By Tim Hill
Aquila, which now operates under the Kansas City Power & Light brand (a subsidiary of Great Plains Energy), is an electric distribution company based in Kansas City, Missouri, that serves approximately 800,000 customers in Missouri. The company employs field technicians who are responsible for maintaining electric services and servicing meters. For several years these field technicians had been using WalkAbout tablet PCs to access and process work orders in the field, but the software was becoming obsolete. The company needed to upgrade, but concerns about performance and functionality with the newer tablets led the company to research other solutions.
“We wanted to give technicians greater capabilities, such as Internet access, updated facility maps, GPS, and access to our internal network,” explains Tim Taylor, a business analyst for KCP&L who is responsible for computer, software, and training purchases for one of the company’s Mobile Operations departments. “We put together a focus group consisting of various people throughout the organization–including service technicians–and we examined the Panasonic Toughbook CF29 and the General Dynamics Itronix GoBook III.”
A few years earlier, the company had purchased six General Dynamics Itronix notebooks that had proven to be extremely reliable. The Itronix notebooks offered all the wireless tools the field technicians needed, as well as cost advantages over alternative products. In November 2007, after a one-month pilot project, they started deploying the Itronix notebooks to the field service technicians. When the deployment was completed in January 2008, 325 technicians were outfitted with fully ruggedized notebook computers.
Technicians often experience rough rides when working in rural areas, as their trucks bounce and vibrate across unpaved roads and farms. In addition, work sites are far from clean; dirt, dust, and other irritants abound, and technicians can’t be worried about keeping their equipment clean while trying to make repairs or restore service. The General Dynamics Itronix notebooks stand up to rugged terrain, extreme temperatures, vibration, water and dust intrusion, altitude and pressure changes, and even accidental drops. Each unit is fully sealed to prevent damage from outside contaminants and has been extensively tested to ensure it can survive in real-world field situations.
The wireless notebooks provide fast Internet access and e-mail as well as a host of other tools that help field technicians do their job. Access to Microsoft Streets & Trips navigation software helps them locate hard-to-find addresses and farm taps. Integrated GPS tools and the ability to download up-to-date facility maps help technicians pinpoint transformers to fix outages. Not only can they view all their work orders from the road, but they can also see the address and priority of each job, which enables them to effectively plan their routes and change them on the fly as needed throughout the day. Technicians can also access the company’s internal network and use network-based applications from afar.
“Our previous tablets had wireless access over analog dial-up, so technicians could send and receive work orders, but the connection was slow,” says Taylor. “With the General Dynamics Itronix notebooks, we use digital air cards on wireless networks such as Verizon, Alltel, and AT&T, which provide fast Internet access and fully integrated GPS. Not only can technicians locate and complete jobs more effectively, but the dispatchers are also more efficient because they can dispatch the closest service technician for each work order.”
IT staff can access the notebooks remotely to troubleshoot issues, download log files, and install updates. “In the past, technicians had to connect to a LAN when they were in the office and stay connected for 20–30 minutes to download security patches or required updates,” says Taylor. “Now IT can log into the notebooks while our technicians are on the road and install updates while they are traveling from one job to another.”
With dispatchers fielding large volumes of work requests and technicians responding to dozens of orders per day, speed and efficiency are key to providing good customer service. “The system is so much faster now,” says Taylor. “Our dispatchers can fill service requests much more efficiently because they can see where the field technicians are and assign jobs to the most logical resource. And our field technicians can better prioritize work orders and make repairs faster thanks to the advanced tools and reliability that the General Dynamics Itronix notebooks deliver.”
About the Author:
Tim Hill has more than 10 years experience in creating rugged, wireless technology for utility industries. He is currently the Senior Product Manager for General Dynamics Itronix located in Spokane, Washington.