The New Age of Field Operations Technology

Originally Published by AGL Media Group
Author: Rob Tymchyshyn

For over a decade, digital technologies have helped improve operational efficiency and profitability across the majority of global business sectors. However, the construction industry has lagged behind. A recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute estimates productivity gains greater than 50 percent are possible with the adoption of new technologies, which equates to a 30 percent or higher reduction in operating costs.

For the wireless industry, three key market challenges have had a growing effect on the ability of tower constructors to stay competitive while preserving operating margins: the increased volume and densification of small cell deployments, the limited growth in available field resources, and industrywide pricing pressures.

Existing legacy applications and spot solutions, such as spreadsheets, email, accounting and basic timekeeping tools, will ultimately struggle to manage this increasing complexity. The good news is that an emerging category of software called field operations platforms brings a collection of capabilities focused on improving operational efficiency and financial discipline for wireless field deployment programs.

Small Cell Growth

T-Mobile US’s $3.5 billion award to Nokia for next-generation 5G networking gear is the most recent indicator of an impending upgrade cycle. CTIA’s annual wireless industry survey, “The State of Wireless 2018,” projects that wireless carriers will need to deploy roughly 800,000 small cells by 2026, a 550 percent increase from the 86,000 that exist today (see Figure 1). John Celentano, an industry consultant, agrees. His analysis projects the U.S. cell site installed base — including macrocells, small cells and distributed antenna system (DAS) networks — to triple in the next five to seven years. “As capital expenditures continue to shift toward small cells, companies across the ecosystem will need to rethink how they deploy and maintain this next-generation infrastructure,” he said.

In the face of this growing demand, wireless constructors will find themselves constrained by the limited pool of field resources, currently estimated at 29,000. “It is no secret that a labor shortage exists within the wireless infrastructure workforce,” said Todd Schlekeway, executive director of the NATE: The Communications Infrastructure Contractors Association, which has made workforce development a top priority. As a consequence of these hiring challenges, in the near term wireless constructors will need to find ways to increase productivity for their existing field resources.

Effect on Profits

Most small cell deployments still require the same end-to-end processes as macro builds, including planning, material management, resource scheduling, installation, closeout packages, invoicing, and AR management. What has changed is the need to execute a larger volume of projects with the same milestones and critical dependencies, and perhaps the most unique and unforgiving metric: the need to complete the entire scope of work in a one-day deployment to achieve profitability.

Patrick Nakamura from Metro RF Services compares this change in pace to the challenges brick-and-mortar stores have been facing in competing against web giants like Amazon. “Contractors can no longer be reactive to the marketplace and need to streamline internal processes and procedures to ensure they can continue providing their clients the same quality results,” Nakamura said. To meet the challenge, Metro RF Services is gearing up its delivery capacity, skills and underlying operations platforms in anticipation of even more activity.

Competitive pricing pressures and increasingly stringent payment terms place an additional strain on company financials. Schlekeway notes that terms for companies that install and maintain networks and infrastructure are being pushed out to 90 or 120 days, which further hamstrings 5G deployment efforts because of restrictions on operational cash flow. These factors increase the need for wireless construction companies to keep a tight focus on project margins and also issue accurate, well-documented invoices on a timely basis.

Field Operations Platforms

Digital technologies, such as mobile applications, GPS tracking and cloud hosting, are positioned to help early adopters establish a more competitive position in the marketplace. Field operations platforms make use of these capabilities to help wireless construction companies focus on improving operational efficiency, managing workflows, automating manually intensive tasks and increasing financial discipline for complex field programs.

Representative features to look for in a field operations platform include: crew scheduling and resource management; workflow management; mobility tools; budget tracking; timekeeping and payroll automation; photo and document management; material and asset management; vendor and client invoice management; and reporting and analytics.

Field operations platforms, such as FieldCLIX, can help project managers oversee and track larger volumes of deployments while maintaining a tight focus on quality and costs (see Figure 3). The ability to identify material shortfalls and automatically trigger orders will help prevent crews from being deployed until all tools and parts are available. Access to site details and history, including access protocols, site condition images and equipment requirements, will further increase the odds of a successful deployment. Budgets can be created in advance and tracked — including in-house labor, materials and third-party services — helping project managers focus on project profitability and risk management versus reacting to daily fires.

