Mobile Workforce Applications Step Up to Smart Metering

By Guerry Waters, Oracle Corporation

Depolyment is among the most daunting challenges to utilities entering the smart metering era. Given current pressures on field technicians, can a utility ask them to undertake the enormous task of changing out every customer’s meter? Can utilities accomplish the task with overtime? Are contract workers required to complete the task? Should the utility outsource the entire task to a third party?

This is not the first time in recent history that the issue of mass deployment has arisen. Many utilities have previous experience deploying automatic meter reading (AMR). Many of those found outsourcing to be the only sensible answer despite attendant issues like familiarizing workers with the territory and the utility’s customer relations standards, questions of accountability and lack of immediate control over work quality. 

Options 

An alternative to outsourcing exists. By first implementing a full mobile workforce management (MWM) solution, many utilities will find that their existing field technician workforce can handle the smart meter deployment task.

Many utilities approach the idea of a new MWM solution with skepticism. That is understandable. In the recent past—and certainly during the period when many utilities undertook AMR deployments—field work managers investigating MWM software found that most solutions had been designed around field work tasks far simpler than those found in a utility. Software that handled routing for delivery trucks simply could not address the complexity of utility fieldwork—the combination of maintenance, replacement, installation, scheduled appointments and emergencies utility field crews routinely handle.

That is not the case today. Utilities can implement advanced MWM applications that address utility-specific needs comprehensively, in ways that dramatically increase efficiency and ensure prompt returns on investment. 

Increased Efficiency 

MWM applications increase utilities’ efficiency through a variety of new tools and techniques, including:

Unified communications: Unified communications (sometimes referred to as ubiquitous mobility) strategies enable utilities to equip field technicians with devices that can access multiple high-speed wireless networks. Utilities can communicate the day’s schedule, including frequent updates, to all technicians no matter their location or the type of devices they are using. These devices are not limited to laptops but include tablets, handheld computers, smart phones and cell phones that receive both screens of information and short message service (SMS) messages. Field technicians are not required to gather at a central office or designated remote gathering point to receive information. Everyone can arrive at the site of the first task at the start of the workday. Field technicians can pick up stock at “depots” such as warehouses and lock boxes, eliminating the bottleneck at the parts counter. In addition, every technician can submit reports from any field location, so he doesn’t need to return to a central point at the end of the day. This single aspect of unified communications can easily free up two hours per technician per day.

The computational grid: In the past, mobile applications could not handle the large amount of data required for utilities to schedule and track every technician at every location performing a wide variety of tasks. As a result, utilities using those applications had to divide their service territories into arbitrary units whose boundaries technicians were forbidden to cross. It was a requirement that created work assignments for technicians that might kindly be described as less than optimal. Crew A could work on a line only up to the artificial boundary, after which the task belonged to crew B.

Computational grids, in contrast, permit utilities to handle the entire service territory and all crews and tasks as a single unit. They enable MWM applications to accept any volume of data and divide it dynamically across multiple servers.

The computational grid also divides complex problems like utility fieldwork planning and scheduling across those same servers. It then optimizes each field assignment by taking account of information across all servers. In addition, it schedules forward, months in advance.

Computational grids are exceptionally reliable. If a server goes down, the MWM application continues to function using the remaining servers. Planning and scheduling continue uninterrupted, with emergency assignments and altered appointments accommodated in real time.

Intra-day scheduling: The computational grid also permits utilities to re-optimize resources immediately, in real time, when changes occur. It reroutes crews using current road conditions and utility priorities like travel time and fuel consumption. If crews finish early or need to address an emergency, they need not wait for batch runs or dispatcher availability.

As a result, utilities can assign crews to smart meter installation tasks on an as-available basis, across the entire service territory. 

Increased Accuracy 

MWM tools also increase utilities’ accuracy through:

Knowledge tools: Utilities have been understandably concerned that highly-trained technicians accustomed to a variety of complex tasks might not be as fast or as reliable in meter installation as a dedicated workforce might be. Today’s MWM applications, however, minimize that issue.

MWM solutions come with knowledge tools that dramatically reduce the time technicians need to complete tasks correctly. These tools capture the experience of the most knowledgeable technicians and turn that experience into task guides and checklists readily accessible via standard Web-based interfaces. They include:

  • Process-specific wizards that accommodate many alternative field scenarios and capture data based on context,
  • Drop-down menus,
  • Point-and-click and drag-and-drop options for data entry, and
  • Process assistant software that highlights errors or unlikely choices based on analyses of previous data entered. 

Today’s MWM turns yesterday’s Gantt chart into a Web-based interface. (Editor’s note: A Gantt chart is a bar chart that shows a project schedule.) Drag-and-drop capabilities put virtually all data just a mouse-click away. As a result, technicians can answer many of their own questions, determine the right option for addressing a task, determine the best order for multiple steps in a task, and verify task completion—even if they have not performed the task at hand in months. They no longer need to wait for an experienced crew chief or supervisor to approve the work they have completed and authorize a move to the next task.

Tools for remote supervisors: MWM gives supervisors tools that interface with technicians’ knowledge tools and reports to compare technician decisions with a standard set of task-completion rules and alternatives. These tools allow supervisors to readily identify situations that do not meet specifications. These same tools can identify technicians who appear to be taking longer than expected to complete specific types of tasks, alerting a remote supervisor to the need to place a call to see what the problem is and to provide needed help.

Remote supervision significantly reduces travel time, permits supervisors to handle many more crews, and enables any supervisor to monitor and ensure completion of virtually any task. 

Is Do-it-Yourself the Best Option? 

The ability to assign smart meter installation to an existing workforce does not make it a mandate. Utilities must consider benefits of assigning this relatively simple, repetitive task to a workforce considerably less skilled than existing field technicians.

Some compelling reasons exist, however, why utilities might want to implement MWM simultaneously with the move to smart meter deployment and use the do-it-yourself solution:

  • MWM increases field technician efficiency dramatically. That might mean less need for overtime—a change that can have a negative impact on technicians’ income and financial security. It could also mean a need for fewer technicians. Adding meter deployment to your existing crews’ task lists can provide a bridge from old to new workforce requirements. It alleviates the immediate pressure to slash overtime or—far worse—lay off highly-trained technicians with years of outstanding service. This added task provides several years during which natural attrition can reduce or eliminate the problem of surplus staff.
  • Meter deployment can be a useful “fill in” task when other jobs take less time than expected.
  • Utilities do not need to pay to train two separate workforces. Sooner or later, the existing workforce must learn to install, test, repair and replace the new meters. Performing the initial deployment speeds that process.
  • Scheduling appointments for “hard to access” meters is far easier and more reliable using the existing workforce. Today’s MWM works directly with customer information systems (CIS) to schedule appointments, keep customers up-to-date on delays, and follow up on completed meter change-outs. Attempting to use a third party for these intimate customer interactions is cumbersome, prone to errors and omissions, and likely to lead to more customer dissatisfaction. 

Outsourcing smart meter deployment remains an option. But utilities not required to meet pressing near-term installation deadlines may find that using their own workforces to implement the smart meter switch better prepares field technicians to maintain and fix those meters going forward. In addition, it demonstrates the utility’s ongoing commitment to enhancing technician skills.

Guerry Waters is vice president, utilities industry strategy at Oracle Corp. 

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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 Jennifer.Runyon@ClarionEvents.com.

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