As the largest business under the Patterson Companies umbrella, Patterson Dental provides a virtually complete range of consumable dental products, clinical and laboratory equipment, and value-added services to dentists, dental laboratories, institutions and other healthcare providers throughout North America.
What's more, with the largest direct sales force in the industry - over 1,500 sales representatives and equipment/software specialists serving the United States and Canada - Patterson Dental has carved out a significant market niche that is hard to beat.
Yet despite its success and stellar reputation, the field service side of Patterson Dental's business was, until recently, a predominantly paper-based operation. Whether it was producing customer receipts or filling out parts order sheets, the company's field service technicians were required to perform the process manually, writing out the information by hand on unwieldy triplicate forms. Not only was this a time consuming task, it led to occasional inaccuracies. In addition, if a form was lost, there was no way to retrieve the information. All in all, it was a process that field service technicians looked forward to much the way their client's patients looked forward to root canals.
"A field service technician may go on ten customer calls over the span of a couple of days," explained Angie Koester, Field Systems Product Support Manager for Patterson Dental. "With many of our larger customers, the technicians leave behind a receipt listing the work performed, to be subsequently used for billing purposes. Out of the ten receipts, however, one might be misplaced, which would translate to lost billing."
This was not the optimal mode of operation for the flagship entity in the Patterson Companies' organization, which includes a companion-pet veterinarian supply company and a rehabilitation supply business. In December 2004, that all changed when Patterson Dental purchased a mobile computing solution that would permanently change the way the company's field service technicians conducted their business.
At the heart of the system is the GoBook(R) III laptop computer from Itronix Corporation, a Spokane, Washington-based developer of wireless mobile computing solutions. The GoBooks are running customized software developed to meet the unique needs of Patterson's service technician
Not only is the GoBook III the fastest wireless laptop computer for mobile applications, it is extremely rugged, owing to the shock-mounted hard drive, a die-cast magnesium housing and coverings on all the external ports. According to Koester, this was no small consideration in Patterson's buying decision.
"We wanted something that would be durable in the field, where conditions are sometimes quite harsh," said Koester, who began her career with Patterson in 1997 as a support technician for EagleSoft (Patterson Dental Supply's dental practice management, clinical, and imaging software solution). "For one thing, the computers are getting knocked around a lot, so it's critical that they be able to withstand the pounding.
"Plus, because the computers are in an environment where there are a lot of liquids, the waterproof keyboard is a real advantage."
Test versions of the GoBook were deployed in April 2005 and initially used on an experimental basis solely for internal functions. Based on the favorable results of this assessment, the devices were put into full-scale operation at the end of June 2005. Currently, they are employed at 53 of Patterson Dental's 70 branch offices in the United States, making them available to 654 of the 815 field service technicians at these locations.
With the GoBooks being utilized in the field for over 15 months, the results have been more than positive for many of the service technicians.
"All of the forms that the techs fill out are more accurate," Koester said. "And virtually no information, billing or otherwise, is getting lost. The techs are using them for a variety of functions - not only customer receipts but parts ordering, repair forms, work orders, and more. If a form needs to be rushed to the technician's branch office, it can be sent electronically.
"By moving away from the paper model we were using, we've realized a number of benefits, including increased productivity and fewer mistakes," added Koester. "Aside from the tangible benefits, and most importantly, we are showing our customers that we're doing everything possible to provide the highest level of service."
The functionality of the corresponding portable printers is paramount to the overall success of the system. Accompanying the laptops are the S3750THS Series battery-operated 3" thermal from Extech Data Systems, a leading developer of portable printers for enterprise-wide applications. Patterson purchased the Extech S3750THS Series in combination with the GoBooks; in fact, it was Itronix who suggested the use of the Extech thermal printers.
"We needed a small portable printer that would allow our service technicians to print receipts for the offices that were being serviced," said Koester. "The Extech printers provide a great wireless solution not only because of their superior printing quality, but because their use of Bluetooth technology helps them synchronize easily with the laptops and our customized software.
"We also needed a printer that would withstand the rigors of mobile computing applications, just like the GoBooks," Koester said. "With the S3750THS, we have that type of printer."
The S3750THS features an easy-to-use operator interface and automatic thermal print contrast control to produce high speed, high resolution print-outs. It is upgraded with a new 2.2 amp lithium battery for more receipts per charge and added 802.11b with WPA security. The Fujitsu print mechanism significantly reduces print time per receipt over earlier models. Changing paper rolls is easy and convenient and built-in detectors monitor paper-out.
MS-DOS and Windows compatible with a full-speed handshake and a state-of-the-art microprocessor, the S3750THS is equipped with a flash-based integrated CPU memory to add logos, bar codes and other graphic elements to the receipt. The system has a highly integrated circuit board to manage all features supported by the printer. RS-232 Serial and IrDA wireless communication are standard.
The portability of the printers is a significant plus, as they can easily be attached to the technician's belt with a simple holder or even carried by hand.
Patterson's technicians have taken to the new system quite well, according to Koester.
"While our technicians are very knowledgeable about the equipment they are servicing, they are not always comfortable embracing new technology as it relates to our day-to-day operation," Koester said. "However, the vast majority of techs have found both the GoBooks and Extech printers to be very easy to learn and use."
Patterson currently has over 700 Extech printers to accompany its fleet of GoBooks and while the printers are currently limited to printing customer receipts, Koester emphasized the company's plans to expand their usage.
"We continue to look at all our current systems - including the Extech printers - to improve production in the field," she said. "We will not limit them to just customer receipts; rather, we will continue to broaden their printing capability. Their functionality certainly warrants it."
All of which gives Patterson dental something to smile about.