Automating the Field With a System Solution: The Next Step in Mobile Dispatch

by Tina Rauch, PPL Services Corp.

PPL Electric Utilities is not new to computer-aided dispatch and mobile device technology. Headquartered in Allentown, Pa., the transmission and distribution company serves 1.4 million customers and covers a service territory of 10,000 square miles.

In 1998 PPL implemented a service order fulfillment (SOF) system that enabled automated dispatch of short-cycle meter orders, underground locates and collection orders to ruggedized field devices. Like many other utilities, PPL ventured into this technology with this particular workgroup because it had the potential to yield big benefits. By nature, this type of work represents a large volume of short-duration jobs. If a company can successfully optimize the schedule, dispatch the work and complete the jobs, there is enormous potential to increase overall workforce productivity.

PPL considers the SOF implementation a success, and for many years it reaped the benefits of the optimized processes. Despite its success, PPL never expanded the system to include other types of work or work groups. In 2005, that began to change.

A New Mobile Vision

PPL Electric Utilities envisioned new ways to leverage automated dispatch and mobile technologies, including the following characteristics:

  1. All work, regardless of where it originates, should be visible in a single application.
  2. All field workers, regardless of their normal daily assignment, should receive their work through the same application. This will be particularly important during storm response, when all crews work trouble orders and need to have enough familiarity with the system to close those orders on their mobile devices.
  3. All field workers, regardless of their normal assignment locations, should have access to street and facility maps for the entire service territory. This, again, will be vital during a storm event when crews may be asked to respond anywhere in the territory.
  4. Regardless of the number of technologies employed, to the field user, it should all appear to be one seamless system.

The IT staff at PPL translated the vision into a few key assumptions and requirements:

  1. The existing SOF application would need to be replaced with a more robust mobile workforce management system. The SOF platform could not handle the increased functionality that was needed.
  2. PPL’s GIS data needed to be accessible in the field, and it needed to be updated without human intervention on a nightly schedule.
  3. Field crews needed a map for routing from one location to another, and they needed to have audible navigation similar to an off-the-shelf GPS unit.
  4. Field crews needed to be able to send and receive data whether in the garage or the field.
  5. Field crews would be given mobile devices, which would always remain in the vehicle and, therefore, needed to withstand extreme temperatures and vibration.

The Components of the System Solution

With these requirements, PPL embarked on a four-year, $12 million project dubbed the Mobile Operations Management (MOM) project. The cornerstone of this system solution is the mobile workforce management system. PPL selected the Service Suite application from Ventyx. Service Suite enables PPL dispatchers to view work, schedule it and dispatch it to available field crews. It also has a mobile component that enables field crews to receive orders and enter appropriate completion information, which is immediately transmitted back to the host systems.

PPL selected MapFrame FieldSmart View and FieldSmart Route for its mobile map functionality. Each mobile device has a map of the entire service territory, which contains street maps and GIS facility maps. PPL’s corporate GIS is more than 30GB in size, and on the mobile computers, MapFrame compresses it to less than 1 GB, enabling quick map rendering. The maps are kept in sync with the corporate ESRI GIS database each night with the help of MapFrame’s Field Flow Manager. Audible driving directions are accessible from this same map using MapFrame’s FieldSmart Route.

Although the mobile map and the mobile component of the workforce management system are supplied by two vendors, there is a seamless integration to users. From any screen in the Service Suite mobile application, a user can click on a button that takes him or her to the map at the exact location of the job or jobs he or she was viewing in the mobile application.

Underlying both applications are communication technologies that allow remote field users to remain connected to the home office. PPL installed wireless (LANs) in all of its service centers. Field crews can receive most of their work each morning on a private, low-cost communication channel. Once they leave the garage, cellular communications is engaged and continues to send and receive data throughout the day

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To manage the multiple communication channels, PPL implemented Mobility XE from NetMotion, a mobile VPN solution that optimizes communication as users roam among various wireless networks. Again, this is all seamless to users who do not need to manually reacquire connections or continually log in as new communication channels are utilized.

The final significant piece of PPL’s system solution is the mobile device itself. PPL purchased Panasonic Toughbooks models CF-19 and CF-30 for vehicles. The laptops come with an embedded GPS, WiFi, and cellular modems. Each device is locked into a pedestal inside the cab of its corresponding vehicle, and usually all units remain in vehicles even when vehicles are not in use. The pedestal is installed with a shutdown timer, which maintains power to the mobile device for up to four hours after a vehicle has been turned off. External speakers are included with installation so that GPS directions are more audible to drivers.

Putting the System to Use

PPL gradually has rolled out the system to its field crews beginning in April 2008, when troublemen (i.e. first responders) started to receive trouble orders from the outage management system (OMS) directly on their ruggedized laptops. Shortly thereafter, the T&D line crews received laptops and began using it to receive and respond to trouble orders.

Implementation of the OMS interface has created the opportunity to significantly improve storm response efforts, which PPL hopes will translate into increased customer satisfaction. In the past, crews and dispatchers relied exclusively on private radio and cell phones to communicate with one another. This worked fine for day-to-day outages, but in the midst of a substantial storm event, communication channels often became log jammed, and consequently, crews would wait for long durations to communicate their status or to receive their next order. All of this meant that customers were out of power longer than necessary. With MOM in place, radio and cell phone traffic has been reduced dramatically; crews can send and receive information more efficiently; and customers’ power is restored more quickly.

Moving crews from one location to another during storm events has also improved. When responding to an event outside of their normal work areas, crews no longer must report to the local service center to receive jobs or directions to work locations. Instead, they can receive jobs en route from their locations, and they can use their mobile maps to guide them directly to outages.

With the outage management interface fully implemented, PPL set its sights on incorporating orders from its work management system (WMS). The WMS interface is being deployed to all T&D line crews and electricians. Work orders still are scheduled and optimized in the WMS, but MOM leverages the Service Suite application to dispatch the orders to field crews. As with the OMS phase, crews can receive these orders electronically and provide status updates directly from the field.

The next and final phase for the MOM project will be to replace that old SOF system originally implemented back in 1998. When finished, the system will be in use by troublemen, T&D line crews, electricians, line maintenance inspectors, line clearance inspectors, servicemen and first-class meter installers.

Total, some 700 vehicles will be outfitted with the MOM system, and some 1,300 employees will use it to receive and complete their daily job assignments. These jobs will include trouble orders, construction jobs, maintenance jobs, meter orders, underground locates and collection orders.

In the office, managers and support staff can view jobs, track the current status of each, move work among crews when necessary and optimize the schedule if needed—all from a single application.

Author

Tina Rauch is info technology team lead at PPL Services Corp. Reach her at tmrauch@ pplweb.com.

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