Competitive Edge Sharpened With Wireless Dispatch System

Competitive Edge Sharpened With Wireless Dispatch System

Christopher R. Davey, Sapient Corp.

Decades of tight regulation have all but eliminated competition as a concern in the gas-service industry. But with deregulation now looming, gas utilities may soon go head-to-head with plumbers, pipefitters and other independent businesses who are pressing the state to move gas service outside the realm of public gas utilities. Deregulation is putting gas utilities under tremendous pressure to develop strategies for becoming more competitive.

Perhaps no utility has handled this change better than Public Service Electric & Gas Co. of New Jersey (PSE&G), which is transforming its field and service organization into an entrepreneurial, service-oriented business that can compete with the best of them. With 1.5 million gas customers, PSE&G is the third largest electric and gas utility in the country. To compete in a deregulated environment, the company needed to give its field service people more information in real time so they could provide better customer service.

The utility company needed a top-to-bottom restructuring of its key information systems and processes to provide a cost-effective and efficient alternative to its outdated radio dispatch system. “The gas service business is feeling the heat of deregulation,” said Lou Kaufer, PSE&G`s systems integration technology manager and a 26-year IS veteran. “Independent plumbers and pipefitters think we should be either an unregulated business competing on equal footing or get out of the service business altogether. The challenge is how to make the gas-service business a lot more competitive in the event we are forced to go outside the utility arena.”

PSE&G`s reengineering success hinges on replacing its radio dispatch system with a wireless dispatch and information network. The wireless dispatch network will increase not only the productivity of both office and service personnel, but improve customer service, satisfaction, responsiveness and the utility`s public image. The system will deliver these benefits by better anticipating customer needs and reducing the number of call backs, unnecessary visits and complaints.

The wireless dispatch network, coupled with enhanced materials management, will save the utility nearly $7 million annually, while dramatically improving the utility company`s competitiveness. By empowering its field service people with real-time customer and appliance information, PSE&G will achieve significant improvements in overall operational efficiency and use of labor, equipment and material.

Top-to-Bottom Reengineering

Before PSE&G could even think about building a new system, it needed to build consensus throughout the organization for a design that addressed everyone`s needs. While this goal is impossible for most companies, the process went smoothly for the utility company.

PSE&G`s reengineering effort began in June 1992 when Cambridge, Mass.-based Sapient Corp. was contracted to help the utility design a gas service information management system (GSIMS). Kaufer gathered a diverse group of people, representing everyone from upper management and two labor unions (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Local 853 Plumbers and Pipefitters) to the 750 service people who would be using the new system, to have them articulate their needs. Because conflicts and disagreements are inevitable in these types of group dynamics, Sapient offered a unique methodology to facilitate the process. Sapient conducted intensive and focused workshops with key management and user personnel to establish business and system requirements and draft user interfaces.

Developing a wireless system involved reengineering every major process in the company, including three key processes:

1. manpower scheduling and planning,

2. service-order generation, dispatching and completion, and

3. material distribution management (inventory, materials replenishment, etc.).

A field prototype version of the system was tested and assessed, and the final system will be rolled out in pilot deployments, zone by zone, across PSE&G`s districts.

Paperless Efficiency

Throughout New Jersey, there are 12 PSE&G operating districts with a call center in the north and one in the south. With the utility company`s old radio dispatch system, service calls were transmitted to the field service person via a district dispatcher. The service person filled out paperwork, completed the job and called the information in to the dispatcher who entered it into a computer. Not only was this inefficient, but it did not allow the call and dispatch centers to track calls.

The new system eliminates these inefficiencies by making the process paperless and the information immediate. Now service orders are dispatched over the wireless network to the field service person`s 486 pen-based computer. After the service person completes a call, information is entered directly into the pen-based computer and transmitted to the dispatch center`s computer. The pen-based computers allow service people to call up a customer`s service history and find out what work has been done previously and what service contracts the customer has before they even enter the home. This cuts the time needed to make service calls and frees up service people so they can further extend their services to the industrial and commercial areas.

The PSE&G project uses a wide variety of client/server application-development tools and technologies, including PowerBuilder to build the graphical interface and an Oracle database. During the prototype, the utility also used a wireless public radio provider–RAM Mobile Data–and will use a product from NetTech of Princeton, N.J., called “RF/Link and RF/Express,” as its middleware communication software.

PSE&G`s wireless network, the application and the work environment are so demanding that current pen-based applications–including Toshiba, IBM 730 Think Pads, Fujitsu and MicroSlate–were not able to meet the utility`s require-ments. As a result, PSE&G is working closely with numerous vendors to design and develop a new generation of devices that can withstand temperatures in trucks in excess of 140 degrees, as well as support resource-intensive applications.

Dramatic Cost Savings, Increased Revenue

Using the mobile data dispatching system, PSE&G will increase revenue by penetrating new markets while expanding existing markets by improving operating efficiency, eliminating paperwork and providing real-time information to all involved in customer service. Mobile data dispatching, for example, enables the utility to support the gas air conditioning conversion market within the industrial and commercial customer segment. It also makes possible support of the appliance service and gas heating market within the industrial, commercial and residential customer segments.

“This reengineering effort is an instrumental tool in meeting our operating vision,” said Kaufer. “It will enable us to project a lasting positive image in the customer`s mind, have all decisions made at the lowest level, allow for one-stop shopping with zero rework, and portray a recognizable sense of ownership and vision throughout the organization. Mobile data dispatching is critical to the achievement of this vision.”

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