Improving Operational Visibility with Digital Pen Technology

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By Sean Johnson and Pietro Parravicini

Electric utilities are facing increasing pressure to provide superior quality and reliable service to their customers while seeking higher efficiency in their work forces and processes.

As a result, there are key trends emerging within electric utilities' best practices, including improving facilities and infrastructure visibility, as well as implementing preventative maintenance programs. Improving operational visibility helps teams identify and address issues before they become service, safety or compliance issues. As part of that operational visibility, many electric utilities are working to improve inspection and report processes for lines, substations, poles and vegetation management. Immediate access to this condition data can improve preventive maintenance and streamline operations.

Many of these workflows have resisted data collection with laptops and personal digital assistants (PDAs) because of the highly mobile nature of the work and the challenge of complex equipment, training and support. In many cases, data collected to track these processes is still hand written on printed forms, maps and computer aided designs (CADs), which slow the process.

Challenge: Managing Field Safety Inspection Paperwork

Documenting field safety requires a great deal of paperwork, which includes extra costs for scanning, extra data entry and risk of data loss as paper gets misplaced. Many highly mobile teams directly collect inspection data on paper forms, CADs and maps.

Writing notes on paper is easy. The challenge is getting data off paper in a timely way so important information can be quickly tracked and shared. In many cases, data collected on paper creates an administrative burden. Completed forms, marked up maps and CADs usually need to be scanned or sent back to central operations. Depending on the workflow, manual data entry often is required at the central office, where data is entered into the central information technology (IT) system for analysis and sharing.

With inspection forms, data can be tracked in custom systems or in Microsoft Office. With maps, pole and line data often is stored in a geographic information system (GIS) such as ArcGIS from ESRI. For substations, marked up data often needs to be entered into AutoCAD systems as the master record of facilities and their as-built conditions.

Pen and paper are frequently used for a variety of familiar reasons:

  • There is no training required-anyone can fill out forms or mark up plans and maps.
  • Paper can be used in any environment-indoors, outdoors, rain or direct sunlight.
  • Large format paper maps and CAD prints enable a wide field of view-important for understanding and filling out extensive maps or complex plans.

Many utilities are exploring the use of digital pen and paper technology to help streamline data collection and reporting for line, pole and substation inspections.

As part of Pepco Holdings-one of the largest energy delivery companies in the Mid-Atlantic region-Atlantic City Electric provides safe and reliable electric service to 547,000 customers in southern New Jersey. Tracking field safety inspections and processing compliance on highly regulated and potentially hazardous assets is key to keeping all stakeholders safe, reliably servicing operations and meeting regulatory requirements. To streamline safety paperwork and document processes for compliance, Atlantic City Electric chose Anoto digital pen and paper technology with Capturx Forms Software.

Atlantic City Electric deploys large field teams to service infrastructure, field assets and customers across southern New Jersey. When crews are working in the field, Atlantic City Electric adheres to a range of industry best practices to ensure the safety of its teams, the community, the infrastructure and the environment. The process starts with proper job planning and an emphasis on cardinal safety rules for electric utility work-while covering equipment use, work area protection and environmental compliance.

To track field safety procedure compliance, Atlantic City Electric has inspection teams that go to work sites to observe and report on safety process adherence. These range from ad hoc field safety inspections to extended job observations. Detailed safety inspection data are captured on paper forms, which are later returned to operations for analysis and reporting. The aggregated data helps Atlantic City Electric get better field safety operations visibility to identify, resolve and prevent issues-keeping its stakeholders safe while ensuring compliance with standard operating procedures and regulatory requirements.

While access to the aggregated data enables a nimble response, processing the data can be cumbersome. Writing on the paper forms is natural and easy-especially given the highly mobile nature of the inspections and variable environments. But processing the data-data entry and scanning-is time and resource consuming. If paperwork is misplaced or left in a truck, there is also the risk of unresolved issues or missing documentation.

Solution: Digital Pen and Paper Technology

To automate data capture for safety inspections, Atlantic City Electric started using digital pen technology, which enables inspectors to instantly digitize data on paper forms using ordinary paper with digital pens. Now, field safety inspectors print and use the same inspection checklist form they have used for years, printed on normal paper from the office printer.

