Mobile automation

Al Batha Group has automated its field operations by arming its sales force with Symbol handhelds. By integrating the solution with its SAP software, the company has been able to streamline its business and cut costs.

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By  Vijaya Cherian Published  May 25, 2003

I|~||~||~|Al Batha Group has deployed a mobile computing solution to automate its field operations and sharpen its competitive edge. By arming its sales force with Symbol PD 8000 handheld terminals (HHTs) that run RouteTrac, a route accounting application, the company has been able to track inventory more effectively, develop more detailed customer profiles, and harvest competitor data for comparative analysis.

“We are already beginning to see some of these benefits in our business since we implemented this solution,” says Saji Oommen, group IT manager at Al Batha Group. “Earlier, route accounting was performed manually and this was both time consuming and error prone. But, with the deployment of this solution, we have experienced a 30% reduction in the time taken for daily settlement per route and significant savings in the time transaction processing takes per stop,” he explains.

RouteTrac, which was developed by Dubai-based solutions provider Vxceed Technologies to integrate with Al Batha’s SAP R/3 platform, gives the sales team instant access to data held in the company’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) suite, such as customer records, product specifications and pricing details.

This accelerates the sales process and boosts customer service, as sales people are able to make decisions on the spot based on customers’ inventory, buying patterns, stock off-take and credit standing. Furthermore, they can complete the sale at the customer site by generating an invoice from the HHT.

“Now that this entire process is automated, our sales people have more time to focus on their customers and their call rates have increased dramatically,” says Oommen.

Because the Symbol HHTs are equipped with barcode scanners that allow users to gather information at the point of sale, the sales team no longer has to enter data at the customer site and then re-enter it at the sales office. As such, this minimises errors and accelerates data collection.

“They [the sales team] can travel to any part of the UAE with their HHTs and at the end of the day they can bring it to any one of our warehouses or sales offices in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, Dubai or Sharjah. These offices are all networked through a wide area network (WAN) and each location has a docking station through which the users can upload their data. This information is then transported from the HHTs to our core SAP R/3 system,” Oommen explains.

||**||II|~||~||~|Integrating its HHTs with R/3 and ensuring that data retains its integrity as it passes through them has been the biggest challenge for Al Batha, especially as information has to flow both to and from the HHTs. This is because the HHTs are relatively small and not as robust as SAP.

“Therefore, the data that passes through the HHT sometimes gets rejected at the SAP level because of its extra validation checks and additional business rules that are applied by the system. We wanted to trap these problems so that once the data is transferred, it is updated accurately,” adds Oommen.

To ensure that this happens, Al Batha asked Vxceed to modify RouteTrac to match the functionality of R/3. It has also deployed Microsoft’s Biz Talk Server. As a result, when a sales person docks their handheld to upload information, the data moves via the group’s application server in XML format to Biz Talk server. It then gets sent to a SAP adapter, where it is converted to IDoc format, before it is submitted to R/3.

“Basically, we had to ensure that the data originating from the HHT and going to SAP was complete and accurate after these three or four layers of conversion and we had to see that the data was being processed in each of these environments separately without losing any of its characteristics,” says Oommen.

Although the sales team’s data should be accurately reproduced in SAP, the ERP app will sometimes reject information if it does not fulfil certain requirements. If this happens, the system generates an alert so that the sales person concerned can correct the error.

“For instance, a credit sales transaction that is processed in an HHT might be rejected within SAP because it has exceeded the credit limit or violated the credit terms as defined in SAP. This means a particular update has failed and has led to a mismatch between the two systems. Part of our solution was to also automate this process so that any discrepancies in data are recognised and sent out as alerts to the concerned people,” explains Oommen.

The entire mobile computing solution, which took ten weeks to implement, has helped the company maximise its productivity. Key to this has been its integration with R/3.

“When we implemented SAP in 2000, we were clear that all future implementations must be around this solution so that we maximise the benefits of the system,” says Oommen.
According to the IT manager, this integration has helped the company achieve several tangible and intangible benefits such as automated journey planning and end of day stock and cash reconciliation.

“It enables us to maintain tighter controls of stock, cash and promotions and we can also optimise our van and outlet stocks based on consumption history. Essentially, we have a much better idea of our customers’ buying behaviour and, as a result, we expect to achieve complete return on investment (ROI) within one year,” he adds.

Moving forward, the Dubai-based company plans to further empower its employees by giving them GPRS connectivity. This will ensure that sales staff are connected to the ERP suite at all times, even when they are at remote locations. This means that they will be able to log into the SAP system to check the credit of a customer, or see if there is stock available in the warehouse before committing a particular sale order.

“The units have already come. We are in the process of rolling it out. Our credit sales people should have them by June,” says Oommen. ||**||

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