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On the move and on the front line – mobile workforce technology in utilities

Dec 16 • Features, Hardware • 2193 Views • Comments Off on On the move and on the front line – mobile workforce technology in utilities

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Against a pan-European backdrop of regulatory change, increased consumer awareness of price and choice and concerns over energy security, the utility sector is facing many challenges and opportunities over the next decade.  Motion Computing’s Ian Davies discusses… 

Within the industry itself, the concerns of customer service improvements, the aging workforce and enabling a more responsive field workforce are driving many utilities to re-evaluate key business operations, processes and the technology that supports them.

Core to many of these initiatives and achieving new levels of service and field worker productivity is ensuring seamless access to critical asset and customer data. Research has confirmed a strong correlation between a highly productive mobile workforce and ensuring utility networks deliver continuous service and meet customer service standards.  As a result, empowering a mobile workforce is now a key concern for many utilities.  As both the workforce and utility infrastructures age, many utilities are considering wireless technologies to help manage information, assets and workers.

Mobile workforce applications in utilities:

Connecting your mobile workforce with the information and human resources they require delivers many strategic benefits to utilities.  These can be grouped into three main areas – reduced operating costs, improved asset life and increased customer satisfaction.

At the tactical level these benefits are seen in metrics such as increased on-time responses, greater “wrench time”, and more job completions. Travel to the next job is less which not only saves time, but also reduces vehicle emissions, and cuts down missed appointments.

The financial savings of this increased productivity are seen in decreased crew hours and overheads. Further improvements to the bottom line can be realised by automating the work order process to help reduce operating costs.

Additional benefits include enabling seamless, real time and interoperable communications with field workers, centralised support staff, utility management and first responders in emergency situations.  Management is improved by incorporating training, work administration, and performance monitoring.  And by improving collaboration and enhancing knowledge transfer, utilities can begin to address the challenge of an aging workforce.

The applications to enable these benefits can be covered off in three main categories:

Next Generation Asset Management and Analytics

Advanced analytics draw on powerful analysis platforms to present data and complex interrelationships in a manner designed for the business and operational needs of different types of utility employees. From the field, to the asset manager, to the board room, asset analytics provide critical intelligence to ensure that appropriate decisions can be made in real time.

Modern mobile versions of asset analytics provide utility field crews with a thorough understanding of an asset’s inspection and maintenance history and help field crews better understand the importance of the accuracy of data they are capturing.

Real-Time Scheduling

Customer service in the utility sector has been lagging and much of this has to do with how customers engage with their local utilities.

While many experienced field technicians generally know their territory and the likely duration of different tasks, the same does not hold for less experienced workers and frequently, schedules developed by less experienced workers, can result in productivity decreases. Mobile workforce applications that include real-time scheduling prevent this productivity drop-off. As the crew finishes its emergency tasks, real-time schedulers immediately produce new schedules that start from the current location and follow rules for task priority and drive time.

Job Training and Monitoring

Experienced workers carry in their heads the correct safety techniques and job structure. Mobile workforce software incorporates that knowledge and makes it accessible via tools like checklists and context sensitive help. It ensures that less experienced crews meet utilities’ safety and compliance guidelines.

As a result, mobile workforce management software can standardise tasks and guide newer employees through each step, decreasing the time it takes to become productive.

These applications also enable better and more accessible asset records, improved documentation, and integration with video and image management solutions to provide remote support capabilities.  Integration standards also enable efficient cross-departmental business processes.

The right platform

A variety of mobile form factors are being used to support field workers in the utility sector, and tablets represent an increasingly viable choice.  The tablet provides a strong balance of a highly portable device with sufficient display real estate to support the graphics rich applications common in the utility sector.

As a result of these benefits, according to research by VDC, over six in ten utilities are either currently using tablet PCs or are evaluating tablets for use among their field workers.

While much of the attention directed towards tablets has been for consumer-oriented devices, consumer devices have limitations when it comes to enterprise-use cases.  The challenges end users express with consumer tablets in the enterprise span everything from core device functionality to management of these devices by enterprise IT departments and their security limitations. The ability to seamlessly interact with backend systems and integrate with legacy applications including support for capabilities such as rapid updating also rank highly in this list of concerns.

For utility service technicians, critical requirements of a successful mobile platform include:

  • Durable, yet lightweight design. Failure rates are a critical concern as they can substantially disrupt workflows. Devices designed to withstand inclement conditions and the potential for occasional drops are ideal. Another key requirement is the ability to interface with the display with wet hands or in wet conditions.
  • Display daylight visibility. While consumer device displays are visually appealing, in sunlight or ambient light conditions they wash out. A display that can be easily read in these conditions is a key benefit, if not essential
  • Application suitability. Many back-end utility applications are designed to operate in a Windows environment. Leveraging these platform investments and ensuring forward compatibility is critical for many utilities.
  • Input/output configuration options. Mobile workforce management applications require a variety of input/output configuration options ranging from signature capture, bar code, GPS, image and video capture, multi-touch interface and magnetic stripe readers.
  • Embedded wireless functionality. With more data moving to the cloud, a seamless wireless network connection, carrier (3G/4G) or Wi-Fi is critical.
  • Unobtrusive, yet robust security.   Security requirements are becoming even more stringent due to increased regulation.  For mobile devices this likely means both hardware-based encryption, trusted boot functions, data-at-rest encryption, and remote lock and wipe capabilities. While security – especially for mobile insurance solutions – needs to be unobtrusive, sacrifices for the sake of ease of use cannot be made. 

Based on these demands, and the driving force of customer service improvements, an aging workforce and a need to reduce operational cost, the tablet PC is set to become a stable fixture across the utility sector, especially out in the field and on the front line of service.

 

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