Careful Implementation Helps Assure Mobile Computing Applications Success

Careful Implementation Helps Assure Mobile Computing Application`s Success

By Teresa Hansen, Managing Editor

One-third of the current U.S. workforce, or 43 million people, is mobile–that is, they work 20 percent of the time away from their primary workplace. This is according to a recent release from The Yankee Group, a Boston-based information technology market research company. The company reported that in 1996 1.6 million workers in the United States were using some sort of mobile computing. The Yankee Group predicts that by the year 2002, that figure will have grown to 12 million (Figure 1). While the company predicts that only 2 percent of those using mobile computing will be working for utilities, that is still nearly a quarter of a million mobile utility workers.

The increase in utilities` use of mobile computing is not too difficult to explain. Technological advancements are making mobile computing more affordable, as well as practical, and mobile computing applications can help utilities improve customer service and meet the challenges of deregulation. Mobile computing tools can be used to reduce power outage duration, manage field crews, improve service scheduling and capture field data at the source, improving accuracy and reducing data processing costs.

In a presentation at the recent DA/DSM(TM) DistribuTECH(TM) `98 Conference and Exhibition held in Tampa, Fla., George McQuillister spoke about the benefits of mobile computing and how to best implement a successful mobile strategy. McQuillister was an employee of Pacific Gas & Electric when the utility implemented its mobile computing system, and he was heavily involved in the implementation. During his presentation, McQuillister listed mobile computing`s three greatest benefits as:

Speed. Mobile technology provides a means to conduct work faster and from remote locations.

Working Smarter. Mobile technology allows greater efficiency through streamlined work processes and data management.

Data Accuracy. Mobile technology provides field personnel with accurate, up-to-date information, giving them the tools they need to make more informed and intelligent decisions while they are at the customer`s premise.

Selection Criteria

In another session at DA/DSM DistribuTECH `98, Brad McDonald, North York Hydro, also spoke about mobile computing. In his presentation, he discussed a paper, “Choosing Mobile Data Applications,” he co-authored with Tom Stark, ExtenSys Inc. Choosing mobile data applications is similar to choosing applications for any other major information system, according to McDonald. There are five basic criteria to be used in application selection. They are:

Will the use of the application save the company money?

Will the use of the application improve customer service?

What are the technology limitations to implementing the application?

What is the company`s starting point with other information systems?

Will the application improve safety for the employees or customers?

McDonald emphasized that in the new competitive environment, utilities must meet increasing customer demands for better service and, at the same time, lower rates. In a competitive environment, customer service improvements must also reduce costs. It is no longer good enough to improve service at a higher cost.

When correctly implemented, mobile computing can reduce costs and improve service. Mobile computing makes it much easier to keep track of field crews` status, make service appointments with customers and reprioritize work during the day, all resulting in customer service improvements. In addition, mobile computing puts timely current data and stored historical data in the hands of field service personnel as well as customer service representatives.

Implementation Strategies

In his presentation, McQuillister offered some ideas that could help make system planning and design easier. He explained the steps that should be taken to help ensure successful implementation and operation. The first thing utilities should do is analyze their overall business objectives. He said that a mobile computing plan should be part of the utility`s comprehensive business strategy and solution. It should be looked at as a tool that will give the utility a competitive advantage in the marketplace. “Mobile computing provides access to information which gives the utility an advantage over competitors who are less informed,” McQuillister said.

An analysis of the user group(s) should be performed next, according to McQuillister. One should ask questions like, Who will be using the mobile application? Where will these users be located? How many users are there? and How often will they be in the field and for how long? Once the users have been identified, training requirements for these individuals should be considered. McQuillister stressed that underestimating the amount of training needed and the training costs could result in a major hidden expense.

One very important step when selecting technology and implementing a mobile strategy is identifying all potential sources of data that will be needed. Determine the data sources, which applications share the same data, where the data is stored, how frequently the different sources will be accessed, if remote access to the data will be required from the field, and whether this data will be required in real-time or some other form.

Technology Choices

Once these questions have been answered, it is time to evaluate available technology. Software and hardware providers and support resources should be identified, said McQuillister. This is a good time to look at available off-the-shelf solutions, which are often less expensive and easier to implement than custom solutions. If an off-the-shelf solution is not an option, then it must be decided who will develop the application. This is also a good time to consider whether help desk support will be made available to the users and, if so, when it will be available.

