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Flexible mobile working is set to transform productivity in the energy and utilities sector, from job planning and scheduling to worker protection in remote locations as well as improvements in overall asset management.

With millions of miles of pipes and cables hooked up to millions of customers, keeping the lights on and the taps running in the global economy is a mammoth task. Maintaining it all requires a huge amount of mobile manpower. Utilities infrastructure is widely distributed and there’s a lot of it, from power stations and water treatment plants to pumps, valves and substations, much of it in remote locations. The costs of fuel and travel time for field staff – and management overheads – are high.

Mobile IT, using handheld devices ruggedised for use in the harsh field environment, is already driving efficiency improvements across the utilities sector. But developments in flexible mobile working over the next decade are expected to yield a step-change in efficiency, with scope for major productivity gains and cost savings, as well as improvements in job scheduling as well as worker protection.

Delivering assurance

Flexible mobile working reduces costs in several ways. Work scheduling is one of them. Electronic rostering means it’s possible for mobile employees to sign-in from home and then head straight for the first job of the day, eliminating a time-consuming trip to the office.

Once teams have signed-in, assignments can be allocated in real time, with deployment decisions based on where crews are and how well jobs are progressing. Work allocation is automatic and based on current GPS location, so travel, fuel and overtime costs can all be optimised.

“It’s vital for the energy industry to deploy the right people to the right job at the right time in order to improve efficiency,” says Nick Kamen, Head of Energy & Utilities Industry (Industry Solutions & Marketing) at Vodafone Global Enterprise. “But there’s more to it than that; by knowing exactly what they’re being asked to work on they will be able to bring the right equipment and parts for the job - and mobile technology will enable them to do on-the-spot fixes using real-time updates from head office about power outages or videos and images of the latest asset schematics.”

The cost savings achieved through logical deployment of field staff – and the potential to minimise service backlogs – are appealing, but it’s not just a better managed workforce that makes the shift to mobile IT so attractive.

First, there’s a need to find better ways to handle compliance. All utilities, are bound by an increasingly large number of regulatory and statutory requirements, standards and service obligations.

“By having clear visibility of people in remote and potentially hazardous circumstances and environments, you can manage your workforce better,” says Kamen. “You can also meet your health and safety responsibilities by ensuring the visibility, security and safety of those people.

“Visibility in real-time, reporting where they are, where they have been and where they’re going to be – all of these are important for worker management in the energy industry, in mining and oil and gas, for example in more remote regions of Africa or parts of Australia and so forth,” Kamen adds. “Having those checks and balances in place is part of being a responsible employer as well as supporting compliance efforts in terms of health and safety regulation with regards to lone worker protection.”

This becomes even more vital when you consider one of the big issues in the energy and utility sector: the acute skills shortage, which could be a growing trend in the coming years. There are not enough people entering the industry, which means employers need to manage these issues – including certification, training and compliance – very carefully.

“If, as a consequence of this skills shortage, the industry needs to extend those resources further, they must also protect them effectively,” says Kamen. “Mobility allows these workers to do more and increase their productivity by giving them access to more information and allowing them to improve their scheduling. It lets them plan where they need to go and lets them know what needs to be done, which is not often the case now.”

Because the regulatory landscape is in a state of constant flux, it’s also difficult – sometimes impossible – for management to be confident that staff have access to the latest guidance, particularly when the workforce is mobile. And even if staff do have the appropriate paper documentation, there’s no easy way to be certain it’s being followed or even read.

Digital delivery means it’s possible to ditch the manuals and get red tape under control, with relevant regulatory information appended to specific electronic job files. By integrating distribution with approvals, mobile workers can provide time-stamped confirmation that they’re aware of the relevant rules and requirements for a given project – something that’s of particular value where there’s mandatory sign-off for risk assessments.

Right time, right place, right kit

Replacing hard copy with electronic data – sometimes called “dematerialisation” – has other benefits too. Much of the work carried out by field staff is linked to the routine inspection and maintenance of specific assets. In the case of the water industry, that might include examination of equipment at a remote pumping station; in the case of an electricity distribution network operator, it might include inspecting a transformer.

