by Bob Ashenbrenner
Regardless of the job title, electric, gas, water and even telecom utility professionals are under constant pressure to keep services online at all times. Field teams are dispatched around the clock to complete critical inspection, maintenance and restoration work orders, but many utilities find existing paper-based processes are not up to the task. With aging infrastructure systems being asked to deliver more and maintain greater uptime rates, utilities of all sizes are seeking ways to more ably manage service demand.
Mobile tools might help, but many currently active in the field lack the right computing power and data capture tools needed, especially in a package that can be easily carried when they’re walking, crawling or climbing. Some aren’t built durable enough to work through inclement weather-a must for utilities striving for fast service recovery during rain, snow and extreme temperatures.
Still, mobile technology is seen as one of the key solutions that can increase productivity and accuracy, and the right mobile technology can keep your workers online no matter the weather, their working location or the work order requirements. By moving existing workflows onto purpose-built rugged tablets, in particular, utilities can be sure any steps taken towards mobility-driven workflows align with the cost structures and back-office infrastructures already in place. The best way to get results without disruptions is to deploy mobile platforms in incremental steps instead of one fell swoop.
Understanding the Baseline
Though there are multiple steps in a full mobile strategy, the mobile device is perhaps most critical. Utility professionals are accustomed to manual and desktop-based data systems, so it’s imperative that any mobile device introduced be able to replicate these workflows to encourage widespread adoption and avoid productivity disruptions.
Fortunately, rugged tablets now deliver the same high quality computing capabilities as powerful desktop and laptop PCs, but in a form factor more amenable to field service environments. Unlike most industries, time off isn’t granted for snow days, rainy days and extreme temperature warnings. In fact, these cautionary measures for most of the world are often calls to action for utility workers across the nation. Utility professionals have to power through inclement conditions year-round to rapidly restore outages. That means their diagnostic and restoration tools need to be as dependable as the utility service workers.
Because mobile technology wouldn’t be seen as an advantage if it was disabled while communication networks or the servers are down, utilities also need rugged mobile PCs that have enough capacity to hold databases locally so many tasks can be completed when off-line. Mobile software can easily queue up reports and then send them to the server when the connection is back up.
Setting a New Standard
Newly introduced rugged tablets-which have long demonstrated their durability and speedy performance under pressure-are now coming standard with up to 20 hours of battery life; 10 inch-plus outdoor viewable screens, 4G LTE and Wi-Fi connectivity; and multiple built-in, weatherproof I/O ports. Some tough tablets even include up to eight critical test and connectivity ports to support RJ45 and True Serial cables, among other frequently used utility peripherals. All are sealed against excessive water and dust penetration when closed, and some even offer such protection when some port doors are open. This means utility field technicians don’t have to take shelter or wait for the worst weather to subside to plug in their diagnostic tools and share timely data about outage restoration options.
These new mobile computing capabilities for both Windows-powered and Android-powered rugged tablets also mean utilities can now accomplish their mobility goals without compromising on screen size, connectivity, security, OS support, processing power, rough handling survivability or cost. Worker downtime will no longer happen because of their mobile tools’ limitations. Service uptime increases exponentially, even during peak usage.
The bottom line is that many utilities are realizing physically hardened and internally secure rugged tablets are ideal for replacing pen and paper as the catalyst of real-time data capture, information access and work completion. Employees can continue to handwrite data on the tablet with a digital pen. And the best rugged tablets are compatible with a wide range of back office systems, operating systems and peripherals.
Find Sweet Spot, Work Smarter with User Feedback
Because these rugged and weatherproof tablets are available, however, doesn’t mean utilities automatically have a golden ticket. It’s true that rugged tablets establish the best foundation for utilities that want an expandable and adaptable mobile computing platform for years to come. But, like any technology, end user preferences and field usage patterns will ultimately define utilities’ levels of mobile success. Simply issuing a tough tablet PC to every field service technician won’t ensure participation in new mobile systems. Utilities must invest in employee training and be prepared to adjust tactics based on feedback from the field. Just because IT doesn’t think a keyboard is necessary for effective tablet-based data input doesn’t mean employees agree, so give them a choice of data input methods. The best way to improve business processes is to ensure the rugged tablet is viable in every possible use case, including traditional office or classroom settings.
Be prepared. Some technicians will be comfortable with the current system and be reluctant to try the new way of doing things. Showing that it makes some parts of their work easier may help drive mobile tech acceptance. Integrating Dispatch with GIS data, for example, means the location of the service call is now precise-no more hunting for the transformer near High Street and Elm.
By watching how the technicians use and don’t use mobile technology, focus areas for training and workflow improvement will quickly be identified. Only then will you be in a position to take the next incremental steps towards full mobility; a business system that helps workers will ultimately improve business goals. After all, mobility isn’t the ultimate goal-it is a means to better customer service at lower costs and higher quality.
About the author: Bob Ashenbrenner has more than 25 years of computer engineering and engineering management experience, with 18 of those specific to mobility and the field requirements that enable real work to happen. Since 2003, Ashenbrenner has been with Motion Computing, now part of Xplore Technologies, a global mobility solutions company based in Austin, Texas. During this time, Bob has become an expert in field technologies that support the service, public safety and utility sectors, and led the development of a suite of rugged mobility products, services and software, with an emphasis on supporting the whole mobile work environment.