be fit the application for which it is to be used, in this case ruggedised construction, high performance for processing many parcels at once, operate for long times on a single battery charge and be ergonomically designed for a worker to carry it with them each day.The challenge of user acceptance on the software interface for the handheld required a particular focus to cultural issues. For HK Post the application required language localization with a mixture of English and Chinese translations for forms and data. The readability and menu navigation reflected other systems at HK Post.Several types of hardware and revisions of applications were prototyped and field tested by HK Post staff to evaluate the options. The final selection by HK Post was to use Intermec 700 Pocket PC devices using function keys for fast input and bar code scanning capability.In the case of device failure, a flexible system was required to enable workers to continue operations. This was solved by the fact that any worker could use any device; they could simply pick up another one in the event of failure and sign-on to the system (a simple combination of barcode scanning an identification card and entering a PIN code). All the information that particular worker needed would then be down loaded.LESSONS LEARNT IN AN OVERSEAS MARKETThere are always lessons to be learnt with each new project, especially when dealing in an overseas market. There are the cultural issues and cross time zone communication difficulties. Having a local presence, that is, company representatives in Asia, largely reduces these and can act as a channel back to Australia.When exporting a service, such as system design, the quality assurance and project management should include processes to allow all stakeholders to track status, deliverables and acceptance of work. When different cultural work patterns and motivations are occurring the process acts as a common reference point that can transcend cultural barriers. The challenge is having such systems not only agreed but adhered too.By end of 2003, Retriever had completed the majority of the system for the HK Post project. Retriever had successfully integrated, installed and run each component in Hong Kong, allowing HKP the instant communication it needs between its office and its workers out in the field. The production of this system having been designed, constructed and tested locally in Sydney is a great example of how Australian know-how can be taken to the world market.http://www.retriever.com.au