Moving Forward

Why the Energy Industry Needs to Overcome Its Digital Reluctance

By Alvaro Pombo, ProntoForms

As the world goes digital, it’s surprising that industrial sectors are still lagging. Field workers want a mobile-first workplace, but enterprises have been slow to adapt, leading to inefficiencies, poor quality of service and increased risks.

Many businesses are aware of the pitfalls associated with relying on manual processes, but hesitate due to the challenges of managing business process changes, initial deployment costs and training associated with implementing a digital platform. With the right solution, however, these challenges can be overcome. More importantly, the business benefits of cost reduction, improved productivity and safety that come with adopting a mobile platform far outweigh the challenges. Simply put, mobile technology can transform your business processes and ensure compliance while increasing productivity and improving service quality.

From the mobile devices used in the field for data collection to the integrated back-end platform that keeps the field and main office connected, every aspect of a mobile workflow is important to ensure businesses are optimizing operations while mitigating risks. The electricity industry is among the industries whose business processes can benefit most through automating processes with a mobile workflow platform.

Never Lose Another Form

From printing, distribution, mailing, collection and sorting, paper forms can cost businesses up to $4.56 per document, according to AIIM, a global, non-profit organization that provides independent research, education and certification programs to information professionals. This cost doesn’t include costs associated with errors and loss. Visioneer Inc. reports that 7.5 percent of all paper documents are lost, which can result in damaging and irreversible consequences. Using mobile solutions, field workers can quickly capture complete and accurate data and share the results in real-time with key stakeholders and back-end systems with the touch of a button.

Capture Media-rich Data-Even Offline

Mobile forms solutions are much more than electronic versions of paper forms. Many tasks in the field can be performed more efficiently by adding pictures, audio, GPS and time stamps, and signatures to a form. With media-rich data, workers can accurately pinpoint issues and address them in a timely manner, minimizing miscommunication and the need for employees to redo work.

Field workers in the electric utilities industry often must work in remote locations, making it also important that they can still capture data while offline. Without this capability, there can be lengthy delays in collecting, submitting and acting on data.

The best mobile solutions allow companies to adapt to a changing work environment and easily create and modify automated workflows in a click-and-drag interface-no coding required. This makes it possible to quickly modify how data is routed across the organization, such as adding and deleting users, storing data in different cloud systems, dispatching new forms to people in the field, and more.

Collaborate to Improve Productivity and Service

Poor communication between field workers and the office can significantly hamper productivity. Field workers often fail to receive critical project information in a timely manner, leaving them at a standstill until the right people, equipment or materials are sent to the site. Using manual processes to disperse all the required information to the right team can take days.

A mobile solution is an ideal tool for auditing existing processes. Rather than simply recreating existing processes on mobile devices, a mobile solution allow creation of new, context-sensitive and intelligent workflows where field data can be automatically routed to a wide range of systems, cloud services and people-based on the captured data.

Heavily regulated industries such as oil and gas and utilities have a multitude of forms and business processes that field workers must complete on a daily basis, including site safety assessments, checklists, equipment inspections and more. A mobile forms solution can be preconfigured with mandatory and customized fields to easily streamline this data collection process. If any safety issues are discovered on site, automated workflows can immediately notify decision makers with mission-critical information. Reports can even be ranked based on severity to mitigate any impending risks. This increased collaboration results in better, faster service, improving quality of delivery as well as business relationships with customers.

Access Business Intelligence to Mitigate Risks

Enterprises are increasingly leveraging big data to address business opportunities using advanced analysis and reporting capabilities. Over the years, data has moved from descriptive analytics (condensing big data into smaller pieces) to predictive analysis (using existing data to predict outcomes) to now prescriptive analysis, where data can be used to recommend one or more courses of action and show the likely outcome of each decision.

Accenture reported that 80 to 90 percent of companies indicate that analytics is either their top priority or in their top three. With powerful analytics and reporting tools, decision makers can track the productivity and progress of field workers and easily pinpoint any challenges by region, work group, site, or even individual employees. When analytics tools make data more understandable and actionable, field workers and supervisors can address any potential productivity or compliance concerns and manage them head on before they disrupt business processes.

