For utility companies, automation is innovation. Until recently, utility field crew operations were managed largely through manual processes that required teams of administrators, reams of paperwork, and constant back-and-forth communications between internal employees and dispatched crews to assess conditions on the ground and direct field work accordingly.
While for decades this hands-on approach was the industry standard for utility field crew management, today that is no longer the case. New geospatial and digitization technologies purpose-built for the industry are now automating many manual workflows while making critical infrastructure data readily accessible for real-time reporting, analysis, dissemination, and decision making.
Here are five essential utility company workflows being transformed by automation today. Together, they illustrate the potential of advanced digitization platforms to modernize the industry, expedite processes, and make energy delivery safer, more sustainable, and more reliable than ever before.
1. Field Crew Scheduling
Field crew scheduling is a costly and complex task. Deploying thousands of field workers across the vast geographic regions most utility companies serve presents a host of logistical challenges, including difficult terrain to navigate, volumes of data to sift through, and unreliable Internet access in many remote locales.
With field data digitized and synched across systems and applications, administrators can leverage real-time situational awareness in every scheduling decision they make. And with automated workflows in place to streamline scheduling processes, they can eliminate the phone tag, email threads, and manual data entry they once relied on to coordinate field operations and keep crews informed.
2. Outages and Repairs
Outages can occur any time during the day or night and managing a customer’s experience during an unexpected outage can be a critical interaction for any utility company. When this happens, repairs are frequently needed after hours and on weekends when labor costs are high, and many workers are not available. So, workers are often redirected from their regularly scheduled responsibilities, which can significantly disrupt previously planned work schedules.
Automating the tracking and dispatching of field personnel allows administrators to deploy the right crews to areas in need much faster than through manual processes. The most advanced workflow management tools also automatically reconfigure master schedules following an outage so vitally important routine maintenance work gets done on time and on budget as well.
3. Assignments and Dispatching
Deciding where to deploy field crews is a data-intensive exercise. If data is not captured and stored digitally in a central database for automated updating and dissemination, crews can be left with confusing or incomplete information out in the field.
Automated dispatching processes through a comprehensive scheduling and workflow management tool allows administrators to quickly pinpoint the current location of field crews, equipment, and assets, and determine where crews are most needed next.
The most sophisticated workflow solutions on the market enable the dispatching and relocation of crews through highly visual, map-based dashboards that automatically generate work orders and dispatching instructions from intuitive, touchscreen interfaces.
Digitizing and automating field operations data also allows utility companies to leverage emerging intelligent technologies, such as AI, to create predictive models from historical data that can aide in the planning of future field crew assignments.
During field crew inspections, workers are tasked with assessing the condition of field assets and their surrounding environments, recording their findings, and delivering this information to back-office teams for analysis, scheduling, and dispatching purposes.
When this data is collected in a manual fashion, it is often provided piecemeal to the utility company, and can include many hard copy documents that need to be scanned or keyed into central databases – extra steps that can slow productivity dramatically.
Documenting inspections through advanced workflow management tools allows field workers to conduct data collection processes digitally instead, capturing photos, information, and notes via their mobile devices. Once data is recorded digitally, it can be synched in real time to back-office systems and applications for immediate use by administrative teams. The most advanced solutions in the industry come equipped with device-agnostic mobile apps that allow information to be captured both online and off, from any Windows, Android, or iOS smartphone a field worker may be using.
5. Vegetation Management
To effectively reduce the risks associated with vegetation fall-in and grow-in around power supply systems, utility companies need ongoing visibility into the status of each asset’s surrounding terrain.
Accordingly, utility companies gather vegetation data from a variety of sources, including field crew documentation and aerial imagery, using both manual and digital techniques. Data arriving in different formats must then be digitized and processed by back-office applications so administrative teams can assess how vegetation is growing in each locale and manage it accordingly.
The ability to automate data collection processes allows vegetation data around utility assets to be tracked digitally on a continuous basis. Based on this dynamic, real-time field data, utilities can plan their vegetation management practices and better ensure that the environment is preserved, lives and property are protected, and that the utility company is operating in compliance with environmental standards set by local, state, and federal agencies.
Let us help you digitally transform your field operations workflows. Schedule an EpochField demonstration today.
Natural disasters like the recent landing of Hurricane Ian on the shores of Florida remind us of how important our energy resources are and just how complex the management of them can be.
While millions of Floridians waited patiently for power to be restored in the aftermath of the storm, the utility companies grappling with the event pulled thousands of field crew operators together in a coordinated taskforce to bring much-needed energy resources to the areas impacted.
While hurricanes the likes of Ian occur infrequently, the fact is that the gas and electricity Americans rely on from coast to coast are both vitally important to the safe, efficient operation of our economy and reliably available thanks to the dedication, expertise, and responsiveness of utility companies nationwide.
