Utility providers face a variety of regulatory and operational challenges on a daily basis and ScottishPower Energy Networks (SPEN) is no exception. The business (www.scottishpower.com/pages/energy_networks.asp) must balance meeting its regulatory requirements while delivering service excellence to its 3,500,000 customers and ensuring that the business is run in a responsible, safe and sustainable way.
Part of the ScottishPower Group, SPEN delivers energy through its network of 30,000 substations, 40,000km of overhead lines (the equivalent of once around the globe) and 65,000km of underground cables. Ensuring supply to their customers requires these assets to be maintained and working properly; to help meet this challenge SPEN decided to innovate through the use of mobile computer technology in the field.
Some 10 years ago, SPEN formed a relationship with Sigma Seven Limited *(www.sigmaseven.co.uk) , a specialist field systems supplier (a relationship that persists to this day) and started to work with that company's GeoField products.
Dave Clarke, Business Systems Manager, SPEN said: “A lot of the work we do is out in the field – it seemed obvious that if we could get better information to the field engineers then it would make their job easier while giving the enterprise better information and improve the quality of the data we hold on our assets.”
Initially, the focus was on mobilising the mapping and asset data held in the enterprise GIS. However, once in the hands of the field staff the potential business benefits of mobilisation became clear. Specific job types were identified for deployment, including providing job quotations on the customer’s doorstep and creating wayleave agreements in the field to allow vegetation to be cleared from the power lines. These were delivered as ‘stand-alone’ applications and proved to be very successful, providing numerous business benefits including good payback and they were well adopted and embraced by the field force.
These early successes focused attention on increasing the use of mobile technology within SPEN and coincided with rapid developments of hardware technology, communications infrastructure and software capability. GeoField provided a platform to integrate the office systems and a framework where additional job types can be added to the portfolio of tasks. This created the concept of workflows, bringing together the data and functionality that the engineers required in a task specific manner, while also providing flexibility and scalability.
The workflow concept rapidly increased the number of tasks that could be undertaken in the field, including contractor audit; substation inspection; and control of the Medium Voltage Network.
However, the introduction of the workflow concept was not just to help the field staff work more effectively, but was intended to deliver real and tangible business benefits. One such example is the Third Party Damage workflow. Like other utilities, many power interruptions are as a result of damage caused by third parties digging up the power cables. The party causing the damage is held responsible for the cost of the repair, and this cost in most cases is passed on to the third parties’ insurance company. Most insurance companies will contest the claim, citing insufficient or inaccurate information being available to support such claims. The cost to the utility provider in legal fees and unpaid-for repairs could be substantial.
The introduction of the Third Party Damage workflow changes that. Using the workflow concept ensures that the field-captured data is always complete and accurate, and includes supporting detail such as sketches, photographs and even the signature of the site representative; so removing the opportunity for the claim for damages to be contested.
As well as ensuring the integrity of the data, the workflow concept has many other advantages, particularly in the consistency of application. It makes support and maintenance easier and supports enterprise-wide deployment. Currently SPEN supports 1,500 regular mobile users; a mix of direct staff and their contractors.
Also, the workflow can be tailored to suit each functional group of field workers; tree cutters, excavation teams, project coordinators or asset inspectors for example. In this way the business can ensure that the field staff are ‘constrained’ to follow the business process, and yet allows user flexibility in how the process is delivered. This is particularly relevant to SPEN because sometimes the field work is delivered by contractors and they require flexibility when delivering their contractual commitments.
It is essential that any solution needs to be able to evolve to meet changing functional and business requirements as well as office systems; at least two of the major systems interfaces to the field that support mapping and work and asset management have been changed without any adverse impact on the field workflows in place.
The smart approach
The evolution of mobilisation in SPEN has until now been focused mainly on supporting the business areas that deliver planned work, such as maintenance activities. However, the story continues to evolve to include real-time access to information, awareness and collaboration. The recent explosion of the use of smartphones provides the opportunity to embrace location-based information and job management to an even broader user population and supports the introduction into areas of the business where the field user is faced with more time-critical and safety-related decisions.
The most recent projects encompass near real-time applications, including Incident Management and Storm Response. Information in near real time is the key allowing decisions to be made on the most effective remedial actions together with the ability to keep the customer better informed as to the situation and likely restoration time.
Guy Jefferson, Operations Director, SPEN said: “Customers rightly demand more from us in term of information and status. They live in a joined up world and expect the same from us. An inclusive approach to the use of mobile systems is the only way in which we can bring the point of action sensibly into the enterprise, with all of the advantages that brings.
“The investments that we have made and continue to make in mobile systems, together with our relationship with Sigma Seven, provides a flexible platform to deliver better information flow throughout the business, and is a cornerstone in meeting our financial, engineering, statutory and social responsibilities moving forward.”
The investment made by SPEN places it in a market leading position in the adoption and use of mobile systems within their business. This now embraces an ever increasing range of tasks, including joining contractors into the same processes and management structure. The delivery platform provides the flexibility for them to design solutions that are fit for purpose and cost effective across a range of devices, data types and functions.
Conway Williams, Business Systems Director, SPEN concludes: “We are excited that we have a hugely significant tool in place with our mobile platform that will support the business and our customers moving forward; the challenges won’t diminish, but we have technology and experience to prevail.
“For any utility provider looking to embrace mobile enterprise technologies, there are three things to consider: Firstly, plan for the long term, recognising that requirements and capabilities will need to evolve; secondly, bring the field workforce with you on the journey; and thirdly, look at mobilisation as a discipline in its own right, not just as a simple extension of the office systems or capability – look at processes, tasks and data.
“The real benefits flow from the seamless integration (at the data and process levels), the field and the office, offering support to the enterprise.”
David Baxter is senior technical consultant at Sigma Seven (www.sigmaseven.co.uk) and has nearly 20 years’ experience of delivering major projects into the UK utility sector
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