Database Application Helps Crop Spraying Go Mobile
Mobile small business operators often need to record very specific types of information not supported by off-the-shelf applications. One option is to pay a substantial amount for a professional developer to create a customized solution. The other way is to build it yourself. Fortunately, tools are available that make this approach well within reach.
"If you have to put it in the computer, why not do it right away?"
Burkhart Ledeboer is the owner/operator of a small business applying pesticides to crops in Oregon's Willamette Valley. As a commercial applicator, he is required by the state of Oregon to keep detailed records of every field he sprays. For each job he has to complete a lengthy form with dozens of pieces of information including weather conditions, chemicals applied, crop conditions, geographic coordinates, recommendations to the grower, and so on.
As he works each job, Ledeboer records the pertinent information on his Pocket PC handheld, running an application that he developed using Visual CE® database development software from SYWARE (Cambridge, MA, www.syware.com). By recording the data electronically, and then synchronizing it with a database running on his desktop PC, Ledeboer estimates that he is saving an hour or two of data entry work every evening.
On a busy day, Ledeboer may cover several hundred acres, at six or seven separate locations, keeping a record of every field he sprays. It makes for a long day - he gets up at 5 am, often arrives at the first field before 6 and frequently doesn't get home until 7-8 in the evening. Before handhelds were available, Ledeboer did what most applicators do - kept a paper record with the details of each spraying job. Then in the evening he would key the information for the day's work into his computer. The process represented duplication of effort - and he was falling behind.
"Who wants to sit there at night and key in work orders? I knew there had to be a better way to do record keeping. If you have to put it in the computer, why not do it right away?"
Ledeboer tried keeping records with a laptop computer, but they were too large to fit comfortably in the small cab on his spray rig. In any case, laptops can't handle the harsh conditions - the bouncing and dust - without spending several thousand dollars for a ruggedized unit.
A Form that Fits the Business
Ledeboer used Visual CE to create an application that allows him to capture all the information required by the state as well as for his own records. The software uses an intuitive drag and drop forms design process that allows non-programmers to create customized forms that meet a wide variety of needs.
The database application running on his mobile unit includes a six-part form that allows him to input all job-related information in a sequence that matches his workflow. The first page is used to specify basic information such as the owner of the field, location, and date/time of the application. If the customer is new, he'll press a button to launch a Visual CE database called Customers, where he adds the new customer. He then reloads his application and the new customer appears in the customer drop down list.
The remaining pages are used to record weather conditions such as wind speed, direction, humidity, and temperature, the number of acres sprayed, every chemical used, and the rate that it was applied. Additional drop down lists allow him to easily select contact names, chemicals applied, and similar types of frequently used information. Buttons specify if the job is for an agricultural services company that he works for as a subcontractor, or if it is for one of his own customers that he will be billing directly. He can also record memos to himself and notes to the grower from within the application.
One of the advantages of recording data electronically is the ability to use the same information in multiple records wherever applicable. For example, if information such as the owner of a field, type of crop, and chemicals used do not change, Ledeboer can copy the record for a previous field, and then change or add only the affected data, such as GPS coordinates and weather conditions.
Synchronizes in Both Directions
When Ledeboer goes home at the end of the day, he plugs his Compaq Aero 1520 Pocket PC into the cradle next to his desktop computer. Visual CE is configured to automatically synchronize when he docks the mobile unit. New records for spraying jobs performed that day are copied from the mobile to a Microsoft Access database running on the desktop. He also uses Visual CE synchronization to transfer data from the PC to the mobile unit. For example, if a new chemical becomes available, he'll enter the applicable information on his desktop. The next time he synchronizes, Visual CE automatically updates the records on his mobile.
Ledeboer has Visual CE set up to synchronize in both directions - mobile to desktop, and desktop to mobile, depending on what type of records are changed. Numerous
When synchronization is complete, Ledeboer opens an application he created in Microsoft Access which prints completed work orders based on records of spraying jobs collected from his mobile. Once a week he turns in the work orders to the agricultural services company that handles billing to the growers. If a spraying job was for one of his own customers, he can use his Access application to print the invoice, which he then sends to the customer.
Ledeboer's Access database contains records representing work performed over the past four years. If a customer wants to find out what happened in a past spraying job, Ledeboer has the data in his computer and can easily can look it up. In addition, the state conducts spot checks of spraying jobs, which makes the ability to quickly access and records extremely useful. "If there's a question, or you need a paper trail, you can print the report at the touch of a button."
Ledeboer points out that eliminating duplicate data entry work also reduces the possibility of errors. "Each time you key something in, you're bound to make a mistake. If you only key data once on the mobile, it's much easier to trace an error - it came from you!"
Ledeboer notes that structuring a form to fit a business need is not an activity that should be done in a hurry. "Database design is easy with a tool like Visual CE, but you still need to give the process some forethought. When you are trying to gather a lot of information, you have to think about what you are trying to achieve by capturing each piece of data on a form."
He cautions that to use Visual CE you must be comfortable with computers. "For people who aren't afraid of PCs, this is simple to use. You don't have to know programming, but it helps to have a basic understanding of how your database works."
"For me, this has been a lifesaver," concludes Ledeboer. "If you're a small business operator and you need to build reports or get data into a desktop, you'll want to make the best use of your time during the day. If a database is well designed, you can use your mobile to capture all the data related to your particular operation. The beauty is you'll only have to enter the data once."
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