Bridging the Gap Between Office & Field

By Brimmer Sherman, Intergraph Corp.

Amid uncertain economic times, all enterprises are analyzing expenditures to gain the most value for money spent. Utilities understand that their customers are also facing budget challenges, so they must strive to prevent rate increases while still providing more value for the same price. One technology that has translated into direct return on investment (ROI) for utilities is field force automation. Utilities can increase productivity and trim costs by automating their mobile processes.

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Mobile projects account for a chunk of utilities’ expenditures and can average nearly $670,000 for each project, according to a Sierra Energy Group report. These projects may include:

  • Routine work such as meter reads, bill collections and add-on services;
  • Trouble and outage calls that involve trouble analysis, outage restoration and damage assessment;
  • Engineering and construction projects, including design estimates and as builts in the field;
  • Operations and daily maintenance required to maintain a utility’s performance, including inspections, vegetation management and repairs.

According to reports by the Aberdeen Group, service organizations have attributed gains in worker productivity of as much as 27 percent to implementing mobile field service solutions. Increased worker productivity contributes directly to the bottom line of any organization while improving customer satisfaction and creating additional revenue opportunities.

Today’s mobile solutions make it possible to take the enterprise into almost any field situation and increase productivity by shortening the data-acquisition chain. Attaining the most measurable benefits, however, requires end-to-end mobile solutions that support a range of operations.

A successful mobile-automation solution benefits workers in the field instead of just improving processes for the back-office staff. Field crews should be able to see the benefits of mobile devices when performing their daily tasks. That can be achieved when applications are specifically designed to enable field workers to be more efficient.

The Benefits

Before considering how a utility can optimize field automation by integrating multiple operations, it’s necessary to understand the fundamental benefits of mobile solutions to an enterprise. The list of benefits starts with accelerating the flow of information across the departments. A field worker who can enter data into a mobile device directly from a job site reduces lag time between the field and office. Instead of driving back to the office to enter a report, a field worker conveys job information directly to the office, enabling faster management decisions. Capturing this information at conception accelerates the information flow, increases data integrity and reduces mistakes.

Field automation also serves as a cost-reduction tool. Field crews with appropriate mobile devices can eliminate repeat visits to a site and reduce return-to-base travel by up to 60 percent, according to Intergraph estimates. In addition, improved billing accuracy can reduce revenue lost when meters are improperly read. Faster information flow also can speed invoicing and reduce time between job completion and invoice dispatch, which can positively impact revenue.

Cost reduction and streamlining information offer measurable ROI for an enterprise. Additional benefits attainable through field automation include:

Productivity. Mobile applications increase productivity by reducing time spent driving and re-entering data collected in the field. Intergraph research shows that a field worker saving an hour a day using a mobile application equates to $25,000 in annual revenue for a utility. Field worker productivity can double when crews add an extra call per day.

Enhanced worker safety. Field crews can be dispatched to job sites with accurate information, whether it’s to a downed power line or to repair a storm-damaged transformer. Mobile solutions can provide the safest route to a job site with immediate updates on road and weather conditions.

Customer relations. Outstanding customer service requires accurate, up-to-date information. Improving customer satisfaction reduces complaints, yields customer retention and helps utilities meet regulatory requirements on outage duration and response time.

The Importance of a Single Platform

Many applications address each field operation independently. A typical utility might have one mobile application for workforce management, another for outage management and a geographic information system (GIS) application. There might be one mobile application for customer relations and a different one for monitoring supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA).

Field systems with multiple interfaces often negate the benefits or ROI a utility gains by using mobile devices. Instead of a streamlined flow of information across the enterprise, there are disjointed departmental applications. Multiple field components require manual re-entry of data, creating multiple versions of data in many databases. Because there are many vendors involved, the multiple systems are not easily upgraded and are costly to maintain. Duplicate and redundant components may exist for as builts, computer-aided design and other design documents. With a massive amount of data pouring in from the field through multiple interfaces, there may be significant lag time to get back-office systems updated with the most recent information.

Mobile solutions provide the most value for a utility when there is tight integration of all assets, work and resources. A field application that can be used for outage management and mobile-workforce management simplifies processes and provides significant time and cost savings. When mobile applications are integrated to include inspection, damage assessment, critical infrastructure protection, field design and vegetation management, a utility can optimize productivity and generate cost benefits.

Real-world Applications

Field force automation technology is providing measurable benefits across the utility industry. Electric utility FortisAlberta with more than 450,000 customers in Alberta, Canada, implemented a mobile application for operations and maintenance and saved more than $330,000 per year in labor. In addition, by allowing linemen to easily collect and update facility and field data from the field, FortisAlberta can make more timely and cost-effective decisions on preventative maintenance projects that directly impact customers.

The Knoxville Utility Board, a multiutility provider with more than 400,000 customers in Tennessee, saw productivity significantly increase after implementing a solution for mobile-workforce management. Field crews no longer wait for paperwork orders and instead can receive orders remotely and begin projects much faster. In addition, back-office personnel are more productive because they receive real-time updates from the field such as the location of vehicles and when jobs are completed. It allows them to assign work more easily and efficiently.

Hawaiian Electric Co., which serves 95 percent of Hawaii residents, transitioned from paper to mobile solutions for infrastructure inspections. Enabling inspectors to capture and upload reports and photos electronically has increased the quantity and quality of each inspector’s reports.

Mobile applications have proven their value to utilities. AMR Research has found that companies that lead in field-personnel automation are 25 percent more profitable than their counterparts. Utilities that consolidate mobile applications maximize their return on field-automation technology. By implementing a single mobile platform through which field workers can quickly and simultaneously retrieve information from and input data into multiple back-office applications and databases, utilities can significantly increase the quality, speed and accuracy of data transfer to and from the field. This improved flow of information allows for optimum utilization of all field resources, which frees time formerly spent inputting the same updates into separate applications and databases multiple times.

By consolidating and leveraging field-automation applications through one mobile platform, a utility improves synchronization between the field and office. This enhances data integrity and efficiency companywide, creating a direct impact on customer service, competitive advantage and the bottom line.

Brimmer Sherman is vice president of business development for the utilities and communications business unit at Intergraph. Sherman has been with Intergraph since 1984 and has a master’s degree in bioengineering and a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering.

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