Beyond the Tool Belt
Posted: 04.04 - By William Schu

While other industries—most notably financial services—have struggled to take full advantage of the benefits of mobile technology, utility companies and energy providers are making steady if unremarkable progress in automating their field forces.

According to Don Blumberg, CEO of consulting firm D.F. Blumberg Associates, the key to generating ROI and improved efficiency for utilities is the effectiveness of a company’s wireless communications and data processing unit. “The business of balancing electricity supply and demand is now an exact science, with huge profits—or losses—riding on the performance of utilities’ data and external communications networks. Without accurate and timely data from the field regarding the service engineer’s status, location, current activity and parts availability, any attempt to optimize the workforce management, scheduling, dispatch and assignment will be frustrated.”

Utility companies have gotten the message. Scott Munro, director of product marketing for software provider MDSI, says that roughly half of the approximately 300 major utility companies in the U.S. use mobile technology for vehicle location and schedule optimization, among other tasks. “About half of the remaining companies have some sort of home-brewed, semi-automated IT-built solutions.”

Steve Roth, VP of project strategy with software maker Indus, adds: “Because of a relatively quick maturation in the hardware and software that best fit the needs of utility companies, we’ve seen this industry adopting workforce management at a much higher rate than some other industries.”

Money in the Bank

Ameren Services, a St. Louis, Mo.-based utility that serves 1.7 million electric and 500,000 natural gas customers, is already deploying its second generation of mobile solutions, according to telecommunications engineer Kirby Diller. “We’re using Panasonic Toughbook laptops for computer-aided dispatch and trouble resolution,” says Diller, “including tracking of our electrical and natural gas distribution systems.”

Although Ameren only recently switched to the Panasonic laptops and hasn’t yet measured ROI, Diller says the utility is definitely saving money. “We’ve seen a significant decrease in maintenance costs, unit downtime and trouble calls. Annual costs have been below our projections.”

Routing and schedule optimization are relatively “ho-hum” to technology buffs and innovators. But to the utilities industry, it’s paying the bills (bad pun intended). “There are tremendous returns associated with the optimization of a field organization, down to as few as 30 or 40 technicians,” says Roth. “Typical numbers for return seem to be 20 percent to 30 percent.”

Utility companies have a large distributed asset base that must be repaired and replaced at specific intervals, and all according to varying government and regulatory requirements. “The utility wants to meet their objectives for inspection and maintenance and comply with regulations—but they want to do that with the least cost possible,” says MDSI’s Munro. “That means meeting their service schedules without over-meeting them.”

Because utilities don’t have much control over price, the ultimate objective is to cut expenses while not appearing to lower customer service levels, according to Munro. “Utilities have the same number of assets to maintain, the same number of customers to service and the service calls from those customers remain pretty consistent. What they want is an infrastructure in place that helps them manage those customers more efficiently and less expensively, which means better control and management over your workforce.”

The Least Expensive Device

Moshe BenBassat, CEO of ClickSoftware, likens the company’s ClickSchedule to the matrix-style, metal-board spreadsheet you might see in a classroom or service station. “You can move the pieces however you want,” says BenBassat. “But the beauty is, you don’t have to. New information is updated automatically. If calls are at risk, they appear in a different color. If you assign a job to a technician who doesn’t have the right skills, the software will let you know. The role of the user is in handling exceptions.”

ClickSchedule and MDSI’s Advantex Workforce Management Solution also incorporate street-level routing, based on either a phone call from the technician or, with a more advanced solution, a GPS locator. “When the software makes decisions regarding route, it doesn’t do it by a rough estimate,” says BenBassat. “It literally goes into a database and calculates the actual driving distance and a detailed route.”

Technicians can get updated route information through cellphones, handheld computers or small laptops. “People always ask about the handhelds, and then they usually buy laptops, even though they’re more expensive,” says MDSI’s Munro. “It’s a bigger device, a bigger screen and it allows you to make better use of the capabilities of mobile platforms. When customers do the calculations, they discover that the least expensive device over the long term is a rugged laptop installed within the vehicle.”

