Mobile Computing Makes its Move on Utility Field Automotion

Mobile Computing Makes its Move on Utility Field Automotion

By Dominic Giangrasso, Consolidated Edison

It`s a dark and stormy night. The bad weather front rips through your service territory, impacting your ability to deliver service to your customers. Your crews are being dispatched to address the ever-changing, critical customer needs as the storm cuts through the heart of your area. Teams of field personnel blanket the area, and the detailed information your company requires to do its job properly arrives in a flash. Your telephone switchboards light up with activity, but your customer care representatives know exactly where the problems are and what you are doing to address them. Indeed, many customers are given accurate assessments for the return of their service during their first telephone call. A week later, your service area is back to its quiet, serene and sunny self.

As the area`s operations manager, you know that your crews are being dispatched to optimally handle the flow of normal work. You have the ability to review their progress and even monitor specific activity. Meanwhile, hundreds of workers go about the business of moving critical information efficiently from its source into the hands of decision makers. The common aspect of both scenarios is the movement of information between field forces and headquarters. In each case, the task could not be done as effectively if it were not for mobile computing.

The world of mobile computing introduces us to the area of small computing devices such as laptop computers, notebook computers, pen-based computers and personal digital assistants (PDAs). It also involves the emerging wireless technologies that bring the promise of information access anywhere and anytime. The use of mobile technology in your business can become a critical, competitive advantage if used properly. Many companies are actively exploring the world of mobile computing with pilot projects and all-out assaults against this classically paper- and forms-based industry sector.

The incredible speed with which microelectronics has been reduced in size and increased in complexity has brought us to the point where powerful PCs can be reduced to less than under four pounds and contain hundreds of megabytes of data. Adding a resistive digitizer to the PC screen makes interaction possible with a stylus or even a finger. Suddenly, the worry of adapting the vast majority of those people terrified by thoughts of typing on a keyboard becomes moot. Small systems such as pen-based systems from Norand and Telxon or the Apple Newton allow anyone to be easily trained to work with computers. They break the stereotype of keyboard and screen, and bring an even more personal nature to personal computing. Everyone knows how to work with a pen and paper or to point with their finger, so these new systems use that paradigm to its best advantage. The connectivity of these little devices to large repositories in our corporate mainframes has been a stumbling block in the implementation of these systems.

Connectivity requirements result in the need for such things as wiring harnesses, serial cables and docking stations, which add to the complexity of using these devices. Wireless technology applied to these small computers makes it possible to bring the dream of ubiquitous computing closer to reality.

Available technologies range from company-owned specialized mobile radio (SMR) systems to public data packet systems such as ARDIS and RAM Mobile data. Combine them with miniature PC-card-type wireless radios from IBM and Motorola, and you can create a less-than-four-pound wireless information portal into your company`s databases.

Many companies are willing to implement the use of leading edge, mobile computing technologies and even consider it critical to their future. It`s easy to look at large-scale mobile projects and wonder where the cost benefits are. Smart companies have taken care to craft their mobile computing projects to focus on areas where there is the potential for the highest possible return. Many focus on aspects of customer service, while others seek to optimize and, yes, reduce their work forces. Computer enabling your field forces has the immediate benefit of placing a means to directly capture data at its source, in the hands of the best people for that job.

Picture the number of times a piece of data is handled in your company processes, from hand-scribbled field notes to forms to data sheets and then finally keyed into a computer system by data entry clerks. As you watch the data pass from hand to hand on its way from the field to its place in your corporate information databank, imagine the opportunities for transcription errors. Now imagine that important piece of information being directly entered into your databases by the person who collected it. It`s verified and is instantly placed where it needs to be for decision making or billing. One need only look at the numerous utilities whose meter-reading forces are equipped with hand-held computers, whose valuable billing data is available for evening processing, to understand the potential for personnel savings and improvements in efficiency and accuracy.

While automating your data capture may seem an obvious winning project, one must take care to ensure success. To select a winning project area, examine your processes and look for one where a radical change can bring the most value to your customer or result in the most efficiency gains. Be willing to completely rewrite your processes to eliminate duplication of effort and unnecessary layers. Then apply mobile computing technology to your retooled processes. Take care to keep the project scope clean, simple and small. While some disagree about small pilots, I tend to favor them since small failures allow for an easier recovery. This may seem a bit negative until you understand that more than 60 percent of all information technology projects either get canceled or fail to deliver on time or on budget. A small, successful project can help formulate the winning strategy that will help implement that winning, big project.

