Building the Perfect Field Tech
The Future of Mobile Computing for Utility Operations

By Steven Radice

Mobile computing for utility distribution operations is, by now, an established and accepted technology. More than 250 utilities worldwide use mobile computing hardware and software to improve the productivity of their customer service field force. Software to dispatch and control such operations is available from a number of vendors who specialize in field force mobile computing and automation. Server and mobile terminal hardware is similarly available. Wireless data communications services are offered in a number of formats from a variety of vendors offering public and/or private approaches to high-speed over-the-air data transmissions.

To date, the type of work most often supported by utility mobile data systems is customer service related, including turn-ons, turn-offs, re-reads, trouble calls, etc. Implementation of these systems has been very successful and has easily achieved its productivity and customer service goals, but future mobile computing solutions will be characterized by four additional directions:

  • Increasing use of the Internet by customers, dispatchers and field personnel (employees as well as contractors)
  • Incorporation of additional work management related order types such as inspections, maintenance, and routine, short-duration construction work
  • Integration with geographic information technologies that are applied and updated in the field
  • A variety of smaller mobile terminals

Certain vendors and utilities have begun exploring, testing and partially deploying some or all these directions, using their existing mobile data infrastructure as a starting point. But the technologies, architectures and directions involved are still somewhat disjointed as the state of the art exponentially progresses.

This article sets out an “end game” approach to the future of mobile computing in utilities, and forecasts a developing business and technology scenario which most likely will be applied successfully in 2003 and beyond.

A Scenario for the Not-too-distant Future

Consider the following hypothetical example: Thomas Schultz is a senior field technician for Blue Sky Gas and Electric (formed from the recent merger of Blue Gas Company and Sky Electric Company). As a senior tech, he has been cross-trained and is experienced in a number of customer and infrastructure support disciplines, including standard service orders, routine inspections, maintenance and construction work. He also has received considerable training in mobile computing technology, wireless data communications and the use of geospatial information (GIS) in the field. Finally, he has attended customer relationship management (CRM) courses offered by Blue Sky, including lessons on customer service and cross-selling techniques. With all that training and experience (and salary!), he represents a considerable investment by Blue Sky. Considering that he often is the only utility employee that a customer actually sees, however, he is worth every penny.

As he does every day but Mondays, Tom leaves directly from home with his service truck. Early in the morning, his new mobile data terminal (MDT) has received Tom’s work for the coming day via wireless communications. (It is the third MDT Tom has had in six years, each increasingly smaller but more powerful, rugged and easy to see.) Looking at the mobile device that morning over coffee, Tom sees a variety of customer service and I&M infrastructure orders. He also can view a GIS representation of the land-based and/or facilities maps that are involved with his work. His work load today is fairly light, with only three firm appointments, leaving room for Tom to spend some quality time with customers, as he has been trained to do. Tom is almost always assigned to a discrete portion of Blue Sky’s territory that he has come to know well. Blue Sky management has intentionally chosen quality and flexibility of personal service over tightly driving productivity–not an easy decision in these tight times, but one they feel will pay off over the long haul of deregulation.

Grabbing a second cup of coffee, Tom leaves home and begins his route. The first call is in a new subdivision, so he consults a map on the MDT to find the street. He arrives on time to turn on the initial service. As he works, he sees that the new home has installed appliances for hot water and cooking, but no washer or dryer. He asks if the owner is planning to buy a set. The owner replies that they are planning to buy a washer and dryer, but they haven’t found one they like.

Tom returns from the truck in a few minutes with his client MDT (a smaller version of the model in his truck), which is now connected via wireless to the Web sites of the three vendors Blue Sky uses to supply washer and dryers. The owner and Tom page through the offerings and options, clicking on various links for more information. The owner finds one that’s just right; Tom calls up the order screen on the MDT and completes the form. He is advised of ship and arrival date, and makes an appointment through his field service software for installation on that day. The transaction is completed, and the customer is to be charged for the units on the next billing. Tom completes the rest of his work and leaves the house. Through the wireless connection, Blue Sky’s systems (as well as the appliance vendor) already have the data resulting from the visit.

Leaving the neighborhood, Tom receives an order, asking him to perform an inspection function at a nearby substation that another tech can’t get to. Arriving at the substation, he pulls up the GIS representation of the facility on his MDT, so as to fully understand the layout and where the inspection point is. He also pulls up the inspection and safety procedures on his MDT so he can review them before beginning. He conducts the inspection and notes a deficiency calling for additional work by a crew. He enters this order in the MDT, and it is automatically routed to the work management system for costing and scheduling.