The first job is finding the asset. Answering the question “Where is it?” is not always easy. In rural areas, a water pumping station might be hidden away on a wooded hillside; a local electricity transformer, meanwhile, might be perched 30 feet up a pair of wooden poles in the middle of a field.

As well as pinpointing the location of the asset, mobile applications provide staff with a reminder of the tools they’ll need to get the job done – before they traipse 400 yards across a muddy field to discover the spanners are still in the van.

Electronic mapping, coupled with GPS, is already transforming the speed with which assets can be located. As well as making assets easier to find, it strips out the costs associated with purchasing, managing and printing up-to-date hard copy mapping.

A question of identity

Smart handheld devices also make it possible to firmly identify specific assets. The ability to answer the question “Which one is it?” is important on large sites, where there may be dozens of identical pumps, valves and transformers.

Positive identification can be achieved in a number of ways, including barcodes, RFID tags or OCR (optical character recognition), all of which can be read using a mobile device. RFID tags offer a particularly high level of assurance, which is useful in cases where identifying marks are at risk of being obscured by grease or mud.

Once the identity of the specific asset has been established, context-aware apps kick in. These pull together documents relevant to the user’s precise location, including drawings and data linked to the asset, along with customised guidance on what needs to be done. Positive identification and access to documentation also makes it easier to invoke warrantee recovery if an asset has failed.

As well as supporting conventional maintenance operations, there’s significant scope to link flexible mobile working with automated maintenance requests generated by remote condition monitoring (RCM) systems. RCM technology is finding its way into an increasing number of assets – such as pump motors – to provide real-time health checks and alarms. By linking systems of this sort with mobile applications, maintenance response times are reduced, so assets can be fixed before they fail.

Flexible mobile working also offers safety benefits. Handhelds are tracked, so management know the whereabouts of staff throughout the day. In some cases, mobile devices can be used to send alarms – valuable at hazardous sites – and they also allow workers to summon help. In tandem with this, staff can identify teams working near them, with automated reporting of staff positions within a defined radius.

“Many of the lone worker tools we’re discussing with clients at the moment include ‘man down’ alert functionality,” says Kamen. “If someone falls over or if the device flips over, an alarm is triggered automatically, which goes back to a response centre which then triggers an alert that goes back to the employer, allowing for immediate response.

Rediscover your assets

Mobile flexible working goes far beyond pushing task-critical information to workers. Handheld technology also allows accurate front-line data capture, and this has a number of significant benefits for utilities operators.

First, data about the condition of assets, and work carried out on them, is reported in real time, with asset management databases updated instantaneously. This has the benefit of promoting greater accuracy compared to traditional paper-based methods, in which hard copy documentation was filled out in the field and then re-typed later, with the ever-present risk of transcription errors. Direct input also has the advantage of eliminating task duplication. Workers are more efficient in their tasks as a consequence and results improve.

Second, the routine capture and storage of enriched field data, including images and video, means it’s possible to develop a better understanding of asset condition than was possible in the past. Every routine inspection has the potential to become an asset survey, which makes it more vital than ever for workers to be able to operate smarter than ever. New information can be shared quickly, easily and widely, so there’s greater scope for desk-based analysis and less need to send out expert surveyors every time something unexpected is comes to light.

Aggregation of data collected by thousands of workers using handheld devices, combined with information archived from RCM systems, provides a unique window into asset life cycle performance, with operators obtaining a progressively deeper understanding of the asset base – a process aided by business analytics. This allows operators to sweat assets intelligently, with the potential to extend the life of existing equipment and capture new savings.

The next decade is likely to see big changes in the energy and utilities landscape, with plans that encompass everything from the construction of new generating capacity to smart grids and massive upgrades of the water and wastewater systems. With utilities embarking on some of the biggest investment programmes yet seen, smarter working – and the savings that come with it – can’t come a moment too soon.

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