Mobile Design System to Increase Efficiency and Effectiveness

Mobile Design System to Increase Efficiency and Effectiveness

By Randy Daffern, Southern California Edison, and Diane McQuarie, MapFrame Corp.

Most of today`s electric utilities are aggressively seeking ways to increase efficiency and effectiveness in a rapidly changing marketplace. Southern California Edison is no exception. The utility is turning to field automation as a way to improve efficiency and provide company-wide benefits. One of Edison`s most recent, and certainly its most ambitious field initiative to date, is a mobile design system. Called the Planner Office, this pen-based system lets distribution planners create a project drawing and generate cost estimates, a materials list and engineering calculations in a single step at the job site. Edison is using Fujitsu`s Stylistic 1000 as the pen platform for field design. When the Planner Office is fully implemented (rollout is expected to be completed this summer), it will be one of the first pen-based design systems in the country. Only Virginia Power and Gulf Power have implemented similar systems. All three utilities believe mobile design provides a variety of benefits ranging from increased efficiency to improved customer relations.

Internal and External Benefits

In Edison`s case, the Planner Office is a response to both internal and external events. Edison is reengineering its business processes and wanted to close the gap in work management. Capturing data at the source and creating an all-digital work order cycle from job inception to completion not only speeds up the design process, but also eliminates redundancy and error. The ability to move information to the job site is also expected to have a rich payoff in terms of customer satisfaction. In the past, planners and customers sometimes had to meet at the project site more than once to discuss alternative designs. With the new system, the goal is one visit with the customer. Planners can generate cost estimates on the spot or quickly revise a facilities drawing to reflect customer questions or concerns.

The new pen system is organized around the principle of selecting and placing assemblies (poles, wires, transformers, etc.) on a computer map or field sketch. Using an electronic pen, engineers select from a standardized list of assemblies and then tap the computer screen to place the unit on the sketch. As an engineer is placing poles or showing where a line should be extended, for example, an assembly database automatically calculates the materials list and cost estimates. The system lets the planner do engineering calculations (voltage drop, flicker, guying rules, etc.) to verify the design. It also includes budget items/PUC (public utilities commission) rules, task qualifiers and reference materials for use at the project site. With the Planner Office, Edison is systematizing the design process. Because the software specifies acceptable design units, engineers can only place legitimate assemblies. In effect, the system provides a check on the pieces an engineer can use to create a design.

Advanced Pen Technology

The emergence of this type of application reflects advances taking place in pen technology. Today, high-performance pen tablets have a fast processor (486 or 586), high memory capability (8 to 32 MB) and mass storage in disk or integrated circuit card form. Pen tablets have also gotten tougher, lighter in weight and have better battery life. This is important for a company like Edison whose planners work outside the vehicle in a variety of settings, including both urban and rural areas. Still, the Planner Office is a challenging application for a mobile computer. Engineers are, in effect, accessing what had been mainframe databases as well as information from different manuals. The system also automates processes that previously involved both computer tasks and manual work. Under the old system, a planner took notes at the job site, confirming data from circuit maps and sketching existing and new facilities. Planning assistants in the office entered data on a terminal and redrew the design.

To eliminate the need to copy and redraw field data–and to automate the process of generating a materials list and cost estimates–the Planner Office incorporates a large database and integrates different types of functionality. For example, instead of someone looking up and entering assembly codes for a completed design, the system automatically generates codes as a design is being created on the pen machine. The system also produces a label block on the design showing the type of pole or structure and all of its attachments. The Planner Office saves time in other ways. Planners can quickly run engineering calculations in the field to check the validity of a design. This replaces the tedious and time-consuming process of searching through tables in the Distribution Design Standards Manual back in the office. The ability to verify designs in the field also eliminates the need for a second trip to the job site.

In the course of the project, planners decided they wanted the Distribution Design Standards Manual loaded on the pen machine as part of the program. They felt that the ability to quickly look up even occasionally needed information would be helpful in working with customers. The Adobe Acrobat format was selected for this task. Frequently used tables were set up in pull-down menus under the Help file.

Customization and Development

Edison chose software and customization services from MapFrame Corp., a Dallas-based software developer specializing in pen applications for the utility industry. MapFrame had already developed a basic mobile design application for Gulf Power. For Edison, it was a question of adding functionality (engineering calculations, task qualifiers, access to manuals, etc.) and connecting to the company`s new work management system. From the beginning, the users guided the customization and development process. Both MapFrame and Edison agreed that the system had to be fast, easy to use and still have the high level of functionality the utility envisioned. Because MapFrame`s pen solutions often involve mapping–a demanding functionality in terms of memory and storage–the company had learned how to fit large databases on small machines. This turned out to be one of the keys to developing and customizing the utility`s mobile design system. For eight months, MapFrame and Edison worked together in a highly collaborative process. Fitting the required functionality on a mobile machine involved the use of compact data representation techniques, careful design of database interfaces and the ability to handle a diverse set of data types (maps, images, assembly codes, text descriptions, etc.).

