Bridging the Office and the Field

By Art Macey, Florida Power & Light Company and Jack Dugan, LogicaCMG

Within the North American utility industry, the marketplace for mobile workforce management (MWFM) applications is robust. For the last two years in North America, utilities have issued more RFPs for MWFM than back-office work and asset management, or any other application domain. Currently, more than 20 software vendors offer mobile applications to the utility industry, and all of the top 100 North American IOUs have some form of mobile deployment in place. However, the applications are often point software solutions that address only one job type (see Figure 1, next page). Until recently, routine customer service work (appointments, meter reads, credit and collections, and turn ons and turn offs) defined the mobile applications landscape. Any discussion of MWFM essentially meant a discussion about customer service work.


Figure 1
Current Mobile Landscape-Point to Point Solutions
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Discontinuous Business Processes

To underscore how broken the systems process is within a T&D operations organization, the vendors who provide the back-office systems are often not the same vendors who provide the mobile applications. Given that work is planned in the office but conducted in the field, and therefore is one continuous process, this environment may be the quintessential definition of a fragmented systems infrastructure. Even within a progressive utility, such as FPL, there are three distinct mobile applications: an in-house developed application for emergencies/troubles and two commercially available software packages-one for customer service work and one for maintenance/construction work.

Current utility T&D operating environments don’t reflect a unified strategy. Neither the existing software applications, nor communications middleware, nor supporting IT infrastructure accommodate enablement of the “renaissance crew.”

Recent Developments-A More Holistic View

However, the RFI/RFP activity within the last year at Exelon, PPL Utilities and FPL signal that the marketplace is changing, characterized by the following trends:

  • A growing awareness of the importance of the renaissance crew that handles more than one type of work;
  • A universal MWFM system that captures all appropriate work information in the field regardless of job type: emergencies or troubles, customer service, asset & maintenance (procedure based) work or construction (compatible unit based) work;
  • An increasing management mandate to move supervisors out of the office and back to the field working with the crews;
  • A common scheduling/dispatch engine that offers the utility a command and control center with one view into all work; (see Figure 2, page 30)
  • An enterprise mobile communications controller to empower the entire mobile workforce, either through conventional wire line, wireless or RF pathways;
  • Recognition that collecting asset data is an integral part of daily field force business processes; and,
  • A need for new mobile capabilities to drive business logic as far into the field as possible.

Figure 2
One Holistic View of the Work
Placing the Right Resource on the Right Job at the Right Time
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One can expect the industry to increasingly demand such an approach, particularly within the context of an aging workforce, 50 percent of which are eligible to retire within the next five years. There is no sensible alternative.

MWFM Business Drivers

Mobile and wireless technologies are evolving at warp speed. The need to keep pace with technology advancements prompts many utilities to consider new MWFM solutions, particularly as they attempt to further unify their workforces.

The average IOU in North America has more than 700 vehicles for field crews serving customer service, maintenance and construction activities, but only 20 percent of the vehicles are fully automated with some form of mobile and/or wireless capability. Additionally, 71 percent of utilities who currently have no mobile workforce management system are studying the feasibility of deploying such a system. However, the acquisition and deployment of point software solutions does not address the broader issue among nearly all utilities-a lack of mobile/wireless strategic planning. Without a plan, any approach looks attractive.

Today’s mobile utility landscape is decidedly first generation, defined by the point software solutions currently deployed. Therefore, utility management has an opportunity to define an overarching strategy and framework that isolates devices, networks, back-office and mobile applications from the vagaries of rapidly accelerating technology to fully mobilize the workforce-an architecture that represents a plug and play environment.

Suggested Solution

A universal MWFM application presupposes an architecture that allows the utility to plug and play back-office and mobile applications to broaden the footprint of work conducted in the field. A universal mobile application controller that manages all work types is the Holy Grail of the mobile workforce management business. In addition to application independence, the utility’s MWFM enterprise strategy must accommodate the management of multiple networks, field devices, and the supporting server and communications hardware/middleware environment.

