Integrating Windows CE Applications with Legacy Applications: Haagen-Dazs and San Francisco Airport
By Frank Yacano, Director of Business Development, SYWARE, Inc. (www.syware.com)
IT managers in legacy environments often have mixed feelings about their venerable systems, perhaps even wishing they could trade them in. Since legacy platforms can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace, the powers that be usually decree that IT departments will have to live with them. However, just because you're running an AS400 or other legacy system doesn't mean that you can't augment it with Windows CE applications.
For example, legacy applications can take advantage of the mobile data capture capabilities of handheld PCs. Handhelds provide an opportunity to easily automate many routine data collection processes, saving time and money. In particular, they eliminate the inefficiencies associated with paper forms - duplication of effort, errors, and delays. Tools are available that make it easy to develop handheld applications for any data capture need, and then have the data flow smoothly into a legacy application. Any paper form currently used to collect data in the field becomes fair game.
Extending Legacy Systems with Windows CE Applications
Both Windows CE applications were developed using Visual CE® from SYWARE (www.syware.com). A tool for creating database and forms applications on Pocket PC or Windows CE devices, Visual CE uses an intuitive drag & drop interface that greatly simplifies application development. Programmers and non-programmers alike can build sophisticated online forms containing popular features such as drop down lists, check boxes, radio buttons, and memo fields. The software also supports bar code scanning, with scanned data appearing in an input field on the screen.
"Visual CE cut our development time in half," says John Rogers, President of INTECH Solutions. "The handheld portion for the Haagen-Dazs project took us only a week from start to finish, and the San Francisco Airport application took only three weeks. These projects would have taken two to three times longer using one of the traditional software development environments." In addition to its ease of use, Rogers also found that Visual CE saved further time and headache by automating debugging activities that tend to drag out most development projects when using traditional tools such as Visual Basic or Visual C++.
INTECH replaced the paper forms with Casio E500 handheld units. A Visual CE application with screen-based forms is used to collect the data, eliminating the need for the desktop data entry phase. "It looks very professional - just like any other Windows CE application you might see on your handheld or Pocket PC," Rogers adds.
Lab technicians visit four production lines, each with 10-12 stations that must be checked. As the technicians make their rounds, they enter their findings in online forms, using drop down boxes to quickly enter the required inspection data. They also use the same process to check for compliance and quality assurance, such as whether equipment has been cleaned on schedule and is operating properly.
When they return to the office, they connect their handheld to a desktop PC and download the information into an MS-Access based database application for use in local reporting and analysis. Visual CE automatically synchronizes with the Access database on the desktop, allowing data captured on the handheld to update the desktop database, or vice versa. The Windows CE application also formats the data and uploads it to the company's AS400 legacy system on the East Coast for integration with the company's corporate reporting and compliance applications.
The Windows CE application eliminates the time lost keying in the handwritten data from paper forms - which amounted to over 120 hours per month that can now be used more productively. In addition, capturing data at the source eliminated numerous errors that occurred because the data entry person either couldn't read the form, misread the numbers, or otherwise misunderstood the information they were keying in.
Other benefits are more subtle. In designing the Windows CE application, INTECH made extensive use of drop down choices that eliminate the need to write text by hand. Instead, users just point and click the appropriate selection. Using a drop down box to select a value or condition ensures consistent responses, since the same codes and descriptions are used all the time. In contrast, when filling out forms by hand, people tend to describe things in various ways. The ability to standardize comments and descriptions enables more precise and accurate reporting.
In addition, information is available earlier, so if there is an equipment problem, maintenance staff can be notified promptly. (This happens quite frequently because the company produces so much ice cream and frozen yogurt that equipment often needs repair or adjustment.)
In addition to saving time during initial data entry, the Visual CE application also saved time when entering the data into the AS400. After keying data into a desktop PC, personnel had been keying data a second time into a remote terminal for transmission to the AS400, because the Windows NT server in the plant did not communicate with the AS400 system at headquarters. INTECH eliminated this duplication - actually triplication - of effort by automatically transferring the data as a "flat file" in ASCII delimited format to the legacy system.
The San Francisco International Airport:
The airport has about 400 electric meters for measuring the electric use of airport tenants, such as airlines, restaurants, and gift shops. Previously, meter readers had been recording meter readings by hand on paper forms. Upon returning to the office, the meter readers would enter the readings into an Excel spreadsheet running on a desktop PC, which would calculate each tenant's electric usage for the month. The spreadsheet would then be hand-delivered to the accounting department, which would re-key the data into their legacy system (another triplication of effort) in order to generate the electric bills.
INTECH set out to rationalize this process. Bar codes were placed on each meter to allow identification using a scanning attachment that plugs into the flash card slot on the Casio E500 handheld. A Visual CE application allows meter readers to scan the meter number, which appears in a field on the electronic form. The meter readers then enter the reading using a numeric keypad built into the form.
After collecting all the data, the meter readers bring their handhelds back to the office and synchronize the data with an Access application on a desktop PC, which calculates the usage. The file is automatically converted into an ASCII delimited flat file and uploaded to the legacy accounting system for use in generating electric bills. This eliminates two re-keying steps, saving time and virtually eliminating errors. The efficiency of this approach allowed the authority to reduce its meter-reading headcount from four to two.
In designing the Windows CE application, INTECH addressed a quirk in the way electric meters are designed. For reasons that are obscure, the readings on electric meters are reversed from the way they are recorded, i.e. with units increasing toward the right rather than toward the left. When meter readers take the readings, they had to reverse the order of the numbers on the form. INTECH designed the Windows CE application so that meter readers would simply enter the readings into the handheld in the order that they appeared on the meter, and the application would reverse the numbers automatically.
New Choices, New Opportunities
INTECH is demonstrating that organizations operating in legacy environments can incorporate handheld PCs as an extremely efficient data capture tool, eliminating repetitive data entry tasks while reducing errors. "You can't carry around a legacy system, but you can carry around a handheld," concludes Rogers. "Just because a client has a legacy system doesn't mean they can't use the latest technology out there."
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