Tom’s next order calls for him to install a short length of pipe in a ditch previously dug by a contractor. He again consults his MDT for the surrounding GIS representation. He installs the pipe and fittings, and then reflects this in a redline drawing on the MDT that will later be communicated to the host GIS for update. To replenish his truck inventory for that pipe and supporting materials, he selects an on-screen choice which, via wireless, connects to Blue Sky’s intranet-based materials management system for update.

And so on …

Enabling Technologies and Processes

Idyllic? Perhaps; we did name this utility Blue Sky. But desirable? Yes! Utilities in the future will need to field this type of multi-talented, multi-faceted and multi-technology tooled resource to compete and to run their field operation like the customer-oriented business it needs to be. Philosophies aside, however, what technologies and processes must a utility have available to enable this field capability? Below are five of the more critical ones:

  • Reliable wireless communications
  • Practical mobile computing devices
  • Easy and quick access to Internet and intranet information
  • Integrated view of all work and crews
  • Geospatial information reference capability

Following is a brief discussion of the characteristics and capabilities of each of these technologies, all of which are interrelated and necessary to achieve the “Blue Sky” scenario as described above.

Reliable wireless communications. The Blue Sky example is very dependent on reliable, “high-speed” wireless communications. Currently, high-speed wireless access is between 14.4 and 19.2 kbps which is far slower than the modem technology we use, and complain about, at home. Wireless communications are improving in both availability and speed, although these improvements may not necessarily be available in rural areas, or between the vehicle and mobile terminal (if the MDT is outside that vehicle).

Practical mobile computing devices. Every successful mobile computing deployment story includes a cover photo of the smiling field technician using her MDT outside of her truck. For most deployments, once the picture is taken, that is the last time the MDT leaves the truck. The reality today is that rugged Windows 98/2000 devices are too heavy and large for field technicians to carry with them to the job site. Technicians, especially gas technicians, have too many tools to carry with them already. Also, most MDTs rely on external radio modems to access the wireless network. Therefore, when the MDT is removed from the truck, the technician cannot interact with the corporate databases needed to make access a reality.

To correct these problems, MDTs will need to take advantage of the trends to make computers smaller and more capable. Rugged devices will always lag behind the best available commercial products in terms of performance and screen resolution. However, the best available commercial products are improving at such a rate that rugged devices are becoming quite capable products. Technicians will always want a device that is smaller and lighter; this is especially true if technicians must take devices out of their vehicles and onto the work site.

The form factor that field technicians desire is that of the PalmOS and Pocket PC devices. This is a form factor that is truly portable and has sufficient display capability to meet most field requirements if applications are designed properly. The instant on/off capability of the systems also makes them desirable for field applications.

Easy and quick access to Internet and intranet information. The Internet and secure corporate intranet hold tremendous potential as communication means for field technicians. Access to procedures and a checklist for specific classes of devices is well suited to intranet technology. Mobile CRM applications will become reliant on intranet access. Mobile applications support TCP/IP addressing, therefore, field technicians can access many corporate systems from the field in a manner similar to accessing these systems from the office, albeit from a slower modem. The critical issue is determining what systems field technicians must access and building reliable interfaces to them. Mobile computing solutions also provide wireless gateway technology to enable data compression across the wireless network.

Integrated view and scheduling of all work and crews. The key to effectively dispatching service, maintenance and simple construction work to Tom is the dispatching system knowing all the work that is scheduled to occur that day in a given area. With this view, the dispatcher can assign work to the best technician based on skills, time constraints and geography. Rather than having separate field technicians, maintenance crews and construction crews crossing paths to complete their work, the dispatching system with a view of all work can proactively manage all jobs in a geographic area of responsibility.

Integration of schedules and resources for work execution systems (work management, mobile workforce management, planned maintenance and outage management) is the enabling technology to make this possible.

Geospatial information reference capability. Having a true mobile deployment of geospatial information has been a goal of the field force for many years. For most utilities, this need is clumsily met by publishing map books or issuing microfiche. The effort and cost of publishing and maintaining this material is substantial for utilities. These documents are frequently out of date as soon as they are published, and field technicians spend considerable effort redlining errors and additions on the map books that are often never fed back to the GIS.

The capability to view and/or access geospatial information in the field is straight-forward, given the current capabilities of MDTs and client software. This capability will only improve with time. Vendors are releasing client applications for viewing geospatial information on PalmOS and Pocket PC devices, making it that much easier to geospatially enable utility field workers.

Nothing but Blue Skies Ahead

The Blue Sky scenario is becoming viable because of the technology and integration trends occurring today. Still, it will require careful planning, coordination, and integration of business processes and technologies to turn a blue sky scenario into a concrete reality for tomorrow’s utilities.

Steven A. Radice is an executive consultant for SchlumbergerSema, focusing on mobile workforce management for their Energy and Utilities Practice. He has more than 15 years experience in energy and utilities technology, and in that time has participated in more than 25 mobile data projects.

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