Data Should Be Faster Than Your Truck: Three Ways That a Mobile Workforce Solution Benefits Utilities

By Jason Brewington

Many of us live on our mobile devices, from banking and grocery shopping to games and entertainment. There’s an app for nearly everything, making it easy for us to complete tasks with the touch of a button. But few of us have these expectations for technology in our professional lives. We are used to the idea that it may take several spreadsheets or several hours to share data and operate our businesses.

It’s time to change our expectations

Technology providers are filling this gap with mobile applications, such as Schneider Electric’s Orbit and Esri’s Collector, that address huge inefficiencies that result from the inability to collect, share and analyze data in real time. In fact, this lack of real-time, shareable data is the root cause of many of the utility industry’s biggest challenges, including inefficient communications with field crews, a lack of real-time information for better decision-making and training new workers.

Mobile applications are solving these industry challenges, allowing utilities to quickly assess damage, report it in real time and understand exactly what materials are needed for restoration. Mobile applications also give repair crews a clear idea of the extent of the outage and allow them to rapidly determine where troubleshooting should begin. When paired with a mobile workforce management system, companies can reap these benefits.

Digital, even when disconnected

The fast flow of accurate, real-time information is critical for a mobile workforce to be effective. Although many utilities have moved beyond the traditional paper-based system for taking and sharing asset information, crews may still be reliant on paper for recording tasks and the conditions of assets out in the field. This method is prone to errors and makes data sharing difficult.

With a mobile workforce solution, crews can create a mobile record of asset conditions and field tasks that can be easily shared with other teams and systems, such as inspections that establish and maintain assets in proper working order, post-repair inspections – especially if the repairs are performed by contractors or outside labor – damage assessments after a storm or incurred by construction, and even new asset deployments or retrofits. Many municipalities, for example, are retrofitting existing streetlights to use modern LED lights which are brighter, use less energy and have a much longer lifespan. This entire transition can be digitally recorded and updated in real time.

With this digital record, the institutional knowledge of the network is retained and not reliant on those individuals who have a long history with the company. A worker, for example, who needs to fix a particular pole because of storm damage can reference past storm repair on the same pole to determine how long the task will likely take to complete. This helps the worker more efficiently plan his or her day and sets expectations for the remaining tasks. Without a digital record of this information, the worker would need to reference maps or find someone familiar with the area – both of which take time to do. The digital record automatically reduces the time it takes to maintain paper-based work management, keeping all records up to date in real time.

When crews can receive new work orders without having to return to the dispatch office, it further maximizes field time. Tasks can come into an "inbox" just like email, while coordinators in the control center can see the locations of field crews and assign new jobs to crews that are close to the location, all at the same time. For example, the back office can use the mobile workforce application to send a field worker additional tasks after it sees that the first one is completed. Rather than going out and simply completing one task, the worker can do several more, even as they arise. If an outage is detected, crews already in the area can be dispatched to address the problem and improve customer satisfaction with faster response times.

If a field crew is in a more remote location of a service territory and doesn’t have a connection to the office network, it doesn’t slow or hinder a field crew’s work. The mobile application has the ability to hold the data that is entered in the field and then upload it to the network when the worker is back online. No more paperwork. No manually entering data twice. Instead, the information is captured on one shareable mobile platform that can support processes across an entire utility.

Speed of data

When severe weather, outages or asset damage calls for fast decisions, your data has to be able to keep up. Because many of these situations require workers to go out into the field for inspection or repairs, a mobile workforce application should facilitate collaboration and faster exchanges of information by allowing workers to communicate in real time while in the field.

The process of data collection has traditionally been slow and time consuming, with crews operating in an information void due to spotty network connections or simply the labor-intensive process of communicating back to the home office. A mobile application helps teams communicate more quickly with one consolidated app. In the past, you may have relied on several – or even a dozen – different apps just to get tasks from the office to a device out in the field. With the right mobile technology, you need only one app to push the task out to the field crew, such as Orbitor Collector as previously mentioned, which they can then use inside the truck to document their work. A mobile application needs to ensure that crews receive the work orders, know where to go, do the work, and gather the necessary information while doing it.

This consolidation also alleviates training time because workers only need to learn one application. If mutual assistance crews are brought in, utilities don’t need to spend hours training them on how to record data: the application can simply be uploaded to their mobile device to be ready for use.

The field crews’ first and foremost priority is to get the system restored and the lights back on. A mobile application cannot get in the way of that. Crews need an application that is intuitive and easy to use – as easy as clicking on a map point and using a red cursor to write in a note. If the process is more complicated than paper, then paper will be the default and the information will not be entered into the mobile app and shared with other teams until the crew drives back to the office. If you want your data to move faster than your truck fleet, get a digital solution that is easy for workers to use and increase the likelihood that they will use it.

With the right field application, a utility is not only able to gather the information required by the various assigned tasks, but can determine exactly how long it took a field worker to complete the job. A utility also can record the worker’s exact location when a job was completed, increasing accuracy. In terms of increasing efficiencies, when field workers see their tasks for the day displayed on a map, they can better plan their route to carry them out. Further increasing efficiency, if a field worker can make observations that are beyond the day's tasks – noting damage to assets or other items that might require attention – another field crew can be dispatched to follow up.

Real-time snapshot of assets

Fast, digital records can give you a clearer understanding of your network’s resilience, the condition of assets and help identify weak points. With a real-time understanding of your network, you can be confident that you are prioritizing operations and maintenance resources to tackle the most urgent problems.

In an emergency situation, this digital snapshot of asset conditions prevents gaps in information and productivity drop-off by helping workers quickly assess damage, support restoration efforts and send that data back to the office. Because the workers use the application in a day-to-day setting, they avoid the laborious task of relearning an application that is only used during the occasional emergency.

In a situation where mutual assistance crews are brought in, workers can get an immediate understanding of asset conditions based on a shareable mobile application. Once storm repairs and restoration is completed, a digital log of those repairs can speed regulatory reporting and post-storm reimbursement.

Beyond repair, an accurate understanding of asset conditions can extend the life of your assets by helping you identify weak points and the remedial activities that should be completed next. It also provides a reference that can confirm the age or condition of certain assets.

Conclusion

By providing a digital record of network tasks and conditions, quickly sharing data among teams and providing an accurate snapshot of assets, a mobile workforce solution addresses several of the major challenges that the utility industry faces today. Faster training, a faster understanding of real-time conditions, and faster data sharing – all within one platform – means that you will have the ability to make more informed decisions that lead to faster responses and, ultimately, to more uptime and satisfied customers. 


Published Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

Written by Jason Brewington


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