A critical success factor to creating a winning project is to involve the ultimate user. If your field force is the target of your automation pilot, find some key players and involve them throughout the project. Have them review the field devices, since they will be the ones who will have to use them. Get your analysts into the field and working side-by-side with the field people before you start. It will positively influence the field forces` opinion of the management information system people, while giving the analysts a true appreciation for what field people really need. If you can get the end user to take ownership of the project in hand, then you have gained a powerful helper and sales force when the rollout begins. If the end user views the project as just another information technology project he is forced to accept, you start with two strikes against you.

Another component of a winning project is a strong corporate sponsor. Find someone who understands the business and believes in the changes the project will bring. As an influential executive, the sponsor can help justify the project, secure funding and stay the course (project scope and functionality) when troubles arises. A strong sponsor can make a project succeed while a weak or nonexistent one will almost surely doom a project to failure.

In an effort to derive a cost benefit from such information technology projects, some brave companies have realized and accepted the fact that the return on investment may not come with the initial rollouts. The real payback occurs with the evolving use of the technology once it`s placed into the hands of the work force. It may not be the first retooled process that creates the radical change, but the sudden realization that, with mobile technology, the old way of doing business can be discarded. Just think of the explosive use of those financial spreadsheet programs on PCs. It was not until the capability was placed into the hands of the workers that all of the ideas for its use (far beyond mere finance) came into being.

These companies have bet their future on the importance of information technology and value mobile computing as a way of getting information from and to whomever needs it. Service companies like UPS implemented mobile-computing technology in more than 50,000 vehicles because it is more dangerous to its competitive survival not to. At a cost of more than $300 million, the UPS rollout of its custom-designed clipboard computers was one of the most successful large-scale mobile computing projects.

As utility companies, where can we apply this technology? The most classic approach for mobile computing is in the field of data collection. Applications such as meter reading and equipment inspections top the list. In the meter reading environment, the use of computers allows for more than remote entry of metering data. The meter reader can be presented with pre-calculated, optimal routes using geographic information system (GIS) databases to plan the easiest way to complete a shift. Such routing optimization has proven to cut the time to complete a meter reading route by 10 to 20 percent. Meter readers can be presented with history information on each customer site, including its special conditions such as meter location or that special dog to avoid.

Inspection applications come in many shapes and sizes. Utilities operate in a continuous mode of self policing, inspection and maintenance. Mobile inspections can be applied to substation equipment, manholes, vaults, poles, towers and generators, just to name a few. Almost every component of an electric, gas, steam, water, communications or waste removal system can be considered a corporate asset and can require periodic inspections. These inspections, carried out by your computer-enabled field forces, should feed directly into your maintenance management databases to allow the optimal scheduling of repair and service crews. Here too, the inspectors` systems should contain the history of each facility to allow the efficient review of prior work and eliminate duplicate effort. Many energy suppliers may discover that different service organizations within them have different people visiting the same sites for different reasons. A mobile system with an asset database and the proper inspection forms may enable a single worker to do the work now performed by several different inspection crews.

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) has been piloting a number of inspection systems with its field forces. PG&E`s Wood Pole asset management system was designed to help monitor and manage the 2.4 million wood poles in its service area and provide a prototype for other inspection systems. Its transmission line inspection and maintenance system will enable it to automate the 60-Kv transmission line inspections and fold that data back into PG&E`s maintenance planning.

An exciting application of mobile computing technology is the development of mobile dispatching systems. These systems have been implemented by many companies and can take many forms. The typical application is to replace or supplement voice radio traffic in the dispatch of field crews of every type, from emergency repair to customer service. The mobile system, consisting of a ruggedized portable or pen-based computer, is usually mounted in the service vehicle or handed to the crew at the start of its shift. Detailed work orders which direct the crews` activities are then wirelessly transmitted to each crew computer. The crew uses the system to direct it throughout the day, and it reports progress via the computers.

On some systems, GPS allow exact placement of the vehicle location on digital maps back in the dispatching centers. With this positioning information and the status of the work in progress, control room supervisors can more effectively redispatch crews when new emergency work comes in. GIS can be used to create a database containing the exact location of all of a company`s facilities. Once such a database exists, incoming new trouble spots can be geographically located and the nearest crew, closest to completion of its current job, can be dispatched.

