Guest Column | February 1, 2016

Utilities: Winning With Mobile And Cloud Strategies

By Danielle Calamos, Product Marketing Associate, Retriever Communications

Mobile And Cloud Strategies For Utilities

There are a few U.S. industries that face a fundamental transformation in the next few years. The utility industry is one of them.

Amidst increased competition from solar and wind energy organizations, utility companies find themselves trying to resolve a host of issues: Aging infrastructure, regulatory uncertainties, and customers cutting back on consumption to save money.

One of the ways utilities are fighting back is by increasing their own competitiveness. They are enhancing their service offerings (such as recommending smart meters), provide better customer service, become more responsive and, of course, optimize their operations to become more productive. Helping some of these business objectives become a reality are mobile and cloud strategies.

Mobile solutions are not a new occurrence in utilities, however, they have mostly been used in outage and other emergency situations. Now, some companies choose to redesign their entire workflow around mobile and cloud by allowing their field workforce to schedule appointments, request information, report on projects, order parts, and communicate with their managers and customers directly from the mobile devices. And by doing so, companies are empowering every customer-facing technician to become the best representation of the whole organization.

One of the examples of strategic mobile adoption is smart metering. With smart meters, utility companies get better access to the information stored in the cloud about energy usage and route electricity to areas where it is needed most while saving money in places where it is least in demand.

Standard meters have no way of communicating usage data and must be read manually by a meter reader. In comparison, smart meters come with two-way communication — utility companies can leverage this by arming their field technicians with sophisticated mobile apps that are able to communicate with them during installation, maintenance and inspection jobs. This requires direct communication between the field worker’s handset, the connected asset and the company back-end systems. Doing away with manual readings saves utility companies both time and effort on the part of the technicians as well as dramatically increases data accuracy being collected from the field.

For IT managers, some benefits of cloud and mobile deployment might be obvious, others, such as safety and regulation compliance, may be overlooked. The most successful implementations, though, come from realizing the full spectrum of benefits cloud and mobile can provide to industrial enterprise. The most fundamental cost reduction and increased revenues come from:

  • Improved knowledge-sharing and efficiency across all work processes and workflows. Mobile apps and cloud-based systems facilitate open and transparent flow of information between people and departments which, in turn, leads to better decision making on all levels. For example, access to manuals, site maps and past service reports received together with work orders provides technicians with relevant context to be the most effective during service calls.
  • Eradication of cumbersome and unsecure paper-based processes. While mobile-based forms (reports and requisitions) can save both time and money, coupled with cloud computing, they also provide greater security for terabytes of critical IT assets such as customer billing data or demand response.
  • Greater accuracy of project sequences. Mobile applications enhance workforce accountability and provide hard metrics upon completion of each service, thus helping improve the relationship between all parties involved.
  • Increased visibility for sub-contractor management. By allocating jobs and managing timely sign-offs of completed projects, companies can optimize resources dedicated to each project and have greater transparency of every aspect of field operations.
  • Shortened service delivery times. A benefit of field applications is real-time communication and rapid response. If a job has been closed as work-in-progress due to a safety concern, the back office can re-dispatch the job immediately to a qualified field staff for completion that day. Using paper processes, it may take days or weeks for the back-office to find out that this job has not been completed.
  • Improved regulatory compliance and workplace safety. Mobile apps make it easier for management to track completion of job training sessions, thus improving worker safety. On the other hand, they also facilitate immediate reporting of all safety concerns and injuries. The combination of both approaches strengthens organization’s overall commitment to workplace safety.

Still, with numerous benefits of mobile and cloud, in the past, IT managers voiced valid concerns about deployment times, costs, and custom configurations. Fortunately, the latest technological innovations allowed automation providers deploy mobile solutions in industrial environment within a couple of weeks, often by using utility-specific configurable off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions that can fit unique processes and workflows.

The advancements and custom fit of mobile and cloud in utilities space create great opportunities for companies that want to get a leg up on the competition. The question is, which of your IT clients will take advantage of them faster?