In his paper, McDonald provided greater detail on technology selection. When planning and designing a system, McDonald said that a thorough analysis of available workstations is imperative. Currently, most utilities use a ruggedized PC. It is important to keep in mind that most ruggedized mobile computer stations are about one year behind standard laptop computers, said McDonald. It is also important to note that the color screens on most truck mounted ruggedized PCs tend to wash out and become hard to see on sunny days.

McDonald also pointed out that there are two types of wireless network technology to consider–packet or circuit switched. A packet switched network separates data messages into small packets and sends each packet, one at a time, over frequency channel(s) as space becomes available. It typically shares the frequencies with voice messaging. With this technology, the size of each packet will affect when the data is transmitted and how long it takes the data to reach its destination. According to McDonald, this technology works well for applications where small messages are used, and it also works best with single screen applications.

Circuit switched networks transmit data over a dedicated frequency channel. The channel is dedicated for the entire time it takes to transmit the message. This type of network has better throughput for long messages such as file transfers, but the longer channel access makes it less suited for short messages. A disadvantage of circuit switched technology is that in order to guarantee transmission, enough channels for the peak number of simultaneous messages must be reserved.

Another major consideration when selecting mobile computing technology is deciding who will control the wireless network, said McDonald. A utility can opt to purchase and control its own network or the utility can obtain services through a wireless data service. Until the last couple of years, utilities` choices were limited to only a few wireless data services; however, digital cellular has recently emerged as a viable technology for mobile computing, providing many additional choices. These digital cellular networks are commonly called PCS and use circuit switched technology.

According to McQuillister, once all of the technology decisions have been made, a cost benefits analysis versus a needs analysis must be performed. It is important to remember that mobile strategies don`t always convert to initial bottom line savings, McQuillister said. “Cost benefits are intangible assets,” he said. The main value of a mobile computing system is that information that was previously unavailable is now available. The value of the system increases every time this information aids the utility in meeting its overall business strategy.

Successful Implementation at Southwest Gas

At the 1997 Utility Industry Hand-Held & PDA Forum held in St. Louis, Mike McConnell, Southwest Gas special projects manager, spoke about the utility`s mobile computing system implementation. Southwest Gas serves 1.1 million customers in parts of Arizona, California and Nevada and employs 2,400 people working out of 40 office locations. The utility`s mobile computing system, called the field order system, was implemented to reduce paperwork, improve the information transfer from the field to the office and provide management with accurate data relating to field activities. The system was first implemented in Victorville, Calif., in 1993 and full implementation was completed in mid-1997. The utility now has 313 field technicians using mobile computers.

McConnell said there were several keys to successful implementation. He said enforcing a restrictive project change policy was instrumental in the project`s success. The company adopted a policy that did not allow feature or functional changes during system installation and implementation. He said this was not a popular policy, as there were more than 180 requests for changes and none were considered until after the system was fully implemented. However, McConnell went on to say that once the system was completely implemented, only 12 requests were actually worked. He said many of the requests were satisfied with the original system design or, after using the system for a while, many of the requesters discovered their requests were unnecessary.

Other keys to successful implementation included using an outside system integrator, making sure that the end-users were involved in the project from the beginning and having no self-imposed deadlines.

McConnell, however, cautioned that successful implementation did not mean the project didn`t encounter some snags. He said some unexpected human factors had to be addressed. Limited cooperation between departments and resistance to change were problems during implementation. These problems are not uncommon when new technology and procedures are introduced, but they can be mitigated if those affected are involved during project design and implementation.

McQuillister had similar feelings. He said that involving target user groups from the beginning is necessary. “Ownership is critical to success,” he said.

Southwest Gas has seen significant paybacks since the system has been fully operational. Having online status information has resulted in customer service improvements. In addition, the company has seen a reduction in overtime and, with the availability of accurate reports, management has had better control. McConnell said the biggest payback has come from a significant reduction in data processing costs, since much of the information is now entered in the field.

Author`s Note

Much of the information for this article was obtained at the DA/DSM DistribuTECH Conference and Exhibition. DistribuTECH is presented by Utility Automation magazine. For more detailed information on attending or exhibiting at DistribuTECH `99, to be held in San Diego, Feb. 14-18, contact PennWell Energy & Utility Group at 918-831-9160.

If you would like to see more articles on this topic, circle R.S. 102.

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Through mobile computing, it is much easier to keep track of field crews` status, make service appointments with customers and reprioritize work during the day.

Click here to enlarge image

Click here to enlarge image

Having accurate, up-to-date information at their fingertips allows field personnel to make more intelligent decisions on the spot, while they are at the customer`s premise.

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