Most laptop computer users remain bullish on this technology as a portable and user-friendly computing alternative, one that enhances productivity.No doubt, that notion-while true-is also relative. Material damage appraisers for Indianapolis-based Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance Co. once regarded 4.5-lb. standard-sized laptops as the best available tool to support their workflow efforts in handling auto insurance claims.
For years, Indiana Farm Bureau equipped its 42 material damage appraisers with rugged laptops developed by French-based Itronix. Rugged was indeed the operative word since the machines withstood hot and humid conditions as well as snowy and rainy weather.
But from an ergonomic standpoint, Indiana Farm Bureau appraisers began to see the limitations of their laptops in the field.
While in a standing position, appraisers closely examine vehicles for damage and simultaneously make notations. Over time, the company's appraisers expressed a desire to get their hands on a device that was even more portable than a laptop.
Their wish came true when the carrier selected a solution developed by Secaucus, N.J.-based Panasonic Computer Solutions Co., along with the carrier's claims software provider, San Ramon, Calif.-based ADP.
After going live in August 2002, Indiana Farm Bureau currently is deploying a lightweight, hand-held, mobile data wireless display (MDWD) that integrates with Panasonic's semi-rugged, wireless laptop known as Toughbook. The hand-held device connects via wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) to the laptops, which usually remain in an appraiser's vehicle during inspections.
Discovering the power of Wi-Fi
Wi-Fi is noted for providing high-speed wireless connectivity to the Internet or to office networks over a short range (typically 50 feet to 150 feet), and is normally used with laptops and personal digital assistants (PDAs).
Indiana Farm Bureau is among a growing number of insurers who are discovering the power of mobile computing devices within their operations. They are exploring such options as wireless modems, Blackberry, Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), laptops, tablet PCs and cell phones to determine a fit with their business.
"For workflow purposes, Indiana Farm Bureau wanted a solution that would enable appraisers to leave their laptops in their vehicles and use the hand-held devices to process claims," says Mark Lund, national sales manager, insurance & financial services, for Panasonic Computer Solutions Co.
"These days, there is a lot of pressure to achieve service levels. Insurers are looking to do more with less. Many have indicated they want their adjusters or appraisers to be able to handle, on average, one-half to one additional claim per day, and wireless technology in the field is helping support that effort," Lund adds.
Conducting business exclusively in the Hoosier state, Indiana Farm Bureau offers life, farm, home and commercial insurance and annuities, with direct written premium of $625 million across all lines, and $275 million in auto insurance premiums.
The insurer has about 550,000 in-force auto policies, and in 2003 completed 44,000 damage estimates.
For the past 15 years, Indiana Farm Bureau has enlisted the services of material damage appraisers to perform field estimates. Once done, appraisers pass estimates along to claims adjusters. The company's appraisers, who are employees, all have experience working at auto body shops.
Examining its options
But their keen eye for assessing auto damage is minimized if they don't have the best tools to process reports. Under the former methodology, an appraiser would have to write notes in the field, input data into laptops and then return to their office to key data into yet another claims processing system-developed by ADP.
As it examined the various ways to apply a wireless strategy across its claims operations, Indiana Farm Bureau identified several options in which to build a mobile computing program, including wireless modems, Blackberry, Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), laptops, tablet PCs and cell phones. But none of these proved viable.
"We found that the Blackberry had compatibility issues with our core system," says Joseph Marcum, manager, field services and fleet operations, for Indiana Farm Bureau. "We found tablet PCs to be pretty crude from a handwriting recognition standpoint, and they were heavy units. Wireless cell phone connectivity is slow, and going with a true wireless system is not as beneficial as advertised-from a coverage standpoint."
The Panasonic-ADP solution proved most effective for the carrier's purposes. The wireless hand-held device displays ADP claims software that also runs on laptops, enabling appraisers to carry a device small enough to fit into a belt holster, and as easy to hold as a pen and a pad of paper.
ADP's claims software is also graphical, which enables appraisers to fully utilize the pen-based devices: They can simply touch the appropriate areas of the screen to identify damage areas and make notations.
"I was attending a trade show and Panasonic had just rolled out the mobile data wireless display hand-held solution," Marcum explains. "I asked whether they could develop a solution that would integrate the hand-held device with the Toughbook. It took a couple months, but Panasonic was able to develop a solution to fit our needs."
After performing a cost-benefit analysis, Indiana Farm Bureau examined several factors to determine the best way to proceed.
