3M Company produces more than 55,000 products for industries including healthcare, retail, consumer electronics, and construction. Based in St. Paul, Minnesota, 3M has customers in more than 200 countries and reported sales of US$38 billion in 2013.
The company has a long track record of innovative technology solutions. For example, 3M helps its customers optimize parking operations by automating fee collection and other processes. To improve support for this rapidly expanding segment, 3M needed to automate its own data collection and reporting. The company had recently purchased the assets of parking, tolling, and automatic license plate reader businesses, and required better insight into these acquisitions. Chad Reed, Global Business Manager for 3M Parking Systems, says, “With thousands of installations across the world, we couldn’t keep track of our software and hardware deployments, which made it difficult to understand our market penetration.”
3M wanted a tracking application that sales staff could use to get real-time information about the type and location of 3M products in parking lots and garages. So that it could be used on-site with potential customers, the solution would have to provide access to data anytime, anywhere, and from an array of mobile devices. Jason Fox, Mobile Application Architect at 3M, upped the ante by volunteering to deliver the new app in one weekend.
For Fox and his team, these requirements meant turning to the cloud instead of an on-premises datacenter. “My first thought was to go directly to the cloud because we needed to provide access not only to our salespeople, but to resellers who didn’t have access to our internal network,” says Fox. “The cloud just seemed like a logical choice.”
The 3M development team decided that the Microsoft Azure platform was the best option. “I knew I wanted to go to the cloud, because in addition to better scale and accessibility, I wanted the flexibility to use data in many different ways,” says Fox. “I’d worked with a lot of different cloud back ends, and because I’d said I could get the project done in two days, I knew which platform I’d have the most success with—and it was obviously Microsoft Azure.”
The developer chose Microsoft Azure Mobile Services for a secure, scalable platform that would easily integrate and store data from 3M equipment and other sources. “We have the in-house talent to build a back end from scratch ourselves, but there was no way I would be able to create a mobile app with all the back-end services in a reasonable amount of time without Azure Mobile Services.”
Fox used Xamarin, a development platform with a C# shared code base, to write native apps for iOS and Android devices. Xamarin includes Xamarin Studio, an integrated development environment that integrates with the Microsoft Visual Studio 2013 development system for streamlined creation of Android, iOS, and Windows software including mobile apps.
Creating apps that would run natively on mobile devices instead of a website had several advantages. Salespeople, who frequently lost connectivity while traveling, would be able to work offline. And after gathering new information, they would be able to synchronize seamlessly with the cloud. Fox estimates that approximately 80 percent of the code was shared between iOS and Android platforms, which was one reason it was possible to complete the project within two days. Easy data integration with Azure Mobile Services was another reason the project was completed so quickly. Currently, the company collects data from approximately 1,300 different 3M devices and business systems, and can easily scale as needed.
Approximately 40 salespeople use the asset-tracking tool to display real-time information about 3M installations around the United States. Whenever a salesperson enters new data, the information is immediately available to others in the field through Notification Hubs, a push notification engine in Azure Mobile Services. The solution also takes advantage of the mapping and GPS technology built into each mobile device to automatically provide highly visual, location-specific information. 3M division is also creating an app for Windows Phones using Xamarin to port code, and is looking at opportunities to create similar tracking apps for other business groups.
By using Azure Mobile Services in an integrated development environment with Xamarin and Visual Studio, 3M significantly accelerated development time to create an application that improves insight and support for business growth.
In two days, 3M created a tracking solution that connects multiple types of mobile devices, potentially thousands of machines and data sources, and a cloud platform. The 3M team credits its success to a streamlined development environment. “Integration with Xamarin Studio and Visual Studio, along with built-in functionality, made Azure Mobile Services the best choice for a mobile-services back end,” say Fox. “Having the right tools and capabilities to put a stable, robust, and functional solution together in two days is a great story.”
“The platform provides us with an opportunity to quickly scale a full solution and provide updates within a very short response time,” says Jason Rivera, Manager of Product Development at 3M. "The benefits of the Azure Mobile Services platform place the power in the hands of our development team.”
Increases Insight and Efficiency
With real-time access to data on mobile devices, 3M sales teams can work more efficiently. “The number-one benefit to the sales teams is ease of use,” says Fox. “With apps powered by Azure Mobile Services, they can immediately see where we have equipment installed without having to call a home office.”
Improves Support for Business Growth
Aligning with the 3M reputation for technological innovation, the solution can easily be extended to support growth across the company. “3M has a history of leading change throughout its businesses, but that doesn’t mean that innovation doesn’t happen internally,” says Reed. “While this solution based on Azure Mobile Services is intended for use within 3M, we’ve introduced it to our distribution network to much acclaim. They quickly saw the power this type of tool could possess and immediately began to ask for similar tools.”