Gas Company Utilizes Mobile Computer for AVL Application
By Michelle Holloway, WalkAbout Computers Inc.
After nearly two years of careful investigation, Citizens Gas and Coke Utility of Indianapolis implemented a system that fully automates its order processing and dispatch system and, as a result, nearly eliminates the trail of paperwork that was slowing response times to its 257,000 customers.
In anticipation of the deregulation of gas companies, Citizens Gas` decision to fully automate its system was sparked by its desire to provide more efficient service to customers and, at the same time, gain a competitive edge that would make the utility first choice over other gas providers.
The search began in 1992 when Citizens Gas developed a computer-aided dispatch (CAD) project team comprised of two systems` personnel, one engineer and a project manager. A CAD sub-team of dispatchers, field supervisors and service personnel helped provide user-level feedback to further identify system requirements. The CAD project team conducted several on-site evaluations of existing CAD systems in order to select a system that would best meet its needs.
The system that won the company`s approval was a CAD system developed by Advanced Control Technology equipped with an automatic vehicle location (AVL) application. The system is operated via Trimble SVee6 geographic positioning system (GPS) receivers mounted inside a wooden box on the partition between the service vans` cab and cargo area. All wiring in the service vans was centralized from the box to the vehicle docking station and contained in a protective plastic tube, which has eliminated accidental disconnects and provided more control over the various components. The antenna wire, which runs through a small hole in the roof, is magnetically attached to the service van roof.
Citizens Gas` system, which took approximately two years to research, design, program and test, features five main hardware components, including the CAD controller, the message switch, the CAD dispatch workstations, the mobile data terminals (MDT) and the wireless radio systems. After a call is received by a customer service representative and a service order is entered into the customer information system (CIS), the service order is sent to the CAD to be routed before the work shift begins. After a service person completes a service order, the data captured by the service person is sent back to the CIS. The CAD controller, which provides a crucial link for all communications to and from the CAD workstations, also provides the database to maintain service order data, employee profile data, appointment data, overtime data, statistical data and historical data.
Citizens Gas` GPS system enables dispatchers to quickly track service vehicle locations within their 400-square-mile service area, while a CIS system linked with their CAD system provides real-time updates. Although Citizens Gas elected not to use differential GPS, the company`s ability to track each of its 85 service vehicles to within 30 feet has allowed it to prioritize service orders based on algorithms. The GPS system includes “buttons” the service person hits when en route to or at a service order location. This action transmits a real-time update to the CIS and to the customer service representatives working with customers on the telephones.
The system enables Citizens Gas to track productivity, increase the efficiency of its service personnel and better identify which service person is able to most quickly respond when gas leaks, cut gas lines or other emergency situations occur. The company hopes the system will help it achieve a 30- to 45-minute response time (from the time a service call is made to the time the service worker arrives on-site), especially for gas leak repairs.
Initially, Citizens Gas` service personnel were, and perhaps may still be, reluctant about the GPS portion of the new system. The majority is now accepting the new system and pleased with the amount of on-line information they are able to obtain while working in the field.
Paper System Eliminated
The new system has aided Citizens Gas in eliminating the printed field copies of orders, which stacked up to a hefty 158,000 per year. The company waited over a year before fully eliminating its paper system in order to work out any hardware- or software-related “bugs” in the system, ensuring all data was being properly and fully transferred to the CIS, and giving service personnel ample time to become more familiar with using the new system. Currently, all orders are referred to service personnel from the CAD system to the MDT mounted in the service vans.
The MDT, which enables service personnel and field supervisors to interact with the CAD system, provides all functions related to processing orders in the field. For example, the MDT will enable service personnel to send and receive messages, request additional order data from the CIS, request historical data, process valuable customer feedback and update account information regarding the processing of an order.
According to Mike McCray, Citizens` manager of distribution dispatching, the HAMMERHEAD pen-based computer, manufactured by WalkAbout Computers Inc., was selected for providing the most rugged, compact, lightweight system with the most readable visual display of any of the almost seven MDTs tested. Each of its 85 service vehicles contains a ruggedized HAMMERHEAD pen-based computer supported by a heavy-duty vehicle mount that provides easy access to power and peripherals, such as keyboard and five-channel trunked Ericsson EDACS radio system.
McCray put the HAMMERHEADs to a special test when he fired up several HAMMERHEAD units last winter when Indianapolis temperatures had plummeted to -20 F. He was surprised to discover that, despite the punishing temperatures the units were exposed to in the vehicles overnight, the display functioned immediately and was as clear as ever, and the computer was fully operable after a brief 15-minute warm-up time.
Several improvements have been made to Citizens Gas` system over the past year, such as changes to the screen layout, the addition of fields, button functionality changes and changes or additions to the pull-down menu items. These improvements were generated by service personnel as a result of their Brilliant Thoughts Unlimited suggestion program.
“We are still dealing with vibration problems in the service trucks,” explained Rebecca Lewis, Citizens Gas` CAD administrator and PC specialist. “We feel that the new wireless technologies coming to the market will eliminate these problems for other companies who will be implementing mobile solutions in the future. We have found that the more mechanical parts you have, the more room you have for problems.”
The company utilizes Oracle`s SQL Plus to help create management reports that will be instrumental in making vital business decisions, such as more accurate projection of scheduling needs for the upcoming year.
Within the next several months, Citizens Gas plans to utilize the new system to accommodate on-line appointment requests from customers. Currently, customers are given the option of scheduling their appointment for morning, afternoon or evening. The new system will enable the customer to be contacted 15 minutes prior to arrival to verify the customer will be home when the service person arrives. Citizens Gas also plans to establish a CAD-like system for its collections team, although an estimated launch date for this project has yet to be determined.
Lewis suggests that companies in the process of developing a new system follow a modular approach–incorporating their system one piece at a time, rather than trying to tackle total system integration at once.
Michelle Holloway currently helps organize the public relations and marketing efforts for WalkAbout Computers, Inc., manufacturers of the ruggedized HAMMERHEAD 586 pen-based computer. Holloway, has a bachelor`s of art degree in journalism from Ohio State University. She has served as WalkAbout Computers Inc.`s public relations/marketing coordinator since September 1996. She can be reached at 1-888-WALKABOUT (1-888-925-5226).
WalkAbout Computers` rugged HAMMERHEAD pen-based computer provides Citizens Gas` service personnel a crucial link to the CAD system.
Dispatchers utilize AVL application in conjunction with GPS to prioritize service orders and help increase productivity of service personnel.