By Mike Gundling, TerraGo
Serving utility, commercial and residential customers throughout the state of New York, International Empire Electric (IEE) processed a deluge of regulator paperwork and a myriad of different customer forms as a daily part of its operations. Most of the manual workflows were completed by field personnel and engineers, which was a constant drain on productivity and delayed project quotes, starts, operations, reporting and site delivery.
IEE was looking to streamline its reporting, quoting and overall paperwork filing into a more efficient and time-saving process. For IEE, every second of delay is a dollar lost.
With dozens of field workers working across the state, it was hard to get information back to the main office in a timely fashion. It would sometimes take days, or even months to compile the necessary reports to assess, quote and start a job. To add to the challenge, field crews had to add photos and detailed observations to their normal reporting in order to highlight specific project aspects and proposals.
Not only was management looking for a faster way to deliver information back to the main office, but it also was looking for a way to provide customers with the most accurate information needed to get the job quoted, started and completed in the shortest amount of time with the highest level of accuracy.
IEE evaluated using traditional GPS handheld devices, but did not want to deploy proprietary hardware for its field crews, which would require investment, training and delay deployment. Edwin Quintanilla, manager of field operations at IEE, therefore, evaluated the potential to use smartphone and tablet apps to automate location reports and form submissions.
For IEE, using a smartphone and tablet app provided a flexible solution that made the field crews and managers jobs easier. Field workers could quickly and easily document their findings (with forms and photos), record site observations and supply the required information defined by the main office. Managers had faster access to information they needed to make critical decisions.
The reports are instantly synced back to the main office from anywhere, anytime. Employees can review site reports as needed, without waiting days, months or even hours for them to come in. In addition, IEE’s customers are pleased with the speed and efficiency of the project milestones and accomplishments.
“The move to mobile has not only made our reporting and data collection seamless, but my entire field crew adopted technology and started using it with no problem,” Quintanilla said. “What added to the seamless deployment was that we did not have to make a large investment in specialty hardware and handhelds because my crews already use smartphones and tablets in their daily routines. Going mobile has enabled us to scale our business and go after many more opportunities than we ever have in the past.”
For IEE, the mobile deployment has improved the entire lifecycle of operations by accelerating the time to quote, start and complete projects across all types of electrical projects. An increasingly mobile-savvy workforce means that new workers come up to speed quickly and are immediately productive with a technology they use every day in their personal lives.
Because mobile apps are so user-friendly and adoption and deployment requires minimal time, the ability to add more field crews, as needed per job, is easy. No one needs special training or additional devices. The move to mobile has allowed IEE to be scalable, regardless of the job.
The transition to mobile GPS-tagged forms helped IEE do the electrical engineering work they do so well, even better. As the old saying goes, “time is money,” and the utility is spending less time using paper documents and more time actually on-site, making customers happy and fixing issues critical to electrical infrastructure
For utilities with far-flung field assets, infrastructure and remote work crews, GPS handhelds have long been a staple of daily operations. These handsets were all that was available for the past couple of decades. Today, smartphones and tablets are rapidly replacing these devices, along with the proprietary back-end software needed to manage them, at a fraction of the cost.
Beyond the explosion of smartphone and tablets, the availability of cloud-based maps and high-accuracy Bluetooth GPS receivers have enabled a new generation of iOS and Android survey apps that provide sub-meter or even centimeter-level accuracy combined with collaboration features not possible with traditional handsets.
In the utilities sector, sharing timely and accurate field information is vital. Every day, hundreds of field crew personnel, managers and subcontractors across dozens of departments must get the latest utility maps, blueprints or CAD drawings. Yet most utilities still rely on pens, pencils, paper maps and forms to share data with their foremen and field crews. With a modern mobile data collection solution, field crews can access project maps, forms and data from any location, information syncs with headquarters in real time and management can have a bird’s eye view of what’s happening in the field, so they can make better decisions faster.
The utility industry’s massive investment in traditional GPS technology has created a tightly integrated ecosystem and in many cases it’s simply been easier for utilities to maintain the status quo, expense and limitations of traditional GPS handsets as well as proprietary vendor software and data. After all, it works well enough and time and money have been spent in training people to use the technology.
Truly disruptive technology, especially at dramatic cost savings, eventually will break through. In this case, it will open up GPS-based collaboration to utilities and contractors that could never afford the traditional GPS hardware and software.
Mike Gundling is vice president of product management and marketing for TerraGo. He has more than 20 years of experience in launching market-leading products and award-winning marketing programs that drive rapid growth for venture-backed software companies.