To help mitigate the effects of outages large and small, a new generation of geospatial mapping technologies is fast advancing. These innovative solutions are already proving to be true game changers for the industry by streamlining, automating, and expediting energy delivery processes and enabling real-time data visibility and sharing across field crew and back-office teams alike.
Here are a few examples of how the technology works – and how Epoch Solutions Group is leading the way to a new, more efficient, reliable energy delivery network by placing cutting-edge innovations in the hands of digital-savvy utility companies.
Empowering Mobile Field Crews at Ameren
For too long, staff at Missouri-based Ameren relied on mobile mapping solutions that were only updated quarterly, resulting in outdated information—or data that could only be used online—which was impractical for workers on the go. And because Ameren’s existing work management tool didn’t have an integrated map, mobile crews struggled to gain spatial reference as to where their work needed to be done.
To address this challenge, the utility partnered with Epoch Solutions Group to implement its EpochField field operations management platform and leverage the company’s extensive GIS consulting services.
Scalable and highly configurable, the EpochField mobile mapping solution is built on ArcGIS Runtime SDK for .NET. Using the SDK’s Xamarin libraries, the app runs on Windows 10, iOS, and Android devices, allowing users to work offline or online, download and view updated GIS data on demand, and draw accurate field diagrams with the map markup tool.
Equipped with an offline, map-centric mobile solution configured to their unique needs, mobile crews at Ameren are now completing their daily work—from routine maintenance and inspections to making repairs and dealing with service outages—using the most up-to-date information available.
Because they enjoy offline functionality and real-time data sharing with back-office staff, field operations have been transformed, communication between teams is much faster and clearer, and all stakeholders company-wide can now deliver the outstanding, reliable service their customers have come to expect.
Read the full case study here.
Modernizing Workforce Management at Entergy
A full-service utility, Entergy generates and distributes electric power to 2.9 million customers across Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, and natural gas to 108,000 customers in the New Orleans and Baton Rouge areas.
Recently, Entergy embarked on an enterprise strategic initiative to modernize its electrical and gas operations by deploying an enterprise asset management system (EAM) and a workforce management system (WFMS) across all its operating companies.
Initially, Entergy selected EpochField to enable faster, more efficient field inspections of gas assets, and in 2018 the utility company built on this implementation by deploying EpochField as its mobile workforce management solution for all field crews responsible for electric transmission and distribution, gas, and vegetation management.
Ultimately, EpochField proved to be the right solution for Entergy because the platform was able to integrate with the utility’s complex legacy systems for GIS and asset management, and with its mobile client application as well.
A single product suite for all field workflows, EpochField delivered the geospatial data crews and back-office employees needed to schedule, author work types, and create work orders for the utility’s thousands of field crew workers. According to Entergy’s management team, EpochField outperformed other solutions on the market in its ability to automate and expedite field service operations and workflows.
Since the full deployment of EpochField in 2020, Entergy has achieved the operational efficiencies and enterprise-wide integration the utility company needed to ensure reliable energy delivery to its vast customer base. Today, the tool is proving instrumental in the utility’s quest to reduce overall storm response time which, in turn, is yielding significant financial benefits – and consumer goodwill – as efficiency gains are improving service uptime while reducing operational costs.
Read the full case study here.
Enabling Real-Time Data Visibility at FortisAlberta
As a regulated electricity distribution utility serving central and southern Alberta, Canada, FortisAlberta is responsible for ensuring the safe and reliable delivery of electricity to more than half a million residential, farm, and business customers across the region.
To achieve the consistent reliable service its customers require, the utility’s 1,100 employees work day and night to keep systems up and running, prevent and respond to outages, survey and repair infrastructure assets, and maintain the power grid. Recently, FortisAlberta has developed a Grid Modernization Program that includes enhancing, replacing, or upgrading existing operational technology and information technology systems to better serve its customers, improve the reliability of its distribution network, be prepared for changes in the regulatory environment and distribution grid with the introduction of renewable energy, and gain operational efficiencies.
The solution is an enterprise-wide Mobile Workforce Management (MWFM) system based on Epoch Solutions Group’s EpochField technology and specifically, its Work Scheduler Solution.
Unlike other applications on the market, FortisAlberta found the EpochField platform to be configurable for their unique needs. “Our objective is to put in place a single system for all work scheduled in the field, and to provide all stakeholders wherever they may be located with a single source of truth on what has been completed, what is happening now, and what is planned for the future,” said Dave Stratichuk, Manager of Operation Technology for FortisAlberta.
According to Stratichuk, the tool is performing as planned. “When we are making real-time scheduling decisions, we automatically have accurate, up-to-date information on who is on vacation, who is taking sick leave, and who has other scheduling limitations. Before, all this information had to be input into systems manually,” said Stratichuk.
Read the full case study here.
