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Invest in Wireless Laptops

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For the past five years, the estimators at Mike Rose Auto Body have used handheld computing devices to finalize the estimating and ordering process. Now, they’ve taken the technological leap forward to roll-cart-based wireless laptops that enable them to complete a full estimate in the repair center alongside a technician. The new process cuts back on running to and from the front desk to complete paperwork. Two of the company’s seven locations near San Francisco, Calif., have tested the combination of new technology and an improved repair blueprinting process. The results so far? A nearly 45 percent drop in cycle time, from 13.6 to 7.7 days.

MAKING THE SWITCH

Rick Rehm, Mike Rose’s IT director, says the company—which has an annual sales goal of $30 million—made the switch from handheld devices to wireless laptops for a few reasons. “The screens [on the handhelds were] only about 8 inches,” he explains, emphasizing how difficult it was to read the screen. “The lighting on them isn’t the greatest when you’re out in the sun or in the shop.” Typing was also cumbersome because of the tiny keyboard. Though the handheld devices were great as an extension of the estimators’ workstations and durable enough to withstand an accidental drop, Rehm knew the transition to wireless laptops would ultimately be more efficient. “The laptop runs as an individual workstation” with all the comforts of an easy-to-read screen and a reasonably sized keyboard.

To get started, Rehm purchased two laptops, about $800 apiece, to test-drive the new tech-and-process plan at two locations. To make the laptops portable and to keep estimators’ hands free, he purchased roll-cart stations that move to any bay in the shop. For added security and to prevent falls, Rehm fastened each laptop to its roll cart with a thin bike lock chain that connected through small holes he drilled into the cart’s surface.

Portable, full-size workstation laptops have been instrumental in improving the estimating process. So far, the estimators’ supplement ratio has fallen by 30 percent. They’ve also cut down on the amount of note-taking, since the estimating system is immediately accessible. More thorough, accurate estimates are now the norm.

Portable, full-size workstation laptops have been instrumental in improving the estimating process. So far, the estimators’ supplement ratio has fallen by 30 percent.

EFFICIENT ESTIMATES

What makes the laptops really effective is the repair center’s improved blueprinting process. Though the company had been following a new teardown system for 15 months, it wasn’t working as well with the handheld devices as Rehm would have liked. Older estimators had a difficult time reading the small screen, and details were missed. Sometimes, taking notes would distract the estimators. “With the laptops, it’s much faster because they can just put in the information as they go,” he says.

The new blueprint process requires a complete and thorough teardown of the vehicle. “We use the concept of an onion—peeling back the layers,” Rehm explains. “It’s essential that the estimator works with the technician repairing the car. Before, the vehicle would come in and go to the yard, and you’d have a teardown kit.” The problem with that, he says, is that oftentimes the person performing the teardown isn’t responsible for the actual repair. This means the technician would have no idea what bolts, clips or parts he needed. Now that the estimator and technician work together as a team, repair efficiency is up. The estimator keys in the information, with the technician acting as his or her “eyes” during the teardown.

The relationship between estimators and technicians has also improved, and immensely. “Before, the technician would bring the estimator the supplement request. He may have been on the phone or writing an estimate, and the technician would get upset with the estimator because he didn’t add in the supplement request,” Rehm says. “Then the estimator would get upset with the technician because he thought the technician forgot.” Now that the two work together, that’s no longer happening.

BUILDING BUSINESS

To expand the wireless workstations to the other five Mike Rose locations, Rehm anticipates that he’ll need two laptops at the collision center’s two largest locations—each repair about 450 cars a month—two wireless access points and CAT6 wiring (the latest in technology for speed). Adaptors and a switch that runs from the modem to the router are also needed for the wireless laptops. So far, each of the two facilities using the new wireless technology have cost about $1500 to outfit.

The investment, Rehm says, is worth it—and will be especially so for one location in particular that has been struggling to improve efficiency. “One of our facilities is averaging about 14 days cycle time. It’s absolutely killing us,” he says. “They weren’t really doing the blueprint process and don’t have wireless technology at that facility. We’re hoping to see a dramatic drop in cycle time once we do that.”


THE COST TO GO WIRELESS
Considering whether to go wireless, but afraid of the price tag? Rick Rehm, IT director at Mike Rose Auto Body in Calif., breaks down the materials and approximate costs:
• Wireless access points.These cost about $90 apiece; Rehm recommends at least two.
• Cabling. This is a must-have. The amount required depends on the size of your shop. Cabling costs about $.09 per foot.
• Connectors. Rehm suggests buying a pack of 10, which will set you back about $10. “You need two connectors on either end of the cable,” he says.
• Switches. Depending on how many ports you have on your routers, you may need to upgrade to a switch. That will cost anywhere from $100 to $500, Rehm explains, depending on how many ports you need.
• Roll carts. One for each laptop. These cost about $150 apiece.
• Laptops. This price will depend on which computers you choose; Rehm paid $800 apiece for laptops from Dell.
• Labor. Rehm estimates the cost to hire an IT consultant to come in and perform the work would be about $40 to $60 an hour (if you don’t already have someone on staff who has the skills). A typical job should take about four to eight hours, depending on the size of the shop.
• Electricity. If you don’t have electricity where you want to put your wireless access points, you’ll need to buy an extension chord, which will cost $20 to $40. Another option? “Bring in an electrician and extend some plug-ins,” Rehm says.

 

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