The technology combines Anoto digital pens with Capturx software, which captures the original handwriting while converting words and numbers into digital text-making it easy to analyze, search and retrieve data and documents. The structured data tables can automatically be integrated into Microsoft Office, databases and other back-end systems to automate workflows without scanning or manual data entry. Atlantic City Electric integrates the structured data into its Oracle database, where it is available for analysis and reporting based on work tasks, regions, issues and a range of safety categories.

"The Atlantic City Electric subsidiary of Pepco Holdings operates a large distributed power network, managed by teams of engineers and service crews who generate a great deal of paperwork," said Atlantic City Electric's safety services manager, Steve Brown. "This solution helps us efficiently automate the paperwork so we can focus on providing safe and reliable electric service to our 547,000 customers."

Data from the digital pens can be sent using smartphones directly from the Bluetooth-enabled digital pens to the back office or by docking the digital pen to the individual's computer via Universal Serial Bus (USB), which is the method Atlantic City Electric uses. Key stakeholders no longer have to wait for the inspectors to manually enter data into their personal computers (PCs). Other benefits include:

• Improves compliance: Central teams get safety conditions visibility sooner, allowing issues to be identified and resolved earlier than before. Faster data access and eliminating data entry reduces the risk of unaddressed safety problems caused by delayed issue reporting or data entry errors. To help with compliance, the technician not only has the original handwriting and signatures, but also has the converted data as keywords-as well as author, date and time stamps.

• Works the way they work: Atlantic City Electric can automate its safety inspections without changing its simple and reliable paper-based process. Unlike mobile computers, software for digital pens does not require complex training or support, and doesn't suffer from limited use in harsh environments. Paper can be used in any environment-indoors, outdoors, rain or direct sunlight. The pen is durable, easy to carry and the data upload can be performed by nearly anyone.

Utilities are looking to digital pen technology because it frees up time and improves data access. Inspectors and technicians usually perform data entry, which reduces time for inspection, analysis and simply collecting data. Software that enables data from digital pens to automatically integrate into native Office, ArcGIS and PDF files can save a great deal of data entry time. Teams can focus on their core tasks-inspecting, reporting, identifying and addressing issues.

Since data is instantly digitized and can immediately be sent to central offices from the field, teams can also accelerate access to data collected in the field with digital pens. The speed can improve addressing simple one-off issues that are noted in the field for immediate attention. On a larger scale, it can also result in more efficient maintenance scheduling. For teams managing a range of facilities, immediate visibility into facilities' issues enables more efficient service personnel deployment to address the concerns.

As described above, faster data access and eliminating data entry can reduce a range of risks-from delayed issue reporting to data entry errors, which can lead to unaddressed problems. In many cases, utility teams face a great deal of risk simply from missing paper. Data on paper frequently never makes it to the central offices-having been left at facilities, in the truck or lost in transition from the truck to the scanner or data entry clerk. Missing paper can range from a simple inconvenience to a large liability in the case of key regulatory inspections, adherence to safety procedures or interactions with stakeholders, and private and public property owners.

Conclusion

Many electric utilities are working with digital pen and paper technology to help streamline a range of field processes that have previously resisted PC automation. In addition to the above inspection and facility tracking examples, many teams are also automating other paper form processes-including service work orders and time sheets. The common thread is teams working with paper but needing digital access to scanned paper, structured data tables or immediate access to sketches and signatures.


About the authors: Sean Johnson has more than 15 years experience working with utilities and technical implementation of geographic information system (GIS) solutions. He lives and works in Olympia, Wash., as the director of Utilities Solutions Engineering for Adapx Inc., where he plans, trains and deploys to utility teams that use paper-based workflows. Pietro Parravicini, senior vice president area manager of Anoto Inc., started his career in the logistics and transportation sector in Zurich, Switzerland. After relocating to the U.S. in 1997, Parravicini was appointed vice president and CFO at Siemens Nixdorf Retail & Banking Systems Inc. and Wincor Nixdorf Inc., and served as member of the board. He joined Anoto in April 2001.

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