Digital workflow technologies could save contractors and utilities time and money

Photo by fran hogan on Unsplash

To improve efficiencies, contractors are trying new technologies to smooth out the ebb and flow of information tied to field work. Take, for example, joint-use audits. Typically, an electric utility will call a contractor to inspect poles and see if, say, a telecommunications company (which rents space on the pole to hang its gear) has violated any company construction specifications. Left unchecked, violations can cause safety or construction issues. Inspections also help the pole owner back bill the offending party for failure to notify them of an attachment. For contractors, joint-use audits – or make-ready work – can lead to additional revenue in the form of engineering and construction work.

But here’s the problem:  Contractors say getting make-ready inspections or audits off the ground mostly rely on a utility’s back-office workers putting together work orders, maps, routes and job lists by hand or generating the documents by computer to then give to inspectors in the field.  For the utility, the challenge is not only the amount of preparation required to kickstart the contractor’s day but also time lags in knowing the inspector’s progress and what kind of materials are needed for the make-ready work or to correct violations found by audit.

After picking up packets and driving to a job site, inspectors often create more paper to report on what they’ve found. If an inspector pinpoints a need for engineering work, he or she usually jots down corrections and delivers the utility either a form or notes on a map. If the contractor can add value by engineering the make-ready or corrective work with the utility’s compatible units, or CU, this improves data flow and reduces utility time but increases data transfer.  The utility will then order construction material and assign a crew to complete the job. In some cases, contractors are offering turnkey operations, which provide inspection, engineering, construction and oversight.

Since the process is so heavily paper-based and manual, contractors say it’s challenging to consistently estimate joint-use audits and construction. That, in turn, leads to bidding on projects that can sometimes make it difficult to break even or wind up in the red.

Creating a consistent, efficient flow of information

Recently, I learned about a Southeastern U.S. utility contractor experimenting with a different approach. With mobile technology, they hope to fully automate projects like joint-use audits or make-ready work and reduce their costs and time in the field. Here’s how they envision it working:  A utility would electronically deliver information to the contractor for each joint-use project. To reduce travel time, the system would employ technology to load the utility’s system maps and GIS data, while tapping GPS to map the most efficient route for inspectors to help them accomplish more work in a day. The contractor could import the utility’s inspection template to a tablet and capture data and then electronically send the inspection results. If the inspector recommended engineering work, he could indicate in the electronic record the items to correct (e.g., replacing a pole, moving the neutral to the crossarm, or pinpointing a maintenance problem) and simultaneously send the file to the utility’s construction supervisor for either the utility or contractor to tackle. 

The utility construction supervisor would set up the repair job on her desktop computer; she would click on the pole, generate a form with maps and compatible units (i.e., the utility’s standard for every construction job, including specific components for labor and materials ranging from crossarms to bolts). This would be immediately viewable when the contractor’s general foreman or crew chief opens the job on his mobile device. With the CU embedded in the electronic packet, the system would alert the store room, staff would gather the material and make ready for pick up by the crews. As the contract crew’s day progressed, they would electronically pick up each new construction assignment, without ever returning to the service center.

In this vision for a fully automated inspection-construction-billing process, the methods are the same as the manual one. The utility simply does its make-ready or audit work more efficiently. And the contractor quickly updates the utility about what crews are replacing and which items to replenish.

Here’s another benefit for the contractor:  They get a precise look at how long it takes to complete each inspection and construction job, including what they can accomplish in a day, week or month. That analysis would help a contractor more accurately bid on jobs.

Let’s say a contractor bids on 80 jobs in a year; 78 make money, but two are money-losers. The contractor wants to know how to eliminate one or both of the projects that didn’t pay off. By automatically tracking the time and materials to complete jobs, bids become far more accurate. If a contractor loses a bid, the company at least knows their quote is accurate. Applying technology to gain a closer look at what does and doesn’t make money in the field is especially helpful for contractors (either privately held outfits or those owned by the public markets) keenly aware of producing shareholder returns.

If the contractor I spoke with is successful, they could end up applying the technology they’re developing for an array of inspection, construction or maintenance projects to make data flow seamless and efficient.

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Jim Nowak retired as manager of emergency restoration planning for AEP in 2014. He capped his 37-year career with AEP by directing the utility's distribution emergency restoration plans for all seven of the company's operating units, spanning 11 states. He was one of the original co-chairs for Edison Electric Institute's (EEI) Mutual Assistance Committee and National Mutual Assistance Resource Team and a member of EEI's National Response Event (NRE) governance and exercise sub-committees. He currently serves as senior director of Operational Services for ARCOS LLC.

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