Clear-cut Needs, Technology Drive Improvements in Integrated Strategic Mobility

 

By K.P. Reddy, PricewaterhouseCooper’s Utility Advisory Services

In this economic slowdown, utilities are finding that having mobile solutions in place can pay substantial dividends in areas ranging from payment collection to increased efficiency in responding to outages and managing construction and repair.

Utilities have a long-standing need to support geographically dispersed technicians. Moreover, utilities have been under constant pressure to support a far-flung workforce in demanding—and often unforgiving—environments. Utilities are expected to maintain high levels of availability and service in even the most difficult circumstances. Downed power lines cannot be put off for long without generating unwelcome headlines.

 

The Challenge

 

Because the utility industry has had to field and support mobile workers for many years, companies have accumulated and implemented an array of legacy mobile technologies and business processes. These systems are now aging, and, in many cases, are in need of replacement. More importantly, the state of mobile technology in most organizations today is preventing utilities from developing innovative business practices that can: (1) reduce operational costs, (2) enhance customer service and (3) harness key national and industry-wide trends to improve their infrastructures.

Barriers to progress presented by legacy mobile workforce solutions can be traced to three root causes:

“- End-user complexity. The technology used by field workers is fragmented, cumbersome and outdated. Technicians must often carry multiple voice and data devices that use dedicated networks and do not interoperate. These limitations add time and complexity to completing tasks.

 

“- Rigid operational processes. Proprietary legacy technology limitations have defined how utilities do business. Lack of flexibility and interoperability have made it difficult for utility organizations to adapt to new demands, pressures and mandates.

 

“-Lack of back-office integration. The fragmented and complex systems in the end-user environment are perpetuated in back offices. Different systems dedicated to supporting specific devices and channels of communication do not interoperate. The inability to share information makes it difficult for decision makers to respond in a timely fashion to key developments in the field.

 

 

The Opportunity

 

In the meantime, technology developments have matured to a point where they provide a historically risk-averse industry with the tested tools needed to safely modernize its mobile workforce strategy.

Modern mobile multimedia devices and networks are robust and feature rich. This creates an opportunity to simplify end-user environments and enhance workforce productivity.

New business processes can be enabled on-the-fly. The availability of more open technologies allows workers to get more accomplished. It introduces a new level of operational flexibility that can stimulate creativity and innovation to streamline how tasks are approached and completed.

Back-office enterprise management systems have become more intelligent and sophisticated. This allows executives to integrate, centralize and standardize the flow of data throughout their organizations. As a result, decision makers have access to more information in a better context. This supports change management while reducing risk exposure.

To reach the next level of an enterprise mobile workforce solution, executives must understand the evolution of these solutions and the sophistication of technology available today, as well as the effect they can have on their organization’s business processes. Once these are understood, a comprehensive enterprise mobile workforce optimization (EMWO) strategy can be developed.

 

The Evolution

 

Mobile workforce solutions in the utility sector have evolved significantly during the past 10 years. Early generation solutions ran on single platforms and supported rigid sets of processes primarily driven by a customer information system (CIS).

Early forays into utility mobile workforce initiatives were associated with a CIS for the sole purpose of dispatching orders into the field via proprietary wireless handheld devices. With real-time updates sent to host CIS dispatchers, they were able to assign field orders to specific field crews, recall orders and cancel orders while monitoring the workloads of each field crew. Early investments in mobile workforce solutions automated many manual processes.

Over time, it became apparent that, beyond customer service operations, a variety of utility activities could benefit from mobile workforce solutions. For example, in operations and maintenance, the need to create a mobile workforce component for an outage management system (OMS) and enterprise work and asset management (EWAM) solutions was growing. The objective was to increase the amount of productive time that employees spend in the field and reduce their time in offices performing paperwork.

While headway was made toward this objective, it quickly became apparent that the inability to schedule resources efficiently based on field crew skill sets, work order types, materials and equipment, and schedules was a barrier to further progress. In response, industry vendors focused on three primary initiatives to help utilities:

  • Integrate, with ease, additional data from mobile workforce applications with new and improved upstream systems.
  • Use this data and gain insight from the effect that revised process flows would have on both customer service operations and dispatch centers.
  • Streamline resources and schedule tasks based on predefined rules and objectives.

 

Early attempts to address these objectives failed because of the high costs and complexity that legacy mobile workforce systems imposed. Expensive code modifications were required to extend existing functionalities. These modifications were quite complicated; they demanded intense requirements analysis and design phases, further contributing to the time and cost of mobility strategy upgrades.

In addition, the ability for wireless networks to reliably transmit an increasing amount of data was hampered by network throughput and coverage limitations. Private data networks attempted to address these concerns, but they also had complex deployment challenges and proved costly to implement and support. As technologies became standardized on interfacing mechanisms and data exchange protocols, some of these shortcomings were reduced, but they were not eliminated.

 

The Emergence

 

A breakthrough occurred when Web-based technologies matured to the point where ubiquitous computing platforms could support seamless access to applications and their data. This important development created an environment in which the complexities of sharing data and applications could be reduced. The next generation of open and robust wireless communication networks also matured. For example, current 3G networks can transmit larger volumes of data dependably to a multitude of portable devices.

