Mobile Enabled Work Force Transformation in Transmission & Distribution Utilities

Prasanth Kumar | Dec 06, 2012

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Transmission and Distribution utilities which operate and maintain huge network of infrastructure assets will have business and technological challenges in the near future due to ever increasing needs of managing real-time information. Availability of low cost tablets and smart devices in the marketplace with improved processing power is triggering bigger investments from utilities in this area and hence would require better focus and attention in the coming days. Since a large percentage of the staff working in Transmission and Distribution utility organizations are field based maintenance engineers, a small improvement in productivity of the field staff can translate into a larger scale productivity improvement for the organization.

For a typical Transmission and Distribution utility of the future, there can be a step improvement in field productivity if there is a complete paperless field mobile work force is in place carrying out all of its activities electronically. Going by the current market trend, it can be easily seen that technicians in the field will be getting equipped with mobile devices which provide more accurate data and statistics about the layout of underground asset infrastructure network which was a key pain area for the engineers in the past. i.e., data that once used to be only in the minds of experienced field technicians is now available in the mobile device with the click of a button. This leads one to believe in the fact that "Aging workforce" will no more be a serious concern to those utility organizations which equip their field force fully with right field mobile capabilities. Figure below details business use case scenarios for a typical utility organization from a field mobile solution perspective.



Traditionally T&D utility organizations have focused on providing their field force with specialist mobile software applications that are specifically designed to work on small mobile device screens. This scenario is already undergoing or set to undergo a drastic change in the future. It will not only be the field workforce that will be using the mobile devices but the whole organization will be moving from office based static work place culture to a more mobile enabled dynamic work culture. There will be times when every office staff would require access to each office application from their portable smart mobile device in order to complete their daily routine tasks and activities. What does this change mean to the T&D utilities of the future? This definitely points to the fact that every application that will be developed for a future T&D utility will be essentially a device independent software application that will work seamlessly on any device including mobiles, tablets, desktops and laptops. The result will be a more enhanced collaborative workforce with everyone having real time access to information from any geographic location.

With the advent of sophisticated and high speed wireless (e.g. 3G, 4G) communication channels, mobile internet is now becoming available even in the remotest areas of the globe. Hence there will be a lesser need for offline communication between a mobile device and back office applications in future due to the reliability of communications infrastructure, which was the primary reason for development of separate mobile field force applications in the past. This may lead to mobile field staff accessing the enterprise applications directly from the field and will reduce the efforts of implementing fresh new specialist mobile software. There will be a common protocol by which the product vendors will design every new application to work on any standard device irrespective of whether it is a desktop, laptop or a tablet so that the applications can be accessed and viewed from any geographic location. The table below details how mobility has reshaped the field activities in a typical T&D utility over a period of time.



In the subsequent sections of this article, each of the business use case scenarios listed in the table above has been illustrated with some real life challenges and issues.

Field Work Completion

One of the main challenges faced by today's T&D utilities is in obtaining accurate work completion details from the field. Many a times the data from the field is inaccurate mainly due to the lack of training of the field users and complicated user interface designs aimed at technology savvy end users. Many of the field engineers are specialists in their own maintenance and construction areas but are not as heavy users of the new technology features as normal office staff. Hence there should be easy and simple to use application design for field users which can enable quick and easy data capture. The organization's previous knowledge repository should be readily brought to use to capture as much of default data as possible and the field staff should not be spending enormous amount of time inputting these details. Past experiences in working with T&D utilities show that expecting field staff to fill-in numerous details on the construction work carried out will only prove to be counter-productive.



So what is in store for the future? The new tablets and smart phone devices available in the market have a set a new bar for the touch screen based UI design. The intelligent and smart user interface presented to the end user community is a leap forward to a new era in smart user interface design. In the T&D utilities of the future, interactive user interface design will become common place and there will be automatic data retrieval from the existing knowledge base to ease the life of mobile field staff filling-in the data. This will also give rise to accurate data capture from the field engineers without extra efforts. The future field solutions will have sufficient intelligence to capture the right data by providing intelligent suggestions to the field staff. This will also help field users in making intelligent decisions before carrying out the actual field work.

Permits and Certificates

Health and safety adherence has become an integral part of the utility business. Many utility businesses are formulating new policies and procedures for strict adherence to health and safety norms. In most cases before carrying out the actual field work, field staff has to follow a permit management process before entry into confined spaces or before working on hazardous or live production equipment. The health and safety coordinator who is providing the work permits has to assure the skills and certification of the field staff before providing the relevant permits to work. Currently, this process in many utilities consumes lot of advanced planning and paper work. The productivity of the field staff is simply lost in carrying out these activities on paper and over many phone calls.



In future, the target T&D utilities will have a more mobile enabled electronic permits and certificate management process which will be mostly achieved through electronic mobile integrated processes rather than through numerous phone calls and paper work. Real-time dashboards will be available for the health and safety coordinator to review and approve the safety procedures adherence as well as the skills and certifications of the crew.

Asset Photographs and Videos

Data statistics from various T&D utility organizations shows that asset photographs or asset video data is not consistently captured currently after carrying out the field work. In some T&D utilities these details are captured but they are kept in isolated repositories without having a clear means to retrieve the stored data meaningfully when carrying out follow-on work. One of the reasons why this data is not captured may be due to the difficulty of storage and also due to the expenses involved to capture this data for all types of field assets.



