Four Considerations for Using Tablets in Electric Utility Operations

In the electric power industry, outages mean downtime and profit loss. Although utilities have long employed preventative maintenance strategies to mitigate issues, more traditional paper-based processes are slow, inefficient, and sometimes ineffective. Even utilities who invested in technology systems five or 10 years ago are watching them fast becoming antiquated, unable to keep up with the data volumes produced by the Internet or Things and challenged to meet system requirements for a Windows 10 upgrade.

Utilities are also being forced to keep pace with a whole new set of worker expectations. In particular, their demand for advanced technology tools on the job. Unlike today’s retiring utility professionals who spent their entire career with the same company, adhering to company-defined best practices and using paper-based processes to get the job done, younger workers are more likely to be transient throughout their careers and less likely to meet performance expectations without complete connectivity to the data, applications, and other specialized tools they need –when they need them — to get the job done. Plus, utilities are facing new competition in certain service segments alongside dwindling customer satisfaction in their core lines of business. In short, utilities are facing a convergence of technology, workforce, and service changes that either create a perfect storm of business challenges or–as I prefer to call it–a perfect storm of opportunity.  

That being said, there’s no doubt that the integration of modern-day information systems with mobile computer technologies that can capture, aggregate, and relay relevant data in real-time is becoming critical to utilities’ profitability. Besides that fact that today’s field-service personnel are widely dispersed across a service region, any and all personnel charged with making decisions and taking action that serves the utility’s best interest must have real-time access to the same set of data resources . It doesn’t matter if they’re a field technician en-route to a routine call, an external contractor with specialized expertise in component repair, a central dispatcher, or a senior supervisor sitting at a desk back at the office: all stakeholders require complete situational awareness to do their job effectively and efficiently from their current point of service. Thus the interest in deploying more complete “mobile offices” that provide field service personnel complete connectivity in vehicles and on foot.

However, as any credible expert will tell you, designing and deploying complete mobility solutions capable of addressing current and future business challenges does not come easy. There’s no such thing as an “out of the box,” “plug and play” or DIY mobile solution. And trying to force fit a bunch of different mobile technologies you buy off the shelf into multi-million dollar business networks and back-office systems will fail faster than you can blink, costing you lost time, money, and new revenue opportunities. That’s why, after much scrutiny alongside notebooks and handheld devices, rugged tablets are the only mobile computer form factor to really pass the utility litmus test in field testing and longer-term deployments.

The fact is, with the right rugged tablet and workflow-specific software combo at the core of their mobility solution, utilities are experiencing exponential efficiency gains, cost savings, productivity improvements.  They’re also benefiting from greater platform stability and investment protection not found with consumer or commercial-grade devices.

Now, that doesn’t mean you should be hasty in making a rugged tablet purchase. Given the volume of time and money spent implementing any mobility solution, even a single component selection warrants careful evaluation. In particular, there are four key considerations to be made when evaluating the proficiency and compatibility of any mobile computer intended to mobilize critical workflow applications and serve as a primary access point — or “control panel” — for your entire information management system:

1. Cost-benefit analysis

The ability to bring a truly mobile computer to the point of service is one of the greatest benefits any electric utility enterprise gains by choosing a tablet PC, and one of the greatest contributors to unanticipated returns on investment (ROI). Unlike a fixed PC or laptop, a mobile tablet can go home with the worker at the end of the work day and give them the opportunity to plan the next day’s work lineup. This means fewer unnecessary truck rolls to and from the central service station and more time spent in the field, in their “real” office, tending to customer and asset needs.

Of course, real-time documentation of inspection, repair and maintenance reports via a mobile computer in the field also reduces data errors and expedites subsequent actions, if needed, to save time and money.  Even technicians who choose to jot down notes on a piece of paper in their shirt pocket for later transcription into a vehicle-mounted notebook can create unnecessary delays and the risk of complete data omission.

But mobility is much more than automation of basic workflows or more accurate data input. Therefore, the switch from a fixed device mounted inside a truck to a genuinely mobile tablet computer — while seemingly more expensive on the surface — can deliver much greater tangible and intangible benefits to workflow improvement and a utility’s entire operational structure. That’s if you understand the hard and soft costs of mobility and look at the Total Cost of Ownership for your rugged tablet versus the sticker price (Figure 1).

If you prefer to give more weight to potential savings versus costs, consider the level of protection that a mobile computer can offer for not just your mobile investments, but for all of your IT infrastructure investments (figure 2):

 

As a 25+ year computer engineer and 20+ year mobility solutions architect for the utility industry recently noted:

You can buy discounted mobile technology from “two guys in a garage” and try to figure out how to make it all work yourself to save money. But that will just lead to worker frustration with the mobile solution, which leads to failure (on multiple levels). This will require you to allocate more money and resources to fix all the issues which, by the way, will cost you much more than you would have paid by getting it right the first time.