For one, it had to evaluate the pros and cons of working with a new vendor-Panasonic. As for the cost of laptops, the carrier would not have to spend as much for semi-ruggedized laptops, which cost less than fully-ruggedized machines. "This helped rationalize the expense," says Marcum.
Leasing versus acquiring
Next, the company had to weigh the cost difference between leasing the technology versus acquiring it.
Indiana Farm Bureau decided to lease the equipment for three years in an arrangement in which ADP provides the carrier with a single source of contact when it needs to replace or repair various hardware and software components.
As the project began in the summer of 2002, Indiana Farm Bureau ran into several hurdles. The company had to make sure that ADP could support the technology on its end, and internally Indiana Farm Bureau found it had some information systems (IS) issues to resolve, says Marcum.
"One hurdle was that our corporate platform runs on Microsoft NT while the Panasonic solution runs on Windows 2000, and soon will run on Windows XP," he explains. "We could not integrate the wireless program into the corporate system, so we had to design a separate system to operate the wireless program."
After a few weeks of field testing, the carrier launched a full rollout of the program to support its appraisers in August 2002.
Thus far, the return on investment for the program can't be expressed in hard numbers, but Marcum says there are a host of intangibles that all add up.
For example, when appraisers worked with the Itronix units and had to lug heavy laptops around, the failure rate in completing damage appraisals was higher, he says.
The hand-held units, which weigh about 1.5 lbs., are enabling appraisers to submit reports not only more quickly but more accurately.
As appraisers write an estimate on a damaged vehicle, they are able to view a graphical representation of the vehicle from ADP claims software on the hand-held device.
"The software helps the appraiser's workflow by taking into account all appraisal work that has to be done, and in the order that it must be performed," says Scott Jenkins, senior director of product management, ADP Claims Services Group.
When the appraisal is completed, the appraiser returns to the vehicle, hooks the hand-held device into the laptop and is able to print a damage estimate. Before, the appraiser may have been able to complete a majority of the report, but they would have to finish it back at the office, Jenkins adds.
With the solution, data can also be uploaded at the claim site to ADP's claims repository-wirelessly or via a dial-in phone line. Thus far, Indiana Farm Bureau is not using this feature.
The carrier is eager to make several upgrades to the core solution. Eventually, it would like access to wide-area network (WAN) capability, which would enable appraisers to more effectively transmit data from remote locations to claims offices.
The company is currently working with a national telecommunications provider on the feasibility of its WAN access capabilities.
Indiana Farm Bureau also wants to upgrade its digital cameras. Currently, the company's appraisers use Sony cameras with a floppy diskette-a process that involves processing the digitized images back at an office. Eventually, Indiana Farm Bureau wants to use a USB component so appraisers can process photos remotely.
For now, material damage appraisers at Indiana Farm Bureau are extremely pleased with the technology. "This program is so popular with appraisers you would have to pry the devices out of their hands," says Marcum.
Guaranteeing Security Is One Key To Wireless
Although wireless solutions offer many advantages, some industry experts believe there are barriers to adoption, including a perceived security risk that a local area network (LAN) or wide-area network (WAN) can be exposed to flaws, enabling a perpetrator to access confidential information.
"Whenever a wireless-enabled computer is plugged into a corporate network, and certain wireless capabilities are left on, network security is potentially compromised," notes Nicholas Miller, CEO for Cirond Corp., a San Jose, Calif.-based wireless security provider.
Mark Lund, national sales manager, insurance & financial services, for Plano, Texas-based Panasonic Computer Solutions Co., does not believe that security for WANs is a problem. As proof, he points to the growing number of local and state police departments that communicate using WAN capabilities.
If law enforcement authorities feel confident that these networks are secure, others can feel confident as well, says Lund.
On the whole, the implementation of wireless tools has become an emerging trend. In a report released by Boston-based Celent Communications Inc., "Wireless Technologies in Property/Casualty," research analyst Chad Hersh found that wireless technologies have many benefits. They can be used in a carrier's home office and in the field. Home office uses include wireless local area network (LAN) access and remote e-mail access for employees. Both can help to promote the use of wireless technologies in the field, where a more compelling return on investment can be achieved, Hersh says.
But connectivity is not always guaranteed. The role of WAN bandwidth is a key to driving a successful wireless program. The technology has to provide a connection to users regardless of where they are working, Hersh adds.
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