Addressing the Fourth Dimension

Customers, control rooms and crews are three dimensions that utilities deal with daily. What can make or break the management of these entities, however, is time, the fourth dimension. By adding the fourth dimension, utilities can level the field and benefit from real value and real solutions.

A typical utility has thousands of customers, a large service area to supervise, many types of resources to manage, and huge volumes of planned and unplanned work to carry out. This flow of information from customers to control rooms and crews has many intricacies that need to be managed. By understanding the real-time requirements and integration of these three components, utilities can build the right solution to ensure real-time service.

Real-time means more than simply the ability to relay a message about something that happens on the network. It means complementing certain vital business processes with missing details of field activities, customer input, and other extraneous information to form a comprehensive picture of operations.

For example, many utilities today rely on large work management systems which are usually host-based and tend to prioritize the planned aspects of the workload, with limited regard for activities that take place in the field. Yet, for a comprehensive view of its operations, utilities also must manage the increasing volume of information flowing between the field and the host. Real-time information must be grouped with real data, customer input must be taken into consideration when analyzing events, and customer feedback must be synchronized with field operations. On top of this, the processing must be very efficient as tens of thousands of calls must be analyzed, categorized and merged. In addition, real-time means more than just the ability to capture and log information occurring in real-time. It means taking real-time events and turning them into useful information. Let me explain.

When the input reflects a wireless problem or when the event relates to some historical activity, the problem can become more complex as more and more data must be converted into useable information.

Events that are managed through the network, which have different lifecycles and needed actions, are often shared between systems. For example, a trouble man energizes a circuit and then must pass the job to a crew that must make repairs that will take a couple of days. This is really one job comprising two critically important levels. In addition, workload characteristics and crew mobility can change dramatically depending on such variables as the time of year, climate, holiday periods, traffic problems, unforeseen equipment failure, etc. Utilities need to be able to build real-time profiles to manage such situations. The profiles are made up of different crew deployment scenarios in different operating contexts and often vary with each working group or business unit. This dynamic aspect, or changing day-to-day context, is one reason why the real-time dimension is so crucial to fieldwork.

With up-to-date knowledge, including GPS-based crew and vehicle tracking, utilities can dispatch resources more efficiently, especially during emergencies. As field supervisors become better equipped to coordinate fieldwork, the crucial aspect of routing becomes far more efficient and the host can further refine its schedules. Now, even planned work stands to benefit. By considering the estimated time to travel (ETT) and the real-time crew positions when dynamically recalculating the routes as each job completes, the system can optimize traveling time.

As the future unfolds, utilities will have to pay particular attention to the type of real-time information their customers not only want, but deserve. Work schedules and switching operations, multimedia displays, connectivity and network graphics with on-line topology updates, automated voice response, and SCADA field information and telecontrol are among the many functions that will become even more vital. These features will have dramatic effects on how real-time activities are managed. With “guaranteed standards of service” as their goal, utilities will need to keep real-time control over the progress of all repair jobs.

The overall benefits of real-time integration are many and varied. Quicker response times, increased efficiency, higher productivity, overall cost reduction and better tools will ensure ongoing success for utilities in the highly competitive, deregulated marketplace of the future.

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Mario Poirier is M3i Systems’ general manager and chief technology officer. He is a veteran of the software industry with more than 20 years experience in design, implementation, sales and marketing of complex real-time systems. Poirier joined M3i Systems in 1996. Prior to joining M3i, he held senior positions at several major Canadian software companies with international operations. He holds a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in mathematics.

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