The usefulness of asset photographs and videos are increasing steadily and this data capture and retrieval will become a de-facto standard at least for certain critical category of work requests in the near future. Also data storage will become cheaper but at the same time there will be an increased need for optimizing the available storage as asset photographs and videos are expected to consume a huge amount of storage space. Times are not far away when there will be a small video footage associated with every single work order that gets completed in the field and subsequent retrieval of this video footage for follow-on work in the same piece of equipment. This knowledge base is expected to save a lot of time and effort and the associated costs.

Time Reporting

For T&D utilities with a large field force, small errors in time sheet reporting can cause large financial impacts over a longer time period. Time reporting is an important input for accurate job costing and provides an accurate measurement of field force productivity. In the past, field engineers used to fill the time sheets manually at the end of each week which led to lot of manual errors. Electronic time reporting is now an accepted norm in most T&D utilities which avoids most of the inherent errors associated with manual time reporting. Electronic time sheets capture time data associated with each step of the execution of the work order. Most of the modern mobile field force solutions come with integrated time sheet solutions to capture the time and effort data automatically. The data captured in this manner can be edited by the field staff before final submission. Tracking time in parallel based on work status changes provide the much required audit history and transparency in the time reporting process and which also saves the organization unnecessary financial expenditures.

In the future T&D utilities it is anticipated that there will not be separate time sheet entries by the field staff. Mobile solutions will enable smart timesheet data capture and transmission based on several environment variables and work completion status timings and this data will get transmitted and analyzed from the mobile to back office systems without manual intervention.

Workflow Integration

Evaluating and simplifying the existing work management business processes can improve the field productivity. Most of the bottlenecks in the existing business processes are due to lack of proper communication between various stakeholders involved in carrying out the field work. Workflows are critical communication tools that provide right information to the right recipient at the right time. Workflows when configured correctly can help in automating the business processes. E.g. Non-approval of invoices by a 1st level manager can automatically trigger an escalation workflow to a 2nd level manager for approval to fast track the business process cycle time. Also the business process can get executed without much manual intervention. In the specific scenario of mobile field work force integration, workflows can be configured for many activities that are carried out by field engineers which would require supervisor approvals.



In the future T&D Utilities, mobile enabled workflow integration will become more prevalent and will help in execution of target work and asset management business processes enhancing collaborative work environment.

Materials and Spare parts

In utility organizations, field engineers are involved in construction and repair of field assets on a daily basis. For any maintenance and construction activity new material and spare parts are needed at the right place at the right time to avoid unnecessary financial expenditures. Delivery of wrong material at site means considerable delay in the field activity and also losses in terms of labor hours. Many a times material purchases must be made from the field to avoid a costly work delay or stoppage.

In the future T&D utilities, mobile enabled supply chain management will become more prevalent wherein the field users will be able to track the movement of material and spare parts in real-time using the mobile field devices.

Tools Management

Just like material and spare parts as described above, tools required for carrying out the field work needs to be brought to the construction site at the right time for use by the field staff. Non-availability of tools can impact the field work adversely. Many times, the field engineers arrive at the construction site to find that the tools required to carry out the work are not available. E.g. a crane required for digging the land.

In the future T&D utilities, real-time monitoring and tracking of tools required to carry out the work will become more prevalent through the effective configuration of mobile field solutions.

Travel time optimization

Optimization of travel time required to reach the place where work needs to be carried out is an important aspect for improving the field productivity. Mobile solutions of the future are expected to provide the field staff with optimal travel routes based on traffic sensitivity and travel conditions.

E-mail, Web

At present, e-mail and web access are normally not available on a field user's laptop and hence field users would have to depend on other means to get this data when they are in the field.

In future, e-mail and web access will be available 24*7 with high speeds from all the locations in the field. What will this mean for the field users? This will open up new communication channels for them to connect up with other members within the organization and will improve collaborative communications.

Spatial Asset View

Spatial view of assets will provide the field users with great insight into the nature of work that needs to be carried out under or above ground before actually starting the construction or repair work. Today's mobile GIS applications facilitate greatly in providing an accurate view of this spatial asset data in multidimensional maps. After completion of the field work, these applications help field engineers to capture the work and asset completion data which then eventually gets digitized.

Customer Communications

Effective customer communication is essential for ensuring high customer satisfaction when executing customer initiated field work requests. Traditionally Letters and Faxes were some of the channels through which customer communications were managed.



With advent of new technological advancements electronic communications from the field engineer's mobile device to the customer mobile devices started flowing seamlessly. When the field engineer arrives at the customer property to carry out a work the customer will get instantly communicated on the field engineer's arrival or this can be set at a certain fixed time interval prior to field engineer's arrival in order to provide the customer with enough notice. Similarly, during each step of the progress of a customer initiated work there can be work flows set up to instantly communicate the progress to the customer. The new channel opens up tremendous opportunity for customer engagement.

Collaborative Working

Collaborative work environment is established by setting up a common platform wherein multiple different groups come together to achieve synergies of scale that cannot be otherwise possible by the efforts of a single working group. Opportunity to collaborate better will improve the key outputs thus improving the customer satisfaction and reducing the bottlenecks.

Conclusion

A separate mobile field application for capturing data through mobile field devices will become less prevalent in the future. There will be a common protocol by which all the enterprise applications will work in a device independent manner thus eliminating the need for separate mobile packaged software. The gap between mobile workers and office workers will diminish to a large extent. The accountability with field staff will increase and the back office dispatch controls will gradually disappear. Social media networking will become prevalent and the customer feedback loops mainly will originate from these social media micro blogs. Mobile field force SLAs will become more stringent and transparent and there will be real-time tracking of these service level agreements.

This article reflects the personal views of the author, and not necessarily those of his employer Wipro Technologies.

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