Building a Modern Utility through Digital Transformation – Part One

April 17, 2019
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The pace of evolution in modern technology is difficult to keep up with, and that is particularly true in the utility industry. With the ceaseless evolution of technical capabilities, it is imperative that utilities are always examining how to optimize their operation.

For utilities considering an upgrade to their infrastructure and digital capabilities, this may sound like a huge overhaul. While there is plenty to plan for, including a new platform, data model and interfaces, the transformation does not have to be overwhelming. Exploring the potential changes of a digital transformation will demonstrate how each step in the utilities chain can be improved via new technology and solutions.

Going digital starts with a modern architecture. Implementing a new architecture is a significant step, but it leads to vast benefits across an enterprise. New technologies enable utilities to digitally share their networks, analyze operations efficiently, access previously siloed information from the field and much more.

Esri’s Utility Network is built with a services-based architecture, which is a pattern that provides platform capabilities and APIs through web-based services. This pattern is easier to implement and maintain, and superior in platform accessibility. Preparing for this new network can help get a digital transformation off the ground and running.

Utility Networks and Digital Twins

Since modern networks are capable of handling more data than predecessors, they serve as excellent foundations for digital twins. By tweaking details in a digital simulation, engineers can model more accurate representations of their network.

Through this digital twin, utilities then visualize more intricate components, from substations to switch cabinets, and analyze various operational situations to determine optimal decisions. Increasing the detail in GIS also removes a complicated layer of ETL (extract, transform, load), decreasing the cost of ownership for data exchange.

The Utility Network was designed to give meaning to all the connected points and lines within digital twins. The system understands each network’s connected devices and the commodities they deliver, so the solution has access to logical information, tracing capabilities and operational scenarios all in one place.

An enhanced topological engine is incorporated into the Utility Network too, that allows solutions to analyze networks in unique ways. Advanced functions, like implicit associations, can connect and locate meters that are logically connected to a transformer, and concepts, such as containment, can support key workflows needed to manage underground conduit systems.

With an advanced understanding of the components within the architecture, modern networks inform and analyze operations on a level that old processes cannot attain. Utilizing the utility network opens the door to additional layers of value that compound as a company furthers its digital capabilities.

Increased Efficiency under New Infrastructure

As digital transformation cuts across the organization, new platforms can immensely enhance performance and scalability. Core technology gains speed and accommodates larger networks, so users experience expedited complex operations, quicker project turnaround, reduced as-built backlogs and faster updates to mission-critical systems.

In addition to being much more effective and easier to maintain, modern networks are extremely accessible. By supplying network data and analytics to apps, new solutions and platforms can send GIS data to any device at any time. The constant connectivity prevents lengthy inquiries and paper processing while hastening communication to and from the office.

Field crews can leverage data 24/7 via their mobile devices to accomplish key steps in the work process, from preparing a safe worksite to understanding design details, sketching redlines and making map corrections. New platforms unify these disparate steps into one configurable platform, driving down total cost of ownership for field data capture. Mobile data collection and distribution support an enhanced infrastructure and ultimately a higher level of operations.

The centralization of data also heightens operational awareness. Using new solutions, utilities can locate outages faster to reduce their durations and prioritize crew assignments to accelerate response times. Automatic outage and reliability reporting allows companies to address customer demands for improved response.

Digital transformation cannot be completed in the blink of an eye though. Upgrading systems, training employees for new technology and converting business processes takes time and change management. While utilities make the transition, they will likely be in a middle ground, acclimating to digital work and still keeping physical records for some operations. Powering through a period of conversion to undergo a full digital transformation will pay great dividends.

Effectively Managing More Data Leads to New Requirements

With the proliferation of data absorbed by modern networks, there is a need for more robust frameworks to analyze and detect data errors. The Utility Network provides just that, and new solutions can extend such frameworks to perform numerous functions, including obtaining necessary approvals and ensuring map corrections and edit sessions are completed in the proper workflow.

New networks may also open the door to a hi-fidelity data model, but that does not mean they have the data to support it. The current paper-laden process used by most facilities is a big barrier to realizing a hi-fidelity network. Thus, utilities require apps that can create and send hi-fidelity data to their network.

There is a myriad of other new requirements emerging due to the digital transformation. From smart devices to cloud computing to connectivity, the digital transformation is acting as an agent of change in the utilities industry.

The development of apps that can download data from the latest solutions boosted accessibility and convenience, but it also led to a spike in the need for mobile devices out in the field. Luckily, IT consumerization of mobile devices is helping meet demand for field crews.

Grid modernization initiatives are increasing data fidelity, demanding more detail, and energy efficiency campaigns are driving digital customer engagement. Many utility consumers want to send and receive all communications with the company digitally now, and utilities are seeking fresh ways to engage with their customers online.

Preparing for a Digital Transformation

Keeping pace with these new requirements and maintaining optimal efficiency means utilizing new technology and new practices for the entire utilities process. From design to construction to as-built operations, there are new possibilities for utilities to explore.

Some companies have created pilot programs which allow them to run a test to get a sense of what a full migration will take. These programs illustrate the user experience by implementing the solution’s data model on a small chunk of data while providing some training along the way.

Going digital necessitates an appropriate system of design, as it guides the future construction and implementation of new technology. The next piece in this series will examine how design lays the foundation for a successful digital transformation.

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