The following solution set will schedule, allocate and manage work within all utility operations for all work types, whether short, intermediate or long cycle, simple or complex. Beginning with scheduling command and control, a functional overview of the universal MWFM solution set follows.

Scheduling Command & Control

The locomotive that powers a universal MWFM application is a web-enabled resource manager that allocates and schedules work to crews. The resource manager is the conduit to the field for all work generated by back-office legacy systems. It employs constraint-based scheduling techniques to automatically generate an optimal schedule all day, throughout the day. A scheduler/dispatcher can select a group of resources and a date range to schedule. Furthermore, the scheduler/dispatcher may deploy a combination of fully automated and manual functionality, as well as separate instances of the application with different rules and configuration settings within the same utility.

Resource information such as normal working hours, skills, performance factors, and geographic preferences may be furnished from any third-party system that generates work, such as an asset management, maintenance management or work management application. The resource manager or universal scheduler is also the conduit for work generated by CIS or OMS; however, neither of these applications typically house resource information. The universal scheduler delivers a broad range of tools that allow resource planners to create, analyze and repair a work schedule; it also provides tools to profile resources and thereby edit work for resource maintenance of employees, vehicles and equipment; unlimited shift patterns; resource availability including absences and recurring meetings; interim assignments, skill sets and crew composition.

Such an approach provides the planner/scheduler/dispatcher with a true picture of current resource availability, not only type of resource but quantity of resource.

In conjunction with the universal MWFM application, the universal scheduler delivers a broad range of business functions from automated resource scheduling to complete management of a schedule of work in real time from inception to completion. This approach, spanning the office and the field, empowers resource planning personnel with a true command and control center by automatically displaying the progress of work via real-time status updates from the mobile crew; updates of job progress (for example, traveling to job, at job site, paused, completed) appear automatically on the scheduler/dispatcher’s workstation, thus facilitating command and control of workload and work priorities.

Most importantly, the universal scheduler utilizes these real-time status updates from the field to dynamically re-optimize the schedule, thereby removing scheduling inefficiencies as a result of scheduler wreckers such as overruns, emergencies and customer availability.

CIS and Appointments

Call center or service center personnel require a view of crew availability within the current schedule while receiving and processing customer calls in order to commit the company to a specific date and time. Resource availability drives whether or not a timeslot may be committed to the customer. Most commercially available software packages that handle appointments today utilize a number of appointment slots for specific work types and areas but do not consider resource availability; therefore, a resource may not be available.

Alternatively, the call center representative accesses the customer information in the CIS application, identifies the appointment type, any special appointment preferences, and then selects the required appointment. Driven by resource availability, the system then confirms the appointment and automatically reserves the time slot in the universal scheduler.

A Universal Mobile Application

A universal MWFM application automates the processing of all work in the field regardless of whether that work is a storm initiated emergency, routine or short-cycle, maintenance or inspection, complex or construction oriented.

A universal MWFM application includes not only an office-based command-and-control center for the scheduler/dispatcher, but also a rich array of automation tools for the field technician. Within the office, the universal scheduler includes the following functional components: one dispatch engine for all work; wired, wireless or RF communications; and, real-time job status monitoring.

Additionally, technicians and supervisors in the field can:

  • Access custom forms to collect and document facility attributes;
  • Examine job site routing/mapping information;
  • Review asset/network data to facilitate repairs and note updates;
  • Prepare and approve/reject required time bookings;
  • Submit as-built drawings;
  • Add, modify or delete compatible units associated with a specific work request or work packet from the field; and,
  • Collect and monitor the progress of work in the field, such as partial completions.

MWFM Geospatial Capabilities

The universal scheduler/dispatcher requires geographic grid coordinates; the coordinates facilitate the geographic display of work and crew locations. Work locations with grid coordinates, regardless of whether the information is address based, premise based, or asset location based, enables the grouping and intelligent routing of work to further optimize the schedule. The combination of location and speed provides additional optimization of a schedule based upon minimal travel time, while still adhering to the utility’s defined business rules, to meet customer commitments (appointments) and priorities.

With a geospatial rendering of all work, the scheduler/dispatcher can see the relative location of emergent/emergency work to all other scheduled work and the associated crew locations in the field. The universal scheduler/dispatcher can then suggest crews that are not only close but have the ability to do the work.

