Advances in Computer Techniques

Look back to your youth and try to recall the products that were going to change the world and last forever in their glorious success.

The use of computers has enjoyed a fast growth. Don’t imagine it has stopped yet.

Look back to your youth and try to recall the products that were going to change the world and last forever in their glorious success. The memories will be different for all of us, depending on how old we were at a certain time, but many of those wonderful winners are now forgotten and unused. That experience should not close our minds to new technologies and techniques. In our utility sector we have seen changes in such aspects as metering and metering devices, fiber optics, line construction and maintenance, vehicles and their useful accessories. Many changes (in the office or in the field) have been driven by advances in computer techniques and equipment, progress in both hardware and software.

Nothing has developed and changed faster than the world and scope of computers. The World Wide Web has only been in practical existence for about 10 years! Those computers we imagine have been around forever are only in their infancy. In another 10 years we may find them looking quite different, being energy-efficient, even faster and more capable than ever. If history is any guide, they will be smaller, too!

We must accept that further changes will come. The person who is considered an expert today may be out-of-touch in five years if there is no effort to keep learning. This year (2008) will probably see changes that most of us have never imagined but we must evaluate them honestly and welcome those that will help us in our work.

Those who are wary of changes believe that every new engineering success should not replace methods that have worked well for years. Those who are proponents of constant changes tell us that yesterday’s techniques and equipment may have seemed to succeed but they were merely comfortable, not progressing. If there is a moral in these two positions, it is surely that we should investigate all claims for new breakthroughs with the same wisdom and calm with which we have faced other challenges over the years. Change for change’s sake is seldom a long-term road to success and, however successful a business may be, however solid its future appears, there are times when the financial managers will shudder and cry out: “We cannot afford all those changes. Not yet.” Such wisdom is one reason why utilities have a history of practical growth and progress. To some, we have seemed slow. In the end, we seem sensible.

Having worked some years in manufacturing companies, I have witnessed designers and engineers in states of excitement and pride when they have conceived and built a product that could revolutionize… Well, something… If people just understood how it will benefit them… If they can afford it… Hey, it’s never been done before. I used to find it sad that so much genuine effort and skill had gone into the creation of something for which there was no practical use or market. I have been told that there are many examples of computer hardware and software that have not attained the level of acceptance envisioned by their designers and promoters.

With computers, more perhaps than with any other group of inventions, the user wants to see the benefit as well as the ingenuity. Ease of operation and understanding is a vital aspect of new products today. In the same sequence of thoughts as those which prompt us to praise the undeniable genius of the designers of computer advances is the latent anxiety that those who are supposed to use and benefit from the advance may not understand its necessity or its operation. For both hardware and software, education – call it training, if you will – for the user is almost as important as the product itself.

In recent weeks I have seen reports by people more knowledgeable than myself about a trend they deplore in computer progress. Some of the new software turns out to be unable to match what users already have. There are, at least, two sides to that situation. If designer ABC produces a new product, he wants revenue for its use to go to him. Designer DEF has a product that could complement the ABC device but he cannot link the two, so that his product has no market strength. It’s a problem that may not be solved in the near future. Currently we should make sure that additional equipment or software we purchase will work for us. It may well do what it claims to do… but not with the equipment we have.

Size and Simplicity

Computers will be smaller and cheaper. As users start to consider computers as small, powerful devices, they may become expendable. If they break down, will they be thrown away? If so, they will have to be less expensive, and there is already evidence that this lowering of prices is arriving. You can acquire computers that are far less expensive than traditional models. Maybe they do not do everything the others did, but ask yourself how many of your current computer’s capabilities you do not use. (That sounds a little like the human brain. How much of it do we use?)

They will be seen as devices that are portable and work wherever we want rather than as equipment that needs specific space in an office or factory. Laptops are already becoming more popular than stay-on-the-desk PCs. This may mean that the desktop as we know it may fade away, but there is a far more significant aspect. If you live or work in a metropolitan area you may never realize that the U.S. is a HUGE area with miles and miles of space with low populations. Years ago I heard our country described as a collection of many small communities; that is still true. Even if television programs give the impression that the U.S. comprises mostly big cities with tall buildings, crowded streets, and all those backgrounds ideal for popular crime stories, we have thousands of small communities with 20,000 people or less, some much smaller than that. All those people want and deserve modern communications. Small, handheld computers (devices?) can play an important role in achieving success in this area.

Handheld computers have made a difference already, and their influence will continue to strengthen. They have changed, radically, the way that many utilities read meters but they also help in jobs like mapping transmission lines, poles, pipes and substation locations. They are used, too, to bring more efficient quality control to residential meters and they can let electric companies set and receive accurate charges for use of their poles by other types of utilities. The days when the familiar hard-hatted workers go into the field to inspect everything and try to make notes with ballpoint and paper in a snowstorm or summer squall, those days are ending fast. Even small rural cooperatives are using handheld computers for the reporting and they say it saves time in every aspect of the operation. The benefits are in the field and in the office.

Communication is at the heart of the success brought to us by computers and software. An excellent example of this was detailed in an article back in the November 2007 issue of Utility Products. Written by John Rasweiler, one of our nation’s most experienced and expert persons on this subject, the article showed how the company for whom he works (Arcadian Networks) brought solutions to Great River Energy (GRE), which has 28 member cooperatives in Wisconsin and Minnesota. “The participants in GRE have 4,500 mile of transmission lines, 100 transmission substations and 475 distribution substations across rural areas, covering 55,000 square miles,” commented Rasweiler. “At the end of the project, GRE will be able to monitor instantly system performance, customer use and billing data at some 620 substation points on the system.” The article is worth re-reading.

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