Or…

You can spend the time and effort upfront architecting a well-connected, reliable, and responsive tablet-driven mobile solution, which will result in happy workers, which leads to more productive workers (and happy customers). In turn, you’ll quickly gain new revenue and profit opportunities, and significant mobility savings.

That’s why it’s so important to take these next three considerations to heart.

Workflow processes

Mobile technology — if thoughtfully selected and applied correctly — can do wonders for business process improvement. But, you have to first understand which business processes, or workflows, you want to “improve” before you can confidently determine which mobile hardware or software is purpose-built for the task at hand.

Work with a mobile solutions provider — a team of experts who understand both your industry and how mobile technologies can be applied — to assess your current processes and understand the role that existing systems play in workers’ daily workflows. This includes everything from dispatch and GIS systems that require constant connectivity, to inspection, maintenance, and repair operations that rely on checklists and manuals. Or perhaps something as simple as equipment installation, customer service calls, or inventory management tasks that while routine, are only improved by better documentation capabilities and data tools such as barcode scanners, true Serial and RJ45 I/O ports, and built-in cameras.

Put “feet on the street.” Invite anyone and everyone involved in the mobile technology purchasing decisions, as well as those responsible for implementing and managing the system in the coming years, to spend some time shadowing the workers who will be given the mobile computers. See if the tablet PC model you’re leaning towards is really equipped with the specialized tools they need to do their jobs. Once you understand how your field personnel really work, you’ll be able to define your mobile computer criteria.

Choosing the right tablet

Any computer used in field service workflows must be lightweight and compact enough to be comfortably carried by the technician to the work site. That’s why mobile tablet PCs in the 7-12″ range and weighing around 3 pounds are most popular in the utility industry. They are most conducive to easy one-hand use and maneuverability in small crawl spaces and atop cherry pickers alike.

Field service workers also count on real-time data for accurate and safe on-the-spot decision-making. Powerful core processors along with 4G LTE broadband, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS technologies must work together to provide secure, uninterrupted voice and data communications. The addition of I/O ports that connect with both legacy and modern day utility equipment, as well as extended battery life capabilities, can ensure long-lasting connectivity to specialized workflow tools. This is especially important during natural disasters, such as storms, when repair crews need to efficiently coordinate field efforts to quickly restore power.

And, speaking of weather, utility workers need a mobile computer that’s rugged enough to do its job, even when exposed to harsh environmental conditions. That’s why commercial grade devices often fail to provide any real benefits to utilities. Even if they’re mobile and can follow the worker into the field on a fair weather day, they’ll fail fast after the first drop or be left in the vehicle during a downpour. Neither situation lends itself to getting real work done in the field due to the lack of real time data documentation or retrieval. . In other words, if you want a device that does what you need it to under any circumstance, ensure it is MIL-STD-810G certified and ingress protection (IP) rated to tolerate a at least 4′ drops as well as exposure to extreme heat and cold, dust, vibration, and water — at a minimum. If you really to protect your workers, data, and mobile solution investment, look for tablets built with industrial strength frames, sealed ports, shock-resistant storage, and damage-resistant, outdoor-viewable displays.

After all, you always have look at the tablet’s TCO and how it influences the total cost of the entire mobility solution. A tablet that fails in the field for any reason will cause the processes it supports to fail.

Adopt an incremental strategy

Remember that “going mobile” doesn’t have to happen all at once — and it shouldn’t if you really want to keep your TCO low and reach 100 percent worker adoption.

Many utilities are bound by budget constraints, unable to accommodate a fast rollout despite the urgent need for a proven solution to their widespread business challenges. While this is often viewed as a disadvantage, it’s not. Regardless of the size of your investment or scale of your total project, it’s always smart to take an incremental approach to mobility.

As noted before, mobile solutions being engineered to solve business problems are very complex. Plus, one of the greatest challenges when transitioning any new computer hardware or application software is worker resistance. It can be hard to embrace change. So commit the time — and lots of training — to building user confidence with the new technology and understand where improvements can be made to gain an even greater ROI. Your field service technicians have a vested interest in the performance of their tablets, as the tablets can help them improve their personal performance levels which, in turn, will contribute to career growth.  Engage them in testing, ask their opinion, and understand what they like and what features are underperforming according to their standards. In doing so, you’ll be able to more accurately assess your processes and determine where you need to fine-tune.

Focus on building a solid foundation that can be expanded based on budget availability or system performance metrics until full, and unfailing, workforce mobility is achieved.

About the author: Ian Davies represents Xplore across Northern Europe.  With over 18 years’ experience in rugged mobile computing, inside and outside of the four walls, devices in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from small screen DOS based applications through to today’s High Definition graphic rich interfaces across a wide variety of industries and user groups, Ian brings real world enterprise experience and thought leadership to Tablet computing.

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