The convergence of Web-based computing, improved interfacing mechanisms and better wireless throughput created profitable, affordable opportunities for application vendors to deliver more flexible solutions that addressed the shortcomings of early mobile workforce solutions.

With more robust configuration options, these solutions have the flexibility that utilities need to be competitive in a dynamic business environment. The new Web- and 3G-enabled mobility environment has created new opportunities for utilities to experiment and improve key business processes. Business process innovation provides utilities with a competitive edge and enhanced opportunities to achieve key strategic objectives more rapidly.

Now that technologies have evolved to provide increased functionality, enhanced configurability and increased communication capabilities, utilities face new opportunities to design more effective mobile workforce strategies.

However, companies should avoid viewing EMWO as an individual business application. EMWO solutions are not point solutions. Many CIS, OMS, EWAM and ERP systems vendors claim to provide mobile workforce solutions, but many vendor-based mobility solutions are invariably designed to support single-host applications. This approach should be evaluated carefully because it may lead to more complex, less flexible and, ultimately, more expensive mobile workforce solutions.

Selecting and implementing an EMWO strategy should be viewed no differently than any other enterprise solution. Companies need to follow standard methodologies for capturing system requirements, documenting business processes and developing a requirements document.

K.P. Reddy is a director in PricewaterhouseCooper’s Utility Advisory Services focusing on field force operations with more than 25 years of experience.

 

PricewaterhouseCoopers’ five-step process for continuous improvement:

 

 

1. Develop baselines for current processes. A thorough effort must be undertaken to review total process flow across all departments and business units. If the process review is only examined within a single department, some influencing factors and interdependencies may be missed, and bottlenecks in upstream and downstream environments may be overlooked.
2. Identify key performance indicators (KPIs) and determine success against strategic objectives. To establish meaningful KPIs, it is important to correlate corporate objectives with operational performance. Management must lead this effort to assess that the relevant objectives are mapped and the right targets are identified.
3. Implement KPI monitoring. Using the results of the process review, organizations can revise and implement new processes. Business process teams, working closely with technology teams, can model the new process flows.
4. Review results with process owners and identify changes. The metrics that measure the effects of the new process flow should be reviewed, and additional metrics should be developed if necessary.
5. Implement new processes and re-establish baselines. The cycle for reviewing processes then starts all over again. It should be noted that this is a continuous improvement process. It is a journey, not a destination.

 

CASE STUDY: CPS Energy Speeds Work Order Field Response

Overview: CPS Energy is the nation’s largest municipally owned energy company, providing both natural gas and electric service. The company serves approximately 685,000 electric customers and almost 320,000 natural gas customers in and around the seventh-largest city in the nation.

Problem: CPS Energy needed a high-performance, vehicle-rugged mobile computer solution to help automate processes. (See photo, page 35.) In addition, the company needed high-performance, rugged computers to withstand weather and displays that could be seen in direct sunlight to improve customer service efficiency.

To better serve its large customer base, CPS Energy wanted to automate aspects of its field processes by putting mobile data terminals in the hands of field service crews. Back in 1995, CPS Energy started to realize the efficiencies of mobile computing by implementing a mobility project.

“We started where most utilities start—looking for a mobile solution to improve customer service and efficiency, particularly in our trouble-ticket department,” said James Trevino, CPS Energy’s manager of technical services within Energy Delivery Services.

Yet, upon initiating its mobility project, CPS Energy found that because its field service technicians often combated extreme conditions, including San Antonio’s notorious hot, sunny days, not just any notebook would suffice. Notebook systems deployed by the large energy company needed to be rugged enough to withstand a variety of environmental conditions, from hot, humid days to brutal, drenching storms, because that is when energy trouble tickets are most active. Furthermore, because the notebooks would be used mainly in direct sunlight, screen viewability was particularly important.

“We needed a durable notebook for our field-service technicians that could withstand the bumpy conditions of a truck environment as well as all types of Texas weather,” Trevino said.

Solution: The GD6000 vehicle-rugged notebook.

Following CPS Energy’s initial mobile computing plan, the company started to expand its mobile solution to maintenance departments. As it looked to invest in more units, CPS Energy sent out a proposal for competitive bids to various hardware vendors. Following a detailed search, the company identified vehicle-rugged notebooks from General Dynamics Itronix that were compatible with their solution provider Ventyx (formally MDSi) as their rugged notebook solution of choice.

CPS Energy started with General Dynamics Itronix’s first line of GoBooks in 2001 and recently upgraded to the General Dynamics Itronix vehicle-rugged GD6000 notebook.

After deploying 475 units, Trevino and Bonnie San Miguel, mobile data support manager for CPS Energy’s Delivery Services department, deployed additional units to contractors who work on streetlight maintenance crews.

“Since we’ve implemented direct dispatching with the notebooks, the number of orders that contractors can fulfill in a day has increased dramatically,” said San Miguel.

Results: Vehicle-rugged mobile notebooks have enabled work crews to speed repair turnaround times to just 24 hours.

Now, using Service Suite dispatching software and the notebooks, CPS Energy contractors can see work orders as soon as they get in their vehicles, without having to drive to the depots. Upon job completion, a repair tech updates the job on the notebook, and that information is immediately updated in the company’s back-end system. The result is fewer duplicated work orders.

“This equipment in the field is a critical link in the whole emergency response process,” said Trevino.

 

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