By Ron Bisio, Trimble
Utilities are quickly learning how newly developed geospatial software can streamline their operations and help them better manage their dispersed assets. In the past, locating and keeping up with these dispersed assets required specially-made hardware with management software built in. Today, however, workers can deploy agnostic software on any handheld device, allowing project managers and field workers to use real-time data to streamline project efficiency. This new “bring your own device” (BYOD) capability is allowing utilities to cut cost and man hours.
St. Anthony, Minnesota-based SL-serco found out firsthand how BYOD apps can make life easier and more productive for its mobile teams. SL-serco supports all facets of AMI and AMR installations at water, electric and gas utilities. The company coordinates field activities for audits, repairs and data collection, then leverages the resulting data to help utilities optimize their advanced metering systems.
Accurate data is the basis of any successful advance metering systems, said Reed Sutter, SL-serco’s manager for AMI/AMR systems support.
Sutter and his teams have long relied on electronic data collection rather than pen and paper, but until recently their efforts to increase efficiency were hindered by an inability to quickly combine old data with new data.
“You have to marry new information to old records so that account data can stay consistent,” Sutter said. “In the beginning, we tried lots of different technology tools, but their collective inability to integrate data was always limiting.”
Greater Data Collection Efficiency From the Get-Go
SL-serco began a project in 2013 that included recording a water utility’s assets as part of a study for a proposed fixed-base metering system. To audit assets such as water towers and pump houses, SL-serco staff had to collect attributes such as GPS location, structure height, the presence of a power source and altitude. Because this project required accurate GPS coordinates, Sutter and his team for the first time adopted a data collection app. They selected this newly-available app because it could synthesize different kinds of data across a variety of devices, including iPhones, iPads, Windows Mobile and Android devices. The geospatial software application SL-serco used can be deployed in various utility settings beyond water utility applications, such as locating buried utilities with maps created from mobile data collection, electric meter audits, project management via data collection, and energy analytics generated from data reporting.
Collecting GPS coordinates immediately created opportunities for SL-serco to increase efficiency around data collection just by more accurately locating meters on a property. For example, if a water utility account holder owns a 100-acre property, the city may only provide one GPS location for the entire 100 acres, and that point might not match the meter’s location. Now SL-serco’s process can assign the GPS coordinate to the meter, not just the general property point that the city has for the property. Similarly, if there are electric utility assets such as meters or buried lines, the integration of previously-captured location data into mobile, real-time data collection allows managers to quickly and accurately incorporate that information into other project plans moving forward.
The first immediate benefit the new data collection mobile app provided, however, came from its capability to create custom forms. Sutter could quickly create forms in the software application with all the different kinds of data fields to better manage and track field assets. If a form needed modifying mid-project, Sutter made the changes from his chosen device, even if he was in a remote area away from the project location. The updated form was pushed out to the rest of the staff the next time they synced up. This ensured data collection was always consistent.
“The forms are really easy to use. I get very few calls with questions once the utility’s guys are out in the field,” Sutter said.
Armed with customizable tools that meet exact needs, the utility’s teams collected meter data quickly and efficiently. The data was then automatically transferred to the Cloud for access by the back office.
Businesses across nearly all sectors have been forced to implement software that can successfully integrate with the Cloud. The digital world demands real-time decision making, and for field workers, the ability to rapidly collect data and automatically upload that data to the Cloud means that the information can be turned into actionable intelligence by project managers regardless of their physical location. For utility companies, this means stronger workflows and the ability to use business intelligence in an industry that is feeling the pressure to successfully connect service providers with consumers who want to track energy usage, and thus require more and better data.
Sutter also was able to enter data while offline and then simply synchronize his device when cell coverage was again available. When he needed to geo-reference an asset but GPS wasn’t being logged, the process was again quite simple-he manually placed the dot onscreen when collecting the data; and later he assigned coordinates to this dot.
Old and New Data Integrated at Last
When SL-serco was looking to upgrade its hardware and software technology, the ability to integrate old and new data ranked high on its list of necessary qualities. Today’s utility companies need this capability for several reasons, including event tracking, personnel and asset management, and ability to navigate the future of energy and utility management, which lies in the “connected world.”
It is important in many of its utility-related auditing tasks for SL-serco to have tracking capability for certain events, such as meter change-outs. SL-serco and its utility clients can start with an existing record, then import previous data, as well as attach new installed meter data, by simply creating a new form with the software. When a utility field technician inputs data, he or she is adding information to an existing record rather than creating a new log without context.
The integration of old and new data also allows faster re-routing sequences with GPS coordinates. SL-serco’s AMR customers typically hold a set of accounts sequenced in a particular order for maintenance. Often the historically assigned sequence is not the most efficient one possible. By collecting accurate GPS coordinates for existing meters, SL-serco can create a faster sequence, or route, to follow based on the location information. Better routes save time on maintenance projects.
As the concept of the connected world continues to grow in critical industries, utility companies will be uniquely positioned to collect and analyze vast amounts of data like consumer usage rates, energy production, smart grid monitoring and event response for things like outages. The amount of data will grow, so software must grow along with it. Connecting devices, assets, processes, etc. will enable utility companies to improve service and business practices.
Looking Forward for Utility Companies
By using an advanced-technology solution for collecting data and making the most of accurate GPS locations, utilities can transform their work processes with “off the meter” efficiency. The combination of BYOD work settings, data analytics and better software has opened up a host of possibilities for utility companies across the board. Changing needs at both an industrial and consumer level will require that these companies continue to grow and implement cutting-edge technology as energy usage and grid connectivity become even more important. Deploying some of the new mobile apps and other project management software available on the market today can put these companies in a position to maximize manpower, streamline project workflows, increase efficiency and, ultimately, better manage and complete project deliverables.
Ron Bisio is vice president of geospatial at Trimble.