One of the biggest questions that had to be resolved was how to lay out assembly data so users could quickly locate the needed assembly. Edison has a large database consisting of approximately 4,000 assemblies that not only had to be formatted for a pen-based platform, but structured for easy access. The answer was to organize assemblies into various overhead and underground categories and to build in rules about what assemblies are valid for different activities (install, remove, etc.) and voltages (in the case of voltage-sensitive assemblies). When picking an assembly, planners step through a series of selection lists. For example, in selecting a 40-foot pole, a planner indicates ownership, treatment, action and pole size. Each selection further narrows the choice. The software checks the current selection against the assembly database, listing only those choices that are valid at each step.

Easy-to-Use Technology

One of the priorities of the development team was to maintain a high level of usability while adding functionality. This was especially important because many of the users had limited computer experience. Ease-of-use was considered as important to the development team as getting the functionality right. Imposing a desktop system on a mobile computer was never an option. The team wanted a “field ready” solution to take advantage of this new mode of computing. The payoffs would be bigger, everyone agreed, if the solution moved in the same direction as the new technology.

MapFrame`s software was already built around highly intuitive pen “gestures,” simple marks you make on the screen to invoke an action or command. For example, to see part of the map or sketch in more detail, a circle is drawn around the area and the map zooms in. During creation of a sketch or a design, an object can be erased by marking an “X” on top of it. Assemblies are selected and placed by tapping once on the screen. To make Edison`s application even more intuitive, some of the gestures were changed during the customization process and others added. MapFrame also incorporated Edison`s standard symbols and business terms, giving the application a familiar look and feel.

To eliminate the need for handwriting large amounts of text, the Planner Office relies on standardized lists, check boxes and pre-defined icons. Users fill in attribute data like customer name and job location by printing in form fields. Though the planners wanted to avoid the need for extensive handwriting, they also wanted the ability to annotate the design. A list of standard notes was developed for this purpose (“R.O.W. Permit Required,” “Hazard: Check Location,” etc.). Notes can be placed on the design as is or edited for a specific situation. Planners can also annotate the design by making freehand notations directly on the computer screen. Because pen applications recognize “ink” as a data type, these notes are entered, stored and tracked by the pen software.

Planner Office and Maps

Another issue that had to be resolved during the customization and development process was what to do about maps. In laying out the design, planners create the drawing on top of a pen computer map. Edison is still developing a corporate GIS strategy and, at this point, has no system-wide GIS. In some districts, data conversion has occurred and, in these cases, MapFrame software handles the geographic data on pen machines. In districts that do not have maps, planners are creating a land base sketch at the job site using drawing tools built into the application. For example, engineers select and place street templates, center lines, property lines, barriers, houses, freeform buildings, lines with arrows, etc. The planners create the sketch, then lay out the design.

Edison wants to use maps in the future for all districts when the company establishes an enterprise-wide GIS. Adding maps to the system gives planners a clearer picture of existing facilities and structures and indicates how the new job connects to the rest of the network. With an enterprise-wide GIS, Edison can use the pen-based field maps to update and maintain the system. Because all assemblies are treated as geographic objects, every pole, transformer, etc. is coded with coordinates when placed on the map.

Project data will flow both ways through the company`s new proprietary work management system called the Distribution Project Management System (DPMS). Sketches and assembly data are automatically linked to the individual project. At the end of the day, planners upload data from the pen system through DPMS to the company`s construction, materials management and accounting systems. The company believes the Planner Office will increase the efficiency of the individual engineer and also provide enterprise-wide benefits to the corporation. Most gratifying to the project team, though, is a simple fact–the planners like the system and find it easy to use. Having been given the opportunity, the planners themselves created the ultimate office–one that follows information, rejects the limitations of space and adapts to the needs of individual users.

Author Bios

Randy Daffern is a project manager for Southern California Edison and Diane McQuarie is marketing manager for MapFrame Corp.

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Edison`s new pen system is organized around the principle of selecting and placing assemblies on a computer map or field sketch.

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Being able to access information at the job site allows Edison planners, like the one pictured here, to speed up the design process and eliminate errors.

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Planner Office allows planners to upload data from the pen system to the company`s construction, materials management and accounting systems.

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The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at

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