Office on wheels streamlines consultant's reporting system

Someday, a consultant will reach into his truck, push a few buttons on a computer and pull out a printed scouting report to hand to a farmer — without leaving his farm.

For Lexington, Miss., consultant Virgil King, that someday is now, thanks to a little Southern ingenuity and the new Scout Link Professional Consulting System.

Last year, King was one of a dozen cotton consultants who participated in a pilot program built around the Scout Link data collection and recordkeeping software provided by Bayer Corp.

While he was learning the nuts and bolts of Scout Link, King began thinking about how he could make the system work more efficiently for him. The result: an “office on wheels” that allows him to generate detailed scouting reports within four or five minutes of completing his scouting.

“I knew from the beginning I would have to be able to generate reports from my truck,” he said during a lunch stop at the Little Omega Plantation near Thornton, Miss. “It's 20 miles from here to my house, and I don't have time to bring a report back after I print it out in my office.”

So, King began devising a system that would allow him to download the information from the Scout Link handheld Visors and process it into a single report with recommendations — all from his truck.

“I saw it (the Scout Link System) as something that could be very valuable,” said King, a former president of the Mississippi Ag Consultants Association. “We generate a lot of numbers in our scouting, and I was looking for a better tool for the recordkeeping that we have to do.”

After he saw a demonstration at a Bayer Consultants' meeting, King believed the handheld Handspring Visors that the system uses for logging data would be easy to use. But he wasn't sure about the portability of the computer and other equipment needed for processing reports from the data — in the hot, steamy Delta environment.

“I knew that I would need a fixed place for storing the laptop computer and a way to protect it from the heat and dust,” he said. “So, I started thinking about how to fit everything in while protecting the equipment.”

For openers, King built a small console from three-eighths-inch plywood for the space between the middle of the front seat and the dash. He attached foam rubber with a 1-inch border around the top to the plywood to serve as a resting place for the Dell 4100 laptop he planned to use.

“The laptop has a dark cover, which means it absorbs heat,” he said. “I was looking for a way to prevent heat from hitting it through the window when my brother-in-law gave me the idea of using the top from a Styrofoam cooler. The top also helps keeps the dust out.

King made cutouts in the foam rubber for the laptop's fans and for the USB connections for the “hot-sync” cradle and the HP 940c printer he installed on the rear seat of the truck. The hot-sync cradle allows his scouts to download the scouting data from their handheld Visors when they come in from the field.

The laptop is also connected to an Iomega Zip drive King uses to back up the data.

King installed a boat seat swivel under the cabinet top so that he can turn the laptop to face the driver's seat or the passenger's seat.

Due to the limited space, King purchased a Memorex wireless keyboard and mouse. “I prefer using a full-sized keyboard to typing on the laptop,” he said. “A lot of what we do on Scout Link involves clicking on options, so the wireless mouse really helps.

He also built a carriage for the printer, but elevated it so that he can get airflow under it when it's operating. The printer also has a cover to protect it from the heat and dust when it's not in operation.

Both the laptop and the printer are powered with a 750-watt inverter that converts DC power from the truck's battery to AC. King installed the inverter in the rear floorboard between the computer and printer consoles.

“So far, we haven't had any problems with the Scout Link system,” he said. “And no problems with the heat and dust on the computer and printer. I was very concerned that the heat might cause the computer to generate errors or to shut down, but that hasn't been the case.”

King did learn some new tricks for the Handspring Visor. “The Visor would collect data for three or four days before it asked if you wanted to delete old data,” he said. “But each day's data made the palm unit hot sync slower and slower. I talked to Jim and Jeff Hall, who created the software, and they showed me how to manually delete the data daily.

“This made the hot sync operation much faster and saved a lot of time.”

King also downloads data from the laptop to an Iomega Zip Drive, using the Zip disk as a backup in case his computer crashes. “We do this at the end of the day so I could never lose more than one day's worth of scouting reports.”

At the end of the season, King will burn a CD for each of his clients' scouting reports to provide a permanent record.

King says his scouts quickly adapted to the handheld Visors.

“They love it,” he said. “Instead of having to write things on paper — in the rain, sometimes — they're pushing buttons on the handhelds with a stylus. If they see something in the field, they can put it in the comments section and it gets downloaded onto the laptop. If it's something really important, they tell me, but I know I have it in the basic information in the computer.”

His setup also makes handling the Visor data and giving recommendations to the grower much simpler.

“I hand each grower a complete report on the status of his fields and anything unusual that we spotted while we were checking his cotton before I leave the farm,” he said. “Most of them look at the spray recommendations first, but I think they also like having a running record of what happened with their crop.”

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