Field operation platforms can also help finance and accounting departments manage the growing volume of vendor and client transactions with a positive effect on revenue and cash flow. As soon as project milestones are met, invoices can be generated and sent to the client with all supporting materials. Additionally, management of increasingly complex collections backlogs can be facilitated with a common point of access to detailed AR reports and all related invoices, quotes, POs, change order conditions and other project related documentation.

Mobile Collaboration

Mobile applications integrated into the field operations platforms allow for a more fluid collaboration between project managers and field crews to address changing field conditions and client priorities. The FieldCLIX mobile application provides field crews with various tools, task lists and job aids to help ensure successful deployments, reduce repeat visits and document billable change-order conditions (see Figure 4). The manual burden and inaccuracy related to processing timesheets can be eliminated by automating the timecard generation and payroll processes. Mobile tools can also help accelerate the learning curve for new technologies and client requirements by providing field crews remote access to client documents, methods and procedures, and step-by-step equipment installation guides.

Schlekeway said he is excited to see the mobile technology applications coming available to the nation’s contractor companies to help streamline the operations and management of field processes. NATE recently unveiled its own STAR Initiative app for participating companies to submit site-specific field audit data in real time. (STAR stands for safety, training, accountability and reliability.)

Data for Decisions

Lastly, business owners need access to data to assess the operational and financial health of the business, from the corporate level all the way down to individual projects. By the time monthly reports from accounting systems are produced, it is often too late to identify at-risk projects. The rich set of operational and financial metrics captured by a field operations platform provides a powerful data set to analyze and help make important tactical and strategic business decisions.

Field operations platforms also provide the ability to track and report on operational and financial metrics at a much more detailed level than previously available. Representative metrics and potential benefits include the ability to:

  • Increase field productivity by 20 to 30 percent
  • Reduce repeat or unnecessary site visits by 5 to 10 percent
  • Reduce time spent on manually intensive administrative tasks by 10 to 15 percent
  • Accelerate cash collection by 10 to 20 percent
  • Reduce material and asset costs by 10 to 20 percent
  • Deployment Factors

There are several factors to take into consideration when selecting a field operations platform. Dan Denda from IronBo focused on the breadth of features, the wireless industry-specific capabilities and the flexibility to accommodate his company’s (and his client’s) needs. Denda said he specifically wanted to give his employees the ability to efficiently manage increasingly complex projects across a broad range of field programs.

Other platform selection factors include cloud versus in-house hosting, flexible pricing plans (based on the number of users and features deployed), the availability of ongoing support services, the time and cost to deploy the platform, the availability of industry-specific processes and checklists, and integrations with existing IT platforms, such as accounting and payroll systems.

Denda cautioned against deploying too many capabilities at once. “Assess and prioritize your pain points and focus on addressing those that provide maximum impact without introducing too much change to your organization,” he said. “As employees adapt to the new tool, you can bring in additional capabilities to achieve a broader set of benefits available with a full-featured platform.”

Speed to Benefit

When deploying new software tools, end-user compliance can have a significant effect on achieving the projected benefits. Organizational compliance can be accelerated through the involvement of your employees from the start. Two-way communication will allow the employees to voice their feedback, create buy-in for your operational and financial goals and provide visibility into the program’s eventual success. Operations dashboards projected on overhead monitors allow all employees to visualize how the organization is performing.

Your time-to-benefit speed can be accelerated through clearly defined business policies and expectations for individual roles. The ability to track an individual’s performance with operational key performance indicators creates an opportunity to give incentives to employees and to reward them for positive results. Lastly, encouraging your early adopters to help pull others along into proper use of the platform will also help overall compliance.

How do you know when you’re ready to deploy a new field operations platform? Critical success factors include shared priorities across company leadership, an established focus on operational efficiency, acknowledgement that current tools are limiting your ability to scale, a comfort level adopting new technology, and a willingness to commit the organization’s time to the platform deployment program.

In summary, field operations platforms offer a significant opportunity for wireless construction companies to increase productivity and profitability for existing field programs, while helping to fine-tune operational and financial processes to manage the wave of next-generation infrastructure projects.

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