FirstEnergy Gears Up for Competition

FirstEnergy Gears Up for Competition

By Doug Laslo, FirstEnergy

FirstEnergy is in the midst of a revolution that centers on a new breed of AM/FM system, one that ties in with other corporate information systems to eliminate redundant work and produce benefits across many departments. The automation process began with smarter mapping in the design departments. It then spread to customer information systems and work management. So far, the savings have been dramatic, and the company hopes to expand the program even further.

The system`s heart is spatial data management (SDM) software from MCI Systemhouse`s VISION* Solutions unit. The VISION* system is built on the Oracle database, which provides a basis for integration with other corporate systems and scalability to support hundreds of concurrent users across the company. FirstEnergy`s users will eventually be able to work on a distributed Oracle database that contains more than 15 million objects, making it one of the largest AM/FM production sites in the world.

Through the use of SDM, the Akron, Ohio-based holding company expects to improve customer service, tighten overheads and streamline operations at all four of its operating companies. Together, the operating companies–Ohio Edison, Pennsylvania Power, Toledo Edison, and the Illuminating Co–provide generation and distribution service to more than two million customers throughout 13,200 square miles of northeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. This is why the company feels confident in pushing ahead and adopting this technology across the organization. By widening the use of SDM, FirstEnergy can build something vital for anyone working in the operating companies–the ability to remain the customer`s supplier of choice in an increasingly competitive environment.

Moving Beyond Traditional IS

Most telecommunications companies and utilities still depend on paper and file-based information systems. Limited computer support is available in specific areas, such as computer-aided design, some purchasing and inventory management software, and the inevitable customer information system (CIS). But these systems typically lack integration. Most of them do not share data, and few, if any, employees are trained to use more than one system. As a result, most utilities rely on labor-intensive manual processes to update and share information with the people that need it.

FirstEnergy was no exception. Over the last 50 years, several companies have joined forces to form FirstEnergy. Inevitably, in combining several different companies, the organization also inherited different types of maps and mapping standards. The time spent on manual mapping–and the inefficiencies inherent in handling different standards–came under close scrutiny. Major redundancies in recording similar information on several mapped products for different uses were identified. There was file drawer after file drawer of information about different installed equipment. Some facilities information had been migrated into databases, but it wasn`t in a standard form across the company.

Out in the Field

Problems caused by missing information, both in the office and the field, were also found. For example, when a vendor notified the company about deficiencies in certain transformers, it was a major task to relate the serial numbers to the actual field locations. Tabular data was hard to find and sometimes hadn`t been updated. Even more important, maps used for dispatching emergency calls did not carry service addresses so customer locations couldn`t be pinpointed when a call came in. Senior management felt that technological innovation was necessary in developing really effective customer service for the future.

FirstEnergy had been aware for some time that AM/FM provided a potential solution to its problems. In 1987, Ohio Edison studied AM/FM systems in conjunction with a consulting company, but financial constraints and reservations about the available technology`s maturity kept the project from materializing. In 1991, a study reassessment prompted a pilot project that reduced the number of employees involved and used consultants to manage the project. Potential database and system solutions were evaluated and several concepts were tested. One important factor persuading utility management that the time was right emerged–the use of a standard commercial database.

Most versions of AM/FM technology use a proprietary data structure to hold some or all data. This implicitly limits the effective use of information contained in the database since it is not easily available to other applications across the enterprise. The VISION* implementation, however, built on Oracle`s standard relational database management system (RDBMS), provides significant opportunities for integration with other applications, giving it a considerable advantage over conventional AM/FM systems. As the analysis continued, compound benefits to the VISION* solution were seen. The utility could manage its complex engineering data effectively and make it available anywhere in the organization, benefiting the business process. Potentially, it meant improvements to the business as a whole, not simply to individual areas of activity like mapping. On a more general level, it also meant FirstEnergy could be sure that advances in RDBMS technology would be available to it faster.

The pilot project was completed using VISION* on Oracle from an IBM RS-6000 AIX UNIX hardware platform. It covered about 50 square miles of territory, serving some 8,000 customers. Two system support personnel devoted efforts full time to the project: one acted as coordinator from the user side and the other represented the company`s information systems side. An AM/FM industry consultant was responsible for managing the project. This team worked in the pilot operation center field office throughout the project.

Testing Future Applications

The pilot was both wide-ranging and thorough. The team actually developed the functionality that allowed them to test many of the applications that would eventually be built. This included underground locate, locate facility, map retrieval, displaying query by attribute, retrieving attribute records, creating as-built drawings, updating drawing attributes, integrating to the CIS, creating work order drawings, running a connected kVA calculation, identifying a critical customer on a circuit, numbering the customers beyond a protective device, posting updates to various records, and updating vellum manual drawings and reproducing them.

