Illinois Power ‘Powers Up’ its Mobile Data System

By Chris Carlson

Illinois Power has witnessed the value of the mobile data terminal (MDT)-not only to its field technicians, but to the company as a whole. Since the company installed MDTs in its 500-plus service vehicles some six years ago, it has seen productivity go up, costs go down and service to customers improve.

Starting with a basic dispatch solution, Illinois Power has added functionality to its system, making its mobile terminals an entry and exit point for a continuous stream of useful information. Today this 650,000-customer gas and electric utility located in central and southern Illinois has either implemented, or soon will install, systems that can inventory field assets, analyze worker productivity, pinpoint vehicle locations, improve public safety and automate government record keeping.

The myriad advances stem from a project initiated some six years ago. Already the company had applied new technologies for around-the-clock customer contact processes, as well as trouble outage systems that were the first of their kind in the state. An aggressive push to find improvements in crew scheduling was next.

Illinois Power has improved its crew dispatch, workforce management and asset management functions by installing rugged mobile computers in its service vehicles
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At the time, Illinois Power was dispatching its field workers as it had for years: by issuing paper-based job orders to field technicians at roughly 25 area offices. Each day, work crews reported to their local dispatch centers, picked up their first two or three orders, then drove off in their service trucks to complete their assignments. The process would repeat itself several times a day, requiring extensive travel and substantial downtime between service appointments.

A Rugged Solution

Illinois Power tackled the problem head-on by implementing a complete resource management solution designed around ruggedized laptop computers serving as MDTs for company work crews. Since the MDT would be a key component in the system, Illinois Power chose its mobile computer carefully. It selected the Itronix X-C 6000, a rugged, wireless-enabled notebook computer designed to withstand the dust, weather extremes, vibration, and hard knocks that come with in-the-field utility chores.

For its application software, Illinois Power implemented Mobile Data Solutions Inc.’s (MDSI) Resource Management and Dispatch (RMD) and Mobile Client. RMD was interfaced with Illinois Power’s legacy customer information system (CIS) to track incoming service requests, then to dispatch daily work to the field worker via the MDT running Mobile Client.

Both software platforms were customized to allow field workers to complete timesheets electronically. This step not only simplified payroll recordkeeping, but also enabled the creation of a database that could track worker productivity. Together, the two programs completely automated the installation and repair order dispatch process, creating better use of labor resources and improving customer satisfaction through more accurate scheduling and arrival information. The solution’s final component was the BellSouth Intelligent Wireless Network from BellSouth Wireless Data (now known as the Cingular Interactive Intelligent Wireless Network).

Soon after the system’s implementation, a number of efficiencies became apparent. Illinois Power was able to replace two dozen dispatch centers statewide with a single hub in Decatur, staffed by 10 to 12 dispatchers. The company was able to reduce its number of area offices by 50 percent while simultaneously increasing productivity and improving response time. After years of dealing with stacks of paper in the field, Illinois Power’s mobile workforce was embracing the new MDT-based solution.

Asset Mapping

Paperless dispatch was only the beginning. Next, Illinois Power began deploying a geographic information system (GIS), which enabled workers to map, catalogue, search, and pinpoint gas lines, utility poles, transformers, and other company infrastructure in minutes.

Today, Illinois Power’s Design Center employees can add digital information of the exact field assets as they are installed or serviced. Resulting mapping files are available to field employees via any of three regional CD-ROMs accessible through the Itronix docking station.

Illinois Power’s mapping function enables workers to search GIS directories against any of 25 parameters including circuit number, address, city, transformer number or gas service main number. The MDT-based system has greatly increased the company’s ability to quickly isolate and expedite field repairs. It also gives service crews a faster, more intuitive interface, and provides mission-critical engineering data tied onscreen to the relevant assets.

Trouble, Outage, Compliance Management

The next step in Illinois Power’s MDT strategy has been to upgrade its system to make its field PCs an essential data entry point for asset management and service. The first upgrade, which was completed in the third quarter of 2001, was a software-based enhancement, developed by MDSI at Illinois Power’s request, for scheduling polyphase metering changes. The software replaced a slower, paper-based system, adding one more valuable function to the work dispatch system.

Second to come was a work management information system (WMIS) upgrade that allowed service requests for temporary services to be routed through RMD to the mobile unit. This reduced the number of paper work packets generated by the system and handled by the field worker, and automated the completion of those requests from the field directly to WMIS.

A third significant rollout, slated for the first quarter of 2002, will add electric emergency trouble order processing as well as electric compliance inspection and repair activities. Currently, electric trouble orders in the trouble outage system (TOS) are dispatched to the field worker over the two-way radio system. The new upgrade will allow immediate dispatching of those trouble orders to the mobile data terminal, greatly improving the company’s ability to respond quickly in times of service outage due to weather-related events.

By adding electric compliance inspections to Mobile Client for reclosers, capacitors and regulators, the amount of paper work carried by the field worker is significantly reduced; what’s more, the system will automatically generate electronic compliance records as orders are completed. Orders will be sent to RMD as they are generated from the electric compliance system, allowing the work to be monitored and leveled throughout the required work date window and ensuring all compliance activities are completed on time.

Future Capabilities

Illinois Power’s MDTs have become critical links to its field workers in numerous ways, yet the company is still generating new ideas and new applications to improve efficiency. For one, the utility is looking to integrate GPS into the onboard Information Delivery Service, giving service trucks real-time plotting of their locations on the GIS mapping grid. Such information will enable drivers to “see” where they are relative to any company asset at any time, and plot the fastest route to the proper work destination.

Work also has begun on preparing a business case for an 802.11b wireless Ethernet solution intended to improve routine software upgrades to the network. With the present system, every time software is changed or revised an IT staffer must physically visit each service truck. The new system would establish a short-range wireless LAN outside each area office; whenever work crews pull into the parking lot, the Ethernet connection would “read” the current versions of software and perform the upgrade while the truck is stopped.

Such a productivity tool would significantly speed software updates and generate substantial cost savings over time. However, the Ethernet solution requires a newer, more versatile PC platform. The company had already identified the need for color touchscreen and DVD capability to operate the latest software, giving it ample reason to examine new mobile PC alternatives. Illinois Power is currently evaluating another Itronix mobile computer, called the GoBook.

Measurable Return

When Illinois Power initiated its MDT program, it knew that it was, in many ways, turning its corporate cup of water upside down. Such a major shift in employee work processes would never have been possible without the strong, ongoing support of senior management, reaching all the way to the company’s president and CEO.

A major capital outlay was required-the cost in field hardware/software alone amounted to thousands of dollars per vehicle-plus the company had to revise business protocols, institute training programs, consolidate call center operations and much more. Yet for that investment, Illinois Power was able to recover its initial deployment costs roughly two years after implementation.

By instituting MDTs six years ago, Illinois Power was able to put its collective field organization on a flexible, scalable, high-productivity track that will benefit the company and its constituents for years to come. Customers are happier, time management among field personnel has improved significantly, and the company now enjoys up-to-the-minute productivity and asset maintenance data that would have been impossible to obtain under the old system.

Chris Carlson is Information Technology Technical Specialist for Decatur, Ill.-based Illinois Power, a subsidiary of Dynegy Inc. A 14-year veteran of Illinois Power’s IT operations, Carlson supervises the company’s in-house PC support staff and has overseen all MDT operations for the past four years. Carlson is currently leading the pilot project for Illinois Power’s MDT upgrades.

Illinois Power has improved its crew dispatch, workforce management and asset management functions by installing rugged mobile computers in its service vehicles.

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