By Alfred Tolentino, Panasonic
Mobile devices have become an invaluable tool for a number of utility-related applications, from facilities management to meter reading to line construction and pipeline maintenance. The right rugged tools can provide workers with the ability to easily access and share information, which leads to better-informed decisions, increased productivity and improved customer satisfaction.
If a mobile deployment isn’t planned with care, however, the expected benefits can quickly turn into unexpected consequences, leaving IT and procurement frustrated.
Here are the pitfalls to be avoided in order to maximize technology investments:
1. Know Your Use Case
Before deploying a mobile device, a utility must know how and where workers plan to use it. Too often, utilities chose a mobile device without talking to the people who will use it. This can severely limit the value of the technology investment.
Utility IT decision makers must talk directly to the employees who will use the device on a daily basis. Will the worker be using the device in direct sunlight all day or while wearing gloves? Is the end-user walking with the device all day or in a vehicle? These questions will help guide a utility to the right device. For example, a utility field worker who spends most of the time moving on foot from meter to meter would want a device that’s durable, lightweight and ergonomic with a daylight readable screen.
In addition, it’s common for utility decision makers to say, “we don’t need a fully rugged device,” in an effort to justify spending less on a semi-rugged model. If a utility is planning for a mobile device to head out into the field, however, workers will need the extra durability. Deploying a semi-rugged computer for an application such as line management, will result in some device failures and a need for replacement devices. Even a brief period of downtime has a ripple effect that can impact productivity and customer satisfaction. In this case, the ultimate price of that device substantially increases. In comparison, a fully-rugged tablet might deliver maximum uptime and productivity, resulting in a lower total cost of ownership over time.
Beyond knowing the use cases, utility decision makers should work with mobile technology vendors to map out anticipated needs at least two to three years in the future. Will the mobile devices be used for line maintenance and management or meter reading? Perhaps both? How will workflow change in the next couple of years?
2. Don’t Underestimate Your Connectivity Needs
It’s not uncommon for a utility to underestimate its connectivity needs, believing devices will be used for facilities management-requiring only a Wi-Fi connection-only later to realize it needed to repurpose the computer for remote field work. Retrofitting a device with an embedded LTE connection is a costly process that also takes devices out of service. To be truly mobile, an embedded cellular solution is needed. Software solutions can help utility workers maintain connectivity even through challenging remote network conditions, allowing mobile workers to remain productive wherever their work takes them.
3. Employee Training is Key
As a new mobile solution is rolled out, IT teams are focused on device selection, pricing, services, shipping, warranties and more. It’s easy to forget training. But, unless end-users understand how to use a new device and how it will benefit them, they’ll end up frustrated and are likely to reject it.
The push to improve workforce connectivity will demand training for workers who aren’t accustomed to receiving, capturing, sharing and interpreting increasing levels of information on the job. Utilities should work with hardware vendors to set up an on-site training program to ensure end-users are comfortable with a new mobile device.
4. Don’t Skip Deployment Services
Rolling out a new mobile deployment is not simple and shouldn’t be attempted without support. IT teams can easily become stretched thin. Utility decision makers should consider how they can augment their in-house resources with specific rugged mobility expertise. For example, one East Coast utility that implemented a large scale tablet deployment tried to save costs with the imaging process by handling it completely in-house. However, it continually had installations issues with drivers and as a result experienced extensive delays both in device configuration and in testing prior to end user deployment.
Utilities should look for hardware partners that offer both disk imaging and kitting, enabling them to streamline the rollout. Kitting consists of configuring a device with software and imaging to the customer’s exact specifications. For example, a hardware kit may consist of the vehicle mount, wiring harness and carrying case that can all be shipped in a single “kit” to the customer. This support saves time and ensures crews can be up and running as quickly as possible.
Beyond deployment, utilities should look for vendors that offer unlimited access to dedicated technical support representatives 24 hours-a-day, 365 days-a-year and near next-day shipping for device replacement.
By avoiding these common deployment pitfalls, utilities can take full advantage of their mobile investments and ensure customers receive the services they’ve come to expect.
As a Panasonic field engineer senior manager, Alfred Tolentino is part of an elite engineering team focused on providing complex technical support to large utilities and businesses using Toughbook and Toughpad products and services throughout the U.S. A highly-skilled IT professional with a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering, Tolentino assists customers in resolving technical and nontechnical issues, quickly and completely. He’s been part of the Panasonic Toughbook team for more than 16 years and now manages the Mobility Field Engineers Eastern region team. More information about Panasonic Mobility Solutions for Utilities is available online.