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Market mobility

June 1st, 2014 / By: / Feature, Markets

Embracing the dynamic business technology environment of smartphones and tablets.

Streamlined efficiencies. Cost-effective measures. New revenue streams. In this recovering economy, fabricators and end product manufacturers (EPMs) are pulling out all stops—eager to find ways to stay ahead of the game. One way of doing this is by using mobile technology to conduct business—on- and off-site.

Portable, powerful,
appropriate

For Alan Woodyard, president of
W Marine Canvas in Annapolis, Md.,
the use of mobile technology in his business is integral and essential to his operations. “My cell phone number is my primary contact number and most of my customer interaction takes place via e-mail—both on my phone, on my tablet and on my laptop,” he says.

Woodyard uses mobile technology for a variety of functions in his business—from the simplest use of a smartphone as a telephone or for text messages, to the use of apps for invoicing, estimating, time and expense tracking, notes and photos, e-mail, appointments, driving directions, local weather and social media updates about what’s going on in his business.

As a recent start-up, Woodward says that mobile technology has not so much changed the way he does business as it has shaped the way he does business.

“After only about 18 months in business I have several repeat customers, dealer/industry customers and people who have referred business to me—some of whom I have never met in person and others I have never even spoken to on the phone,” Woodyard says. “Being easily available by e-mail provides the perfect level of interaction for some customers who would prefer to not be burdened with appointments and repeated phone calls just to have some work done on their yacht. I try to cater to these customers as well as the opposite end of the spectrum where a customer prefers a handshake, phone calls and personal interaction all along the way.”

Smartphones and tablets allow Mike Holland, vice president at Chattanooga Tent Co. in Chattanooga, Tenn., to send information immediately to his staff. “Tablets have really come in handy for showing clients photos of tents,” Holland says. “I used to carry three different photo albums in order to show them what their tent may look like. Now, with the right software, we can take them through a virtual tour of what their job may look like—all in the palm of your hands.”

Because of the weather-dependent nature of his business, one of Woodyard’s favorite apps is Arcus, which uses Woodyard’s GPS position to tell if and when it is going to rain, how hard and for how long, using data from forcast.io.

When at a customer’s location, Woodyard uses Evernote. “I start at least one note for each job when I visit a customer and this note contains everything from measurements to color choices, to voice recordings from after a meeting, so that I recall specific details and even photos,” Woodyard says. “Also, I have used payment apps in the past for online payments—Stripe, Square, Intuit and PayPal—but eventually decided on a dedicated mobile credit card terminal that operates on the cell network.” And finally, Woodyard uses social apps, such as Facebook Pages Manager, Google+™ and Twitter™, for updates about his business.

For Jay Hanks, owner of Allerton Harbor Canvas in Hull, Mass., mobile technology also is an essential part of his business. “Smartphones allow communication between customers, the shop and jobsites; photos; scheduling and other information,” Hanks says. “When estimating, we take notes, measurements and several photos for reference. This information can be saved and attached to the QuickBooks® customer estimate or invoice. We also use those photos for reference when building and installing.”

Hanks and his team at Allerton use a variety of apps within their business including WindAlert, The Weather Channel®, NOAA Radar US, Tide Graph, Google Maps™, Kayak, Waze and MarineTraffic. Microsoft® 365’s add-on called Exchange coordinates e-mail and calendars, updating all devices when any entry is made from any device to e-mail or the calendar.
Hanks and Woodyard are not alone in incorporating mobile technology as a vital component of their business. “I do nearly everything with my iPad® and smartphone,” says Tammy Hampton, owner of Cover Girl Marine Canvas & Upholstery in Buford, Ga.

Hampton uses several apps including FormConnect, which features designed work order forms that Hampton fills out to keep all of the details of the job she is quoting and working on.

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“Another is a measuring app called My Measures & Dimensions. I document projects with a photo of the project
overlaid with measurements,” Hampton says. “Between mobile devices I can keep up with e-mails much more quickly and send all my quotes via e-mail using the iPad, which always stays within reach. I can also keep up with the weather changes, which helps me time my outside work.”

Ways of doing business Mobile technology, whether in the office or on the road, has become extremely important to Cheryl Yennaco, owner and general manager of AvalaTec Awning Inc. in Melrose, Mass., to the point where she could not run their existing business without it.

“We use laptops within the office for easy mobility from our fixed offices down to the production floor,” Yennaco says. “We use smartphones for mass communication to all employees and we use iPads for communication with our sales force. The only employees not affected by the change in mobile technology are those individuals who have not upgraded
to smartphones.”

By using laptops in AvalaTec Awning, employees are mobile within the office and on the production floor. Employees who need to discuss job issues can take their
laptops anywhere within the building
and be connected via the company’s
Wi-Fi network.

“Connection to the Internet and our local mass storage allow everyone to access job specific files instantly,” she says. “We also have the ability to log in remotely and access all production and customer information.”

Smartphones are used for mass communication where AvalaTec has set up text group threads that allow for efficient communication with production and installation groups, ensuring that all information is conveyed to all critical employees on an hourly basis.

“Installation crews can take on-site pictures if there is an installation issue that can be addressed by either the originating sales person or the production staff,” she says. “Additionally, once a job is complete the installation crews can forward final pictures, especially if a customer is not at the jobsite, so that the final install can be documented and verified with the customer. The office can invoice the customer and provide final pictures to the customer even before the installation crews return to the shop.”

The AvalaTec sales staff uses iPads as a means of documenting notes, pictures and other critical information needed in the estimating process. All notes and pictures are e-mailed back to the office for archiving; for hard copies, they use AirPrint™. “Additionally all necessary sales information—from brochures to example job pictures to price lists—can be stored on the iPad for review with the customer,” Yennaco says.