While not intended to replace an automated vehicle location system (AVLS), both the universal scheduler and universal mobile client applications provide visibility of crew location, speed, direction and status for the scheduler/dispatcher. Geospatial rendering of work plays a further role by associating grid coordinates with GPS to capture GIS as-built details.

Universal Communications Controller

In addition to the superior functionality afforded the scheduler/dispatcher and field technician, the universal dispatch engine must offer industry-leading communications capability to define data priorities and queuing techniques (gold, silver and bronze queues, or high, medium and low data priorities) to maximize the often-constrained network bandwidth, regardless of pathway.

Accordingly, a universal MWFM application not only presupposes a universal scheduler, but a universal communications controller as well. The controller manages all the possible connections for a field device, automatically switching between networks according to utility-defined rules in order to minimize costs and maximize coverage and performance-without end user or application intervention. The controller automatically initiates and terminates connections, detects the presence of high-speed connections, detects loss of coverage on low-speed connections, and minimizes connection time on networks that charge per minute. (Figure 3)

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The dispatch engine’s communications controller prevents the transmission of low-priority data across the legacy, bandwidth-constrained, wireless network, or delays the submission until a time the utility deems suitable. The application logic prevents restraint of all items marked as high priority. This can be a critical factor in executing a wide variety of fieldwork throughout metropolitan service territories.

The dispatch engine contains a robust set of rules and configuration settings to accommodate each utility’s preferred dispatching methodology: drip feed, mini-tours and/or tours. Accordingly, each utility can customize their dispatching rules to cover all possible work distribution scenarios.

Such an offering requires a plug and play communications architecture that does the following:

  • Manages data flow between office and field;
  • Maximizes the bandwidth/throughput of existing utility RF radio, wire line and satellite and cellular wireless networks;
  • Assigns priorities to time sensitive data; and,
  • Provides least-cost routing (network choice).

Although this is a complex undertaking, utilities require a common plug-and-play architecture to manage all field workforces and all work. The architecture of a universal communications platform that manages all types of work is the holy grail of the network connectivity business.

Although cellular coverage and capacity as well as high-speed data networks continue to expand, today’s coverage and capacity are not bulletproof. The universal MWFM solution must recognize the availability of each network and the associated cost of routing data, and if necessary, store selected data until the network applicable for that data type is available, thereby allowing all messages to flow appropriately.

A Suggested Utility Solution Architecture

The architectural platform of the universal MWFM application is n-tier. This approach provides numerous advantages to the utility, not the least of which is clear separation between the presentation layer, the business logic layer, the database, and integration to the host legacy systems environment by means of an EAI toolset. Such clear separation fosters MWFM application stability while defining a true plug and play environment. Figure 4 (Page 32) presents the suggested solution architecture.

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A universal MWFM application will drive cost out of the business and improve operating efficiency among the field workforce. There are multiple categories of cost savings that derive from various sources-personnel, hardware, software and network communications expenses; the dominant category of cost savings, however, is personnel related, corresponding to the more efficient utilization of the supervisors and their crews.

Next generation value, derived from a universal plug-and-play applications platform suggests further dramatic savings based on a consolidation of vendors, mobile point software solutions and disparate applications interface points.

The universal MWFM application will dramatically reduce the utility’s procurement, integration and long-term support expenses. Those utilities who craft such a solution today will establish a defensible leadership position in operating efficiency and productivity.

Art Macey is the technology business manager in the power systems business unit for Florida Power & Light Company. He’s responsible for new technologies and development of work management systems including field force enablement. He has been with FPL for 19 years and involved in technology and process development for the last 6 years.

Jack Dugan is executive consultant for LogicaCMG’s energy and utilities division in North America. He is responsible for the company’s partner programs within the Asset and Resource Management (ARM) product suite. He has 30 years of applications software experience within the global utility and telecommunications industries.

Author

  • The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at Jennifer.Runyon@ClarionEvents.com.

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The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at Jennifer.Runyon@ClarionEvents.com.

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