Mobile dispatching systems are in service or in pilot across the country using a variety of wireless infrastructures. Some companies have used their own extensive SMRs, modified to carry data, to connect their mobile forces with headquarters. While this may seem a cost-effective approach, one must take care to examine all of the costs of implementation, including the modifications to the voice radio systems, the need for dedicated radio channels for higher throughput, power requirements and size of portable SMR radio equipment and the required radio coverage. These types of installations are often implemented in localized service areas with both computers and radios vehicle mounted. The use of public data packet services such as ARDIS and Ram Mobile Data is also increasing. These radio technologies differ from SMR in that they were designed from their inception for data transmission. ARDIS uses dedicated frequencies shared by all users of its system in a service area. RAM Mobile Data`s network operates on a collection of frequencies and packets that are switched between them in a similar manner to cellular telephones. Each company claims penetration to more than 90 percent of the metropolitan population areas across the country.

Use of these public systems allows the implementing company to concentrate on the applications and not the wireless infrastructure. The caution using such systems includes the cost of service and coverage. Both services charge by the data packet of specific sizes, but both have also shown the willingness to negotiate rates with large users and utilities specifically.

Coverage is an issue best tested with demonstrations such as driving the service area with loaner equipment. For ARDIS and RAM specifically, radio technology improvements have resulted in the recent release of Type 2 and 3 PC-card devices and drivers that can be used in everything from laptops to PDAs. Such small sizes allow for the design of a system where hand-held, not vehicle-based, operation is desirable.

Southwest Gas, with customers spread out across the states of Nevada, California and Arizona, has taken the leap into mobile dispatch. Together with Utility Partners Inc. they have developed a real-time communications link between the office and the field. Southwest took its field technicians and retooled the work processes to eliminate more than 30 paper-based forms, consolidate 50 others and automate work order dispatch. Using Microslate pen-based systems and RAM Mobile Data`s wireless network, it has equipped more than 280 vehicles with its mobile work order and scheduling system. Field technicians can receive new work orders, access customer work order history and query real-time inventory status. The system has eliminated 90 percent of all data entry for technicians and also provides automated performance and productivity reporting.

Boston Edison is teaming up with Norand and RAM Mobile Data to automate their field service and trouble-call dispatching system. They will be using Norand PEN*KEY 6600 pen-based computers to cover the 590-square-mile service territory in and around the city of Boston. The system will also incorporate barcode scanning and GPS to help collect and geographically locate the data.

Newer wireless technologies such as cellular digital packet data (CDPD) offer the promise of high throughput by making use of the unused space between regular cellular telephone traffic. However, CDPD is still very new and is currently being deployed in major metropolitan areas, so lack of coverage is its biggest drawback.

Other technologies such as conventional switched cellular, spread spectrum and satellite are also available for today`s mobile computing projects. The future Personal Communications Service band also promises that future options for wireless mobile computing is very bright.

The technologies we have reviewed can not only be applied to field and service personnel, but also to engineers, managers and executives alike. The potential exists to create a mobile work force for almost any group that uses computers and needs to spend time in the field. Supervisors monitoring service crews, project managers supervising construction crews, engineers developing on-site plans, even the traveling executive who needs to stay in touch can all benefit from mobile computing. Its uses and application is only limited by your imagination.

Washington Water Power`s mobile engineering effort has been developed using products from MapFrame Corp. The work-management-oriented system allows for the combination of data collection, mobile engineering and construction monitoring in a single package. The mobile engineering function allows engineering personnel to do map design and modifications while in the field. The design data is then transferred back to a central database from which notifications go out to warehouses for parts and construction for crew planning. As-built conditions find their way back into the central repository quickly and efficiently, and much of the information is cataloged into a GIS database for future use.

A different twist on the application of mobile computing is to utilize the unique power of the mobile computing device as a high-speed controller to change the way things are done. NYNEX has been working with small PEN*KEY computers from Norand to automate the way it does cable transfers. When telephone service is switched from copper lines to fiber, customers demand the process occur quickly. Existing information about each customer must be placed into the new fiber system to complete the transfer. This process takes technicians about 15 minutes to manually complete the transfer of each circuit. Using a Norand 6300, three-pound pen computer and a software package called ReQWC, NYNEX technicians can call for and transfer the information in seconds. With the new system, automated transfers now take between 20 and 90 seconds to complete, resulting in minimal disruption of service to the customer.

Mobile computing is here to stay as a critical facet of information technology. It is this technology that can revolutionize your business processes. It can enable your information flow like no other technology since local- and wide-area networks. My advice is to look for opportunities to pilot mobile computing while retooling your business today. Your competitive survival may depend on it.

Author Bio

Dominic Giangrasso is a manager of special projects for Consolidated Edison of New York. He has been working in Power Utility Operations and information systems for 19 years. He may be reached @CIS or via domg@eworld.com (e-mail).

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Field technician uses a portable electronic notebook.

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Vehicle-mounted hand-held unit.

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