The team was disciplined in measuring this kind of automation`s potential benefits. During this pilot, the team determined the number of activities performed for each function each year. Then they measured how long these activities took, using both manual and automated methods, and arrived at a percentage improvement. Savings of around 40 percent, tested over a wide variety of functions, were discovered. What`s more, the pilot project was completed on time and within budget. This was an important factor in building management`s confidence in the team`s ability to manage the project.

Measuring the Potential

The pilot allowed Ohio Edison to determine how many hours it could save, and how many hours the other operating companies could potentially save. This level of analysis made it easy to sell the system`s benefits elsewhere in the organization. The system developed during the pilot provided an extensive model for company-wide demonstrations, showing the tool`s real capabilities. It gained a lot of support from all the companies` ranks.

The companies` operating center personnel understood the need for tools that utilize automation and allow them to catch up on the backlog and handle it more easily. These individuals also knew that to really improve customer service, customer location had to be pinpointed easily. However, the clinching factor was the system`s ability to quickly locate a customer, determine the load on the transformer serving that customer and assist in identifying other potential problems within the distribution system. It gave operators the ability to react faster to existing problems and prevent new problems as well.

Integration

The ability of the Oracle-based system to integrate with other corporate systems is also paying dividends. FirstEnergy is gradually giving its operators access to all the information they need via the VISION* system. When these front-line staff are working, especially in emergency conditions, the last thing they want to do is log off one system and onto another. This is an important factor in streamlining activities.

The link with the mainframe-based CIS was the company`s first achievement, and functionality is now being refined. CIS files are batch loaded into the system on a weekly basis, but this could easily be upgraded to a nightly transaction. Now, when queries come in, the operator knows everything about the site and can accurately assess the outage`s scale and solve the problem faster. The load on a transformer or segment of a circuit can be calculated based on recent actual data, allowing the dispatcher to see whether it is better to upgrade the failed transformer`s capacity, or make a direct substitution.

FirstEnergy plans to add an application that can analyze transformer loading in the background over a weekend, so transformers operating over their rating can be identified. This will provide the company with time to act before the transformers fail in the next heat storm. The company is also linking the AM/FM information to an engineering analysis tool that will measure the likelihood of circuit interruptions based on the existing load.

A more challenging development project has been integrating a work management system with VISION*. FirstEnergy considered developing its own system, but instead decided to purchase an existing package–Logica`s WMIS (work management information system). The package was successfully adapted to suit the company`s business process and to interface with VISION*. WMIS, which replaces an older non-integrated system, will provide work initiation, routing, design, estimating, approval, scheduling, material requisition, time reporting, close down and post job cost analysis. This has caused the project to suddenly grow at a fairly demanding pace, but more staff has been added to handle the additional responsibility.

Seeing the Whole Picture

Previously, FirstEnergy had fragmented areas of automation that took care of many of the tasks that the work management system can handle. Now these tasks are being brought together and associated with the relevant drawings under one computer system. In the future, when a job is drawn, an estimate of the job, the materials that are required, the requisition and an efficient way of scheduling the work can be obtained with very little additional effort. What`s more, new customer facilities will only have to be drawn once. When field changes are made the changes will be added to that picture and the drawing will become part of the production map. The overall productivity improvement is huge.

The second phase is a full implementation over 14,000 square miles to 2.1 million customers. Over the next seven years, FirstEnergy`s staff will map and locate about 1.8 million pole sites, facility stations or other assets within that 14,000 square mile area. The company doesn`t underestimate the task`s size. It takes a solid focused team, receptive users and excellent support from management to succeed. The real benefits of SDM accumulate when it is allowed to pervade the whole organization. However, that means everyone must be prepared to think in fresh ways to make the most of the business benefits.

What has FirstEnergy achieved? Those within the company now recognize the competitive pressures of the late `90s and are building tools to help the operating companies meet those challenges efficiently and effectively. There is still a great deal to be done, but FirstEnergy is building a true world-class system.

Author Bio

Doug Laslo joined Ohio Edison Co. in 1987 and is currently AM/FM/GIS director. His responsibilities include planning and directing the conversion, application development, system integration and implementation of a full-scale AM/FM project. He is also directing the development of a work management system that will be tightly integrated to the company`s AM/FM system.

Laslo earned a bachelor`s of science degree in electrical engineering at the University of Akron. He is a member of IEEE and AM/FM International.

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By linking the AM/FM system with the mainframe-based CIS, FirstEnergy`s operators can accurately assess a service problem and dispatch repair crews much faster than before.

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FirstEnergy, the Akron, Ohio-based holding company of four electric companies, is investing in tools to help those operating companies meet today`s challenges efficiently and effectively.

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