The Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem has transformed service industries from emergency response to education—and the utilities sector isn’t immune. Since smart meters were introduced more than 10 years ago, the utility business has evolved at a rapid pace. These devices, which were initially introduced as a tool for utility providers to automate the collection of monthly usage data, are now in more than half of U.S. households and have evolved to offer a wealth of operational information that both utilities’ workers and customers can access in real-time. There are now thousands of applications for IoT in the utility industry that complement smart meters and contribute to an even smarter grid, ranging from sensors that can detect outages in an instant to in-home devices such as smart thermostats.
However, to fully harness the power of all the data provided by the IoT, utilities need to understand how the information that’s generated through IoT can be leveraged, make this information available to the entire workforce (not just those in headquarters), and make strategic digital technology investments.
What Role Should IoT Data and Devices Have in Field Workers’ Day-to-Day Operations?
Smart meters are just one example of how information and operational technologies are converging within the utility space. Dozens of other digital devices are connected through a utility’s electricity network—ranging from fault current indicators to voltage regulators—and provide massive amounts of data that can be interpreted to improve operations, ultimately benefiting field workers while they’re on the road.
In addition to operational devices, the rise of customer-oriented smart devices that can be controlled through mobile applications, such as smart outlets and thermostats, are changing the way citizens understand their energy consumption. These IoT devices also empower customers to be more involved in their usage decisions and engage in a more meaningful way with their utility providers. Customers, for example, are using mobile and internet tools to communicate with their service providers on topics such as billing and outages. As a result, more than 65 percent of utilities plan to make significant investments in their customer-facing digital platforms such as apps, websites and social media over the next five years, according to a recent study by Tendril.
The data gathered from operational devices, consumer-facing devices and digital platforms shouldn’t just be used for administrative purposes, but, instead, be provided to the field workers that interface between customers and utility operations every day. By accessing real-time information from both parties, such as voltage sensors and social customer feedback to pinpoint exact outage location, utility technicians can better identify repair needs, expedite diagnostics and answer any questions that arise from dispatch and customers while they’re on the job.
Utilities Know They Need to Offer Digital Tech to Field Workers—But Where Do They Start?
According to a recent Accenture study, three-quarters of utility executives view the integration of information and operational technology as a top priority to keep pace with IoT innovations. However, only 5 percent of utility organizations have fully completed integration, which means many are still determining the best way to fully incorporate information technology and operational technology across their entire organization.
What’s causing the holdup? For starters, some utilities still equip their field workers with paper-based service orders that cause delays in task completion and keep technicians from receiving on-the-go updates. Once service orders are digitized, the next challenge utilities face is how to bridge the gap between the way field workers interact with utilities’ legacy infrastructure and how they will do so with evolving IoT implementations. The last thing they want is to invest in is technology to help technicians operate today’s grid, only for that technology to become obsolete in a few years. This is why it’s important to invest in tools that can support field workers in both current and future environments.
Many utility providers have started equipping field workers with rugged tablets that enable them to access mission-critical, IoT-derived data as they transition from the line to the truck without downtime. Norris Public Power District, for example, needed to digitize its paper-based field processes to adapt to the evolving smart grid and to achieve its goal of providing the highest service quality possible. Because of the time required to process paper-based service orders and the human errors that resulted between writing and transcribing reports, there were often major delays in providing timely customer service. In fact, on more than one occasion, the District had to send a lineman out twice on the same job because the paperwork was illegible or misplaced.
The paper-based process kept the District stuck in the utilities stone-age, barring the organization from leveraging the power of information offered by the IoT. To modernize field technicians’ day-to-day tasks, the District invested in Windows-based rugged tablets with future-proof software and powerful Intel processors. Not only was the rugged tablet solution scalable to allow for future changes in the utilities’ operations, but the tablets also automated workflows that helped create up to 75 percent in time savings.
Regardless of whether organizations have already started the process of digitizing field work from paper-based processes, utility providers can achieve similar results to Norris Public Power District by putting rugged mobile tablets in the hands of field workers. The right rugged mobile devices will allow utilities to adopt IoT advancements without disrupting their field workers’ daily processes or prompting immediate and drastic technology overhauls in the future. Ultimately, rugged mobile tools that utility workers can use in the field transform these mobile employees into information workers that can be fully connected to actionable data whenever they’re servicing transformers or on the road to the next customer’s home.
About the author: Mark Holleran serves as CEO and president of Xplore. Since 2006, Holleran has managed the day-to-day operations of Xplore, including marketing, operations, engineering and finance. Prior to being appointed CEO, Holleran served as Xplore’s COO and president from March 2006 to March 2017, and vice president of sales from April 2003 to February 2006. Holleran brings more than 30 years of leadership and computing experience to Xplore. Prior to joining Xplore, he served as CEO of WaveSat Wireless and was the country manager for Cabletron Systems, a former manufacturer of networking computer equipment.