Handhelds have become as ubiquitous to field service as the screwdriver and wrench.

Smartphones and tablets take on many roles for the modern technician; they're dispatchers, service logs, invoicing machines, GPS-enhanced direction givers, video training devices, and repair documentation all rolled up into one convenient little device.

Having worked with many different versions of the smartphone for the better part of a decade, I thought I understood all the ways they could be used to enhance my job; that was until another tech taught me a way to use one of the features I’d never dreamed of...

Analyzing machine problems with your phone

Chuck and I work on high-volume printers. Paper flies through our machines at supersonic speeds (not really, but it goes pretty darn fast) and it’s impossible to see with the naked eye what might cause an individual piece to fold over a corner every 1000 sheets or so.

Usually, you have to work along the entire paper-path, looking for anything the slightest bit abnormal, until you stumble onto the culprit – a very lengthy and time-consuming process, to put it mildly.

Chuck took a video with his smartphone of different sections of the paper-path while the paper was buzzing along during print. He then uploaded it to his laptop and slowed it down with software to a point where we were able to see the point where the paper started to fold. We were even able to enlarge the video to pinpoint the very spot where a bur needed to be filed down on the offending baffle.

A camera’s many uses

A large part of my job involves taking voltages to troubleshoot various problems. Circuit boards have shrunk over the years and so have the test points and connectors.

I’d love to say that along with the wisdom you gain working 32 years in field service your eyesight also improves, but sadly it’s not to be.

Fortunately, my smartphone has a built-in magnifying glass app that I can use to find elusive test points, and I can turn on the camera’s light at the same time, freeing up the hand that used to carry a flashlight. I can also use the zoom to closely examine solder joints for cracks.

Getting help from anyone – anywhere

Although I’ve never had the occasion to use live-stream video on the job, the application could be very helpful.

Say there’s an industrial crane repair person at the top of the latest skyscraper to grace Manhattan’s skyline. The controls are on the fritz and ‘Marge’, from ABC123 Repairs, has never seen the system act the way it is now.

Her documentation tells her to perform a ‘special boot’ that will erase all of the crane’s settings and she’ll have to spend half a day setting it up again.

Not only does this wipe out the rest of a busy day, but the customer isn’t going to be overly happy at the prospect of 35 highly skilled, high-paid workers, who are dependent on the crane, taking a four-hour break.

Marge starts a video chat with her specialist; turns her smartphone’s camera to the control screen and describes the problem. The specialist gives her step-by-step instructions, and the crane is operational in a matter of minutes.

A multi-use tool

I’m sure I’m missing at least a dozen ways the camera and associated apps can benefit field service technicians – we are an innovative bunch – but it isn’t just the lens that makes a handheld a device worthy of a spot on the tool-belt.

I recently downloaded a program that takes advantage of the built-in gyroscope to mimic a fairly accurate bubble-level; not laser-level quality, but accurate enough for most of my needs.

And let’s not forget what's freed up the fingers and toes of technicians for years; calculators are standard issue on all handhelds. Oh yeah, technicians also use the things to make phone calls. What’ll be next?