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Tech on the job? There’s an app for you!

August 2012

Chuck’s desktop

Sending tweets to Justin Bieber? Probably not.

But professionals in many fields are finding lots of other smart ways to put smart phones, tablet computers, and laptops to work on the job. With their focus on simplicity and ease of use, the do-it-all devices are becoming as indispensable for technicians and engineers as they are for today's teens.

According to a recent Fluke News Plus survey, the devices help with everything from sophisticated tasks - calculating electrical loads, storing service manuals, and logging data - to jobs as basic as working like a flashlight to light up dark cabinets.

"I have my electrical code on my phone and on my iPad," said Hugo, a construction electrician working in Canada, "and I use several apps on a day-to-day basis: Master Bender, ET Forum, My Measures, Circuit Colors, Conduit Fill, Electric Toolkit, Iscale ruler, Quickoffice, and iBooks for the code and related books."

Techs from across the globe answered the survey, including Hugo and two others from Canada, 26 from the USA, and techs from India, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Singapore. Nearly two out of three (64 percent) use smart phones on the job, and the same percentage (and often the same people) use laptops. More than one in four (27 percent) use a tablet device like the iPad. Netbooks, those small, light but low-powered laptops, were used by only one respondent.

Calculator, camera, communicator: Working with the Swiss Army phone

One top app is the calculator, used by nine out of ten of those surveyed. "I used it as a calculator to determine quantity of water and salt needed in a 5 percent salt solution for 10-day salt fog test," said Thomas, a manufacturing quality assurance technician in the US.

"I use them in various roles," said Dale, a hotel electrician and lead troubleshooter, "from calculating electrical load to square footage for lighting to GPM [gallons per minute] on pumps and airflow on air handlers." Tom, a radio and telecommunications technician, added that "calculations are always needed in Ohm's Law."

Though it's pretty basic, an application that makes the smart phone work like a flashlight is also popular, used by six in ten technicians. "Things like flashlight and calculator apps are always handy so you don't have to carry around extra devices," said Al, an electrical engineer who works with lighting and controls in the USA.

Most smart phones work well as cameras, and techs are making good use of that capability. "I have used my phone camera on several occasions to document test set-ups and to photograph nameplate info on electrical equipment when I need to document circuit loads," Al added. Frank, an electromechanical technician in manufacturing, said "instead of writing down model / serial #, I will just snap a photo. A photo speaks volumes, so I will take a picture and send it to an OEM to help with troubleshooting or to get the right part." Steven, an industrial electrician, added "the phone camera is a wonderful thing for recording as-found and as-left documentation." Another found the smart devices handy for "shooting videos of issues for training purposes and to log damage."

Techs are also using smart phones for what the name implies: calling, e-mailing, and searching the Web. "I also use e-mail and texting for communication and project approvals," said Steven. "It seems you can access anything you had to go to your computer or laptop for in the past. It can track time for billing and create invoices to be sent to my office. My smart phone has become as commonly used as any tool that I have in my tool bag."

For Padmanabhan, an electromechanical installer in India, the smart phone provides exactly the right link to connect the control operator and field technician. "Also communication between field and troubleshooter at the panel end," he said. "It is the best device to check the field instrument zero calibration without removing the instrument. Fault finding is very easy with the mobile device." Smart devices are also filling a role as libraries. Several techs said they store documents on their smart devices - or access the docs online. "I no longer carry paper drawings or manuals," said Joseph, an industrial automation engineer. "Every piece of paper that comes with anything I buy or any drawing I generate is now on my iPad. My entire documentation library now fits in the palm of my hand."

Making the job easier

With countless apps available, it seems the smart phone can do almost anything. "I actually use several apps for HVAC-R that are free and work great," said Joe, a commercial HVAC technician. "Partstown has a free app that lets me look up parts and service manuals. Square-up lets me take credit card payments, Bitzer PT chart is the best, and finally Dropbox, which lets me access files that I choose on my desktop from my iPhone."

"I can photograph a nameplate on a piece of equipment instead of copying the info off it - and sometimes photograph a nameplate I cannot see but can reach my phone in front of," said another. "I use a conversion app to convert engineering units. I use the notepad, voice recorder, timer, stopwatch, web browser - and yes, sometimes a phone to call the control room from a remote location. And of course the number one use…as a clock." But the bottom line, he added, is simple. "Like anyone else using mobile apps," he said, "I use them to make my job easier."

Easier is certainly better. But can a smart device actually help a technician compete and survive in today's tough economy? Let's hear from Bob, who describes his job as "grand Poobah and plentipotentate for Frolic and Detours."

"I use the flashlight to see," Bob said. "I use the calculator to figure out if I can afford to go out and drink beer at the end of the day." We'll call that a "yes."