Most enterprise customers start their mobile solution deployments with a single business process and a small number of forms. Inevitably, when executives see the benefits of eliminating slow paper-based processes, they expand their mobile solution to include more tasks, more teams and more corporate functions. Mobile platforms let companies grow at their own pace, add users, tweak workflows as they go, and incorporate feedback from the field into their processes. The foundation of these software as a service (SaaS) solutions is a secure, reliable and scalable platform with open application programming interfaces (APIs) and software development kits (SDKs).

PG&E goes mobile to streamline operations and mitigate risks

PG&E, one of the largest utilities in the United States, has turned to mobile forms and analytics to complete auditing of safety operations.

Prior to going mobile, PG&E relied largely on multiple antiquated manual processes for collecting and distributing field data. For quality assurance and damage control, the company relied on a paper-based solution as well as Microsoft Access and Excel for reporting and analytics. Most of PG&E’s data collection processes were also paper-based and records were housed in several warehouses over the company’s 70,000-square-mile service territory. This method of recordkeeping meant that procedures and processes were inconsistent across districts. There were also delays in the paper-based auditing and Excel tracking of services and equipment, and these setbacks significantly impacted data quality as well as the speed and reliability of reporting. Thus, the company had limited visibility into its operations.

In 2010, a PG&E pipeline ruptured and exploded in the city of San Bruno, California. In the aftermath of the incident, the utility sought to modernize its data collection processes.

“Our vision is to be the safest and most reliable gas company,” said Khaled Fustok, senior manager of gas technology strategy & solutions at PG&E. “The lesson learned from the San Bruno incident was both around the availability of our records, the quality of our data, and how to identify and leverage quality data to drive risk-informed asset management.”

PG&E deployed a leading mobile solution to avoid the risk of preventable equipment failures, accidents, liabilities and damage to its corporate brand. Khaled’s team considered other mobile applications that were already used internally within PG&E, but none of them could meet all of PG&E’s required capabilities.

PG&E needed a solution that would eliminate incongruent and redundant databases, leverage enterprise work management systems, and provide PG&E field workers with the ability to capture transactions using mobile technology.

The mobile forms solution had to be simple to use, device-agnostic, cloud-connected and able to integrate with a business intelligence engine.

By August 2015, PG&E leveraged mobile capabilities to inspect 1.2 million gas meters in the field. The data from field operators, including images, geospatial information and corrosion ratings, is available for the management team to determine which meters, based on the inspections, are to be replaced and which meters can be maintained for the next inspection cycle. Analytics reports provide clear visibility into the status of the meters by geographic area. In January 2016, PG&E’s quality control and quality assurance team adopted the mobile solution.

PG&E has already seen a significant return on investment. Harnessing a top-tier mobile solution for safety auditing has significantly elevated the number and frequency of inspections performed, mitigating the potentially costly risks of noncompliance. Streamlining the meter inspection process has produced quantifiable savings. In 2015 alone, the company saved approximately $1.5 million in atmospheric corrosion costs.

Since the successful deployment of mobile forms for corrosion inspections, PG&E has expanded its use of mobile forms to other field processes, including asset damage control processes, to reduce the number of incidents where construction crews damage buried gas lines with excavators and other heavy machinery.

Mobile solutions can create a seamless workflow for field workers, and more companies are adopting this technology-but not fast enough. The largest barriers to entry seem to be integrating a mobile platform and training employees on how to use it.

Enterprises must recognize, however, that field workers want these solutions now and that they’re needed for the bottom line, too. Business leaders must consider how going mobile can enable them to run their businesses more efficiently, continuously improve service quality and drive better business outcomes.

Alvaro Pombo brings 28 years of leadership and telecommunications experience to ProntoForms. As CEO and founder, he plays a fundamental role in financing and driving business strategy. Pombo is also active in research and development, product strategy and business development efforts. He has served as a consultant to Palm and other technology leaders, and continues to help nurture entrepreneurs and innovation. Pombo holds an MBA from the University of Ottawa, an executive degree from Georgetown University, and a bachelor’s of science degree in computer engineering from Universidad de los Andes in Bogotàƒ¡, Colombia.

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