Real Costs

Hand-held data collection devices have grown less expensive over time. Here are some ways to deflate ballooning programming costs.

Real Costs

In case you haven’t noticed, the hand-held data collection world has undergone a significant revolution in the past couple of years. The most obvious change is the emergence of enhanced or industrial versions of PDAs and similar devices running Microsoft CE or Palm OS and incorporating pen-based operation and even handwriting recognition.

No longer just for road warriors, for a growing number of applications these devices are viable, versatile and inexpensive alternatives to the brick-like dedicated data collection terminals of yore.

But that’s not really what I wanted to talk about in this column.

What I really want to talk about is another significant change in the past year or two: the cost of programming. In case you haven’t noticed, programming costs have doubled or even tripled.

What does this have to do with the new hand-held devices? Simply this: that the cost of implementing a new data collection system may be many times more than the cost of the hardware alone.

For a fixed asset inventory and location application I was involved in, the cost of PDA-style data collection terminals and high-quality aluminum bar code labels was about four thousand dollars. The cost to develop the data collection program on the PDA was about five thousand dollars. The cost to integrate it with the host ... well, they’re still counting.

Admittedly, this was not a completely straightforward "scan-and-send" application. The PDA’s touch screen will display the asset’s description, condition, location and other data, and there will be a number of drop-down menu selections to add or change any or all of these. These attributes all reside in an Access database on the host and have to be batch downloaded to the PDA prior to the day’s activities (and uploaded at the end). And there are three different variations of the PDA program, one for each aspect of the application. And, accommodation had to be made to convert the manual system to bar code scanning.

Even so, the cost of host programming far exceeded the cost of the hardware and PDA programming.

Unless you’re talking hundreds of data collection devices, it’s not unusual for the cost of integration to exceed the cost of hardware. But, with the cost of capable hardware steadily decreasing and the cost of programming increasing, the disparity in costs may sometimes seem to be wildly disproportionate — and that could sink any budget request for a new system.

What can you do about this? The best advice is: shop wisely.

If anyone remembers the old days of PCs, back before standardization of operating systems (and even the number of tracks on a floppy disk), the caveat was to find the software with the features and capabilities you wanted, then to find the PC that could run it.

It’s not bad advice today.

Finding off-the-shelf software for the hand-held that will easily integrate into your major enterprise systems is one way to greatly reduce programming and customization costs. Alternately, identifying packages that are easy to customize and that offer off-the-shelf integration tools can also help keep costs under control.

Once you’ve identified the optimal data collection software side of the solution, it’s relatively simple to find hardware that will support it.

Of course, saving money on integration at the expense of functionality is a fool’s bargain. I’m not suggesting you look for the cheapest solution but, rather, the most cost-efficient of all the good solutions.

And even if a solution isn’t exactly "cheap," having the ammunition to show a $30K programming charge versus a $50K one makes you look very smart to the CFO.

Bert Moore

contributing editor

[email protected]

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