“I have personally used a tablet to present a portfolio of my work to potential customers,” Woodyard says. “There has also been an attempt to take tablet usage in marine canvas to the next level by providing a visual mock-up of potential canvas installations—both in rudimentary ways, such as taking a photo and using apps like Skitch to draw on the photo, as well as in more sophisticated ways with model yacht images.”

For Charlene Clark, owner of Signature CanvasMakers LLC in Hampton, Va., mobile technology is extremely important in her business as a sales, communication and time management tool.Â

“It presents a professional appearance, provides information at your fingertips, engages the customer and improves efficiency,” Clark says. “We use quite a few apps, including QuickBooks® mobile for accounting and quoting; the weather apps Raindar and Weather Underground; Google Maps™ for directions; Dropbox for file sharing; EZFrame Plus for frame design; Measure & Sketch for taking measurements for quoting.”

While mobile technology can be a great time-saver, a dynamic sales tool and streamline the quoting process, there are a few drawbacks—namely with connectivity.

“Wi-Fi is not always readily available, so we pay an additional fee to have a mobile hotspot on our phones,” Clark says. “Also, some mobile apps are not as dynamic as their desktop counterparts and therefore lack some of the features of the full program that you may rely on.”

Holland at Chattanooga Tent says the use of apps that allow customers to pay with credit card on phones or tablets has become helpful within the industry. “We also use an RFID system that tracks our fabric,” Holland says. “They are very close in the development of an app that will allow our crews to send back information regarding tops right from the jobsite.

“I also use an app that gives me real-time information regarding our fleet of trucks, including their location, speed, idle time, miles driven per state, etc. If a truck is down and needs help, I have their exact location on my phone or tablet. I can also warn them about traffic situations that may slow their delivery.”

Industry-specific apps

As mobile technology emerges as the newest way of doing business, the specialty fabrics industry is beginning to respond by offering industry-specific apps that can help make business tasks easier.

“In many cases, the services and products our markets supply do not readily lend themselves to seamlessly integrating mobile apps; however, as technology continues to advance and demand continues to increase, I do believe we will develop apps that will allow customers—both consumer as well as trade—to conduct a greater portion of their daily business via Internet or via mobile apps,” says William McDaniel, marine market manager at Glen Raven Custom Fabrics, Glen Raven, N.C.

Known for being a dealer for the popular Sunbrella® Graphic System (SGS), Glen Raven doesn’t currently offer a mobile app for the SGS, but its distribution company Trivantage LLC has a program that allows customers to insert fabric styles and colors onto various building designs and awning frame designs. Awning Composer is a 3-D visualization tool that allows users to show their customers how an awning will
look, based on the customer’s style and color choices.

“It is a powerful, yet easy-to-use software application that can help users quickly create 3-D models of the products they sell without the need for experience with CAD,” says Mark Stiver, e-commerce site manager at Trivantage. “Our goal
with Awning Composer is to make it the most powerful tool for fabricators. We want it to be versatile by helping our users in the sales process but also help them quickly transition to manufacturing the finished product.”

By using Awning Composer, a user can take a picture of a customer’s building—commercial or residential—and use prebuilt 3-D models of different shade structures and manufacturer-specific fabrics to show their customer exactly what their building will look like. The user can customize the shade structure or awning with different fabric patterns, valance styles, graphics and text and even simulate what kind of shade the customer can expect based on their location, direction of the photo and the time of day.

Currently Awning Composer requires a full Microsoft Windows® operating system to run the software. “There are many Windows tablets on the market that can run Awning Composer in a full touch screen environment,” Stiver says. “We have added touch screen functionality and made adjustments to the user interface to support this. Many of the new Windows tablets have a great balance of power, battery life, performance, price, size and weight, which are great for running the program on the go.”

On the horizon

One thing is certain: The divide between mobile and stationary technologies has been rapidly disappearing. “Once fabricators get a taste [of mobile technology], I think they will never go back,” Hampton says. “We will most likely see a big trend in this direction.”

Before that happens, Woodyard believes the key question is how technology as a whole plays a role in the specialty fabrics industry.

“Both in the marine segment of the industry as well as other segments such as tensile structures, the two most intriguing functions are the ability to deliver a mock-up of a project to a customer through augmented reality—either through the camera lens or quickly rendered on a photograph—and the increasing accuracy of 3-D photogrammetry,” Woodyard says.

Three-D photogrammetry is the use of reference points photographed from a number of known angles and distances to create a 3-D point cloud similar to the output of a 3-D plotter.

“If this can be standardized, made accessible by use of apps and/or hardware add-ons, and significantly increased in accuracy, then I can imagine a scenario where, instead of taking a pattern, I take a series of photographs of a number of reference dots spaced out on a frame, develop my pattern on my tablet or laptop, and auto-cut the fabric on a plotter/cutter table even in a shop as small as mine,” Woodyard says. “I’m looking forward to it.”

Yennaco also believes that the use of mobile devices and apps will of necessity increase over time. “It is the customer that is driving us in their expectation of instant information,” she says. “The customer comes to us knowing a lot more about our product and we, in turn, need to be that much more advanced in
our production.”

Stiver believes that the trend will continue toward mobile technology but believes there will always be a balance between the mobile and desktop applications for this industry.

“We’ve talked to users that will use mobile apps for photo measuring, a compass, simulating the path of the sun, and calculating energy savings,” Stiver says. “Mobile technology is a great way to make a big impression on prospects and help get your foot in the door. However, when it comes to constructing the design of big jobs and getting approval of the engineering, the desktop will still be necessary to accomplish this task.”

Maura Keller is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and editor.

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