Video Goes Mobile

On a laptop, for example, a technician on a particularly complicated repair could seek advice via a video clip, or even by sending images of the equipment he or she is working on to another technician. “All technicians may have been created equal,” says BenBassat, “but not all of them perform equally. One way to elevate the technician to a higher level is to take the brains of your best technicians and download some of their knowledge into training modules or video clips.”

Diller says that Ameren’s technicians wouldn’t think of trading their laptops for handhelds. “Our field users love the transflective screens for their daylight viewing.” He also touts the ease of implementation. “Some training was required for our maintenance workers, but they learned on-the-job as the units were installed.”

And on the dispatching end? According to BenBassat, “If you know how to move metal pieces on a magnetic board, you already know how to use our software.”

Itron’s Mobile Collection System uses automatic meter reading (AMR) technology, a built-in analysis tool that helps utilities minimize missed reads and cover greater distances in shorter periods. Installed in a utility vehicle, the system receives data from radio-based modules—or ERTs—installed on water, gas and electric meters. A single system can read up to 24,000 meters in a day.

AMR technology can be combined with GPS and mapping technology, such as Microsoft Map Point and others, to fuel further optimization. Mapping applications show meters that have not been read and display to field technicians the position of their vehicle in relation to those meters. Benefits include reduced driving time, fuel optimization and increased technician productivity.

One of the most successful utilities to combine AMR and mapping technology is Pennsylvania-based PPL Electric Utilities. PPL implemented a combined AMR/mapping solution from Distribution Control Systems in 2002, and has since installed ERTs on more than 1.1 million meters in its 10,000-square-mile service area in eastern and central Pennsylvania.
“What we found is that customers don’t like estimated bills,” says PPL senior information specialist George Lewis. “With AMR technology, we went from 5 percent estimated bills to less than half of 1 percent.”

Again, though, AMR technology has shown more promise than payback. According to Lewis, the problems are cost and time. “It’s a very capital-intensive process. We estimated installation and equipment costs at around $160 million.” PPL had the cash and the patience to stick with the project. “We did a pilot project in February 2002, which helped us check out the process on a smaller scale.”

Two years later, the company is completing installation of its last 200,000 meters, and the investment is already paying off. “During Hurricane Isobel in 2003, we had 500,000 customers with power outages,” says Lewis. PPL’s robust AMR solution features two-way connectivity, with information transmitted via radio signals. “We were able to send a signal to meters to see whether or not they were on, without having to send a technician to see if everything was working. We estimate that we saved 500 trips by line crews in a very short time.”

What’s Next?

Blumberg thinks that we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. “As new laptops and PDAs offer increased features and functions, such as GPS and full multimedia (voice, data, image) communications, the added-value of linking the field mobile worker to the central dispatch and assignment functions increases dramatically.”

“Where we see utility companies going forward is not managing their workforces as individual little groups,” says Munro. “Route optimization is where the most obvious payback is, but it represents only 30 percent to 40 percent of the workforce that could be using an automated solution. A company might be efficient in individual areas but still be duplicating functions and missing opportunities to reduce costs. Our customers are looking for an enterprise-wide view of their workforce.”

Breaking out of the silo mentality is important, says BenBassat, because utility companies manage their field forces differently for emergencies than they do for maintenance repair. “Routine maintenance is predictable; emergencies are not. If you don’t have any emergencies, the emergency crews sit around and do nothing. Computers can manage both maintenance and emergency crews simultaneously as one force.”

Lewis says PPL is looking to extend AMR and wireless technology beyond cost savings. “We want to stretch the technology from just billing to major customer service enhancements. With AMR, we can measure a customer’s usage and perhaps recommend options such as on-peak and off-peak plans. We consider the customer service benefits as important as reducing costs.”

According to BenBassat, the future of automation in the utilities industry lies in customer empowerment. “The days of giving customers a five-hour window in which your technician might arrive are over,” he says. In the future, possibly through the use of two-way AMR technology, “customers will be able to select their own timeframe for service, and perhaps even interact with the software” to see if the technician is on his way.

Here’s hoping that prediction won’t look silly three short years from now. •

Bill Schu is a New Jersey-based journalist who covers healthcare and technology.


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