Digitizing Field Operations at San Diego Gas & Electric
San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) serves approximately 1.5 million electric and 900,000 gas customers in Southern California’s San Diego and Orange County communities. Until recently, the utility company relied on its legacy back-end systems and applications to guide its field operations, including annual infrastructure patrols, technologies put in place years ago.
However, when the software provider of SDG&E’s primary field management solution announced its plans to retire the application, SDG&E’s management made the decision to invest in new infrastructure tools and technologies to power the future of its field operations
According to Jeffrey Lewis, an experienced industry consultant working with SDG&E to orchestrate the digital transformation initiative, the utility was seeking a new platform designed to deliver more robust functionality to its field crews and to aide in the annual patrols critical to identifying areas in need of further inspection, vegetation management, repairs, and other routine maintenance tasks.
After a thorough review of solutions, SDG&E selected the EpochField enterprise-grade field crew mapping and management solution. A platform-level application, EpochField digitizes field operations data and connects field workers on the frontlines to third-party, back-office systems and applications – from anywhere their deployments take them via its device-agnostic mobile app.
Before implementing EpochField, SDG&E field workers relied primarily on paper maps – some 27,000 of them – to manually record infrastructure data collected in the field during its annual field patrols. This process generated volumes of hard-written forms, sketches, and other documents that had to be individually digitized and formatted for uploading to SDG&E’s back-end systems and applications.
For SDG&E, implementing EpochField has been a huge step toward faster, more efficient field operations – and more sustainable business practices overall. “EpochField has empowered our field workers with its intuitive, automated mobile app which has delivered all the functionality workers need to quickly and easily record infrastructure data in the field, right from their smartphones, tablets, and laptops,” said Lewis. “Now, for the first time, SDG&E is bypassing many of the redundant manual steps once involved in the collection, recording, and processing of field data.”
Plus, he adds, fewer manual touchpoints have led to greater data integrity and accuracy, vitally important to grid safety and compliance, and to ensuring reliable service uptime for all the utility’s customers.
Read the full case study here.
Discover how geospatial technology can transform your own field crew operations. Request a free EpochField demonstration today.
The safety and reliability of power line systems is essential to consumers and businesses alike, and in the era of climate change, vegetation management has never been more critical.
When vegetation around the power grid is left unchecked, it can interfere with power line systems, with catastrophic results. In fact, vegetation grow-in and fall-in remain the most dominant causes of power outages today. Even more concerning is the devastating impact unmanaged vegetation can have when power line systems are impacted by extreme weather events, such as windstorms, which can bring lines down and send dangerous sparks into the surrounding terrain.
While in 2021, the financial impact of Western states wildfires reached an alarming $10.9 billion, the human costs of wildfires fueled by downed lines are simply beyond measure. Consider, for example, California’s 2018 Camp Fire, caused by extreme heat and wind conditions that damaged power lines and ultimately ignited one of the worst wildfires in our nation’s history. The Camp Fire consumed a full 153,335 acres in just two weeks, took the lives of 85 people, and destroyed 30,000 homes. Moving at a pace of 80 football fields per minute at its peak, this out-of-control blaze ravaged the entire town of Paradise in four hours.
To help mitigate the effects of wildfires and power outages, utility companies today are making vegetation management a top priority, seeking new tools and technologies to aid in the fight.
Why Digitization Is the Answer
Inspections and forecasting of vegetation are key mitigators of vegetation management and drivers of operational priorities and budgets for utility transmission and distribution departments. To effectively reduce the risks of vegetation fall-in and grow-in around power supply systems, utility companies need deep ongoing visibility into exactly where vegetation growth is posing the greatest threats.
To gain that level of visibility, utility companies conduct routine line inspections and gather vegetation data from a variety of different sources as well, such as aerial imagery and LiDAR, which is typically employed to capture data from above, using helicopters, airplanes, and drones. Because all this data is collected via disparate manual and digital processes in a range of different technological formats, structuring, synthesizing, and processing it presents challenges.
The vast amount of data available to utility companies today also presents technological challenges – along with opportunities. For example, rapid deployment of new satellites is increasing the geographic data available to the industry exponentially, information that can be used to dynamically track the state of vegetation around the power grid. However, processing all this data in an efficient manner takes immense computing power, and utility companies are often restrained by existing legacy infrastructure that lacks the high-performance computing required to analyze such volumes of data.
Utility companies also often suffer from an inability to convert raw data into the standardized formats required to leverage new advanced technologies available to them, such as AI and machine learning. Going forward, utilities must modernize their approach to vegetation management by advancing their infrastructure to keep pace with innovation, digitizing and standardizing the data they aggregate, and automating workflows to streamline their operations and meet the high vegetation management standards the industry has set.
Selecting the Right Technology
As a first step, utility companies should invest in a single, enterprise-wide platform that serves as both a central repository for field data and point of integration across systems and applications. Having the right digitization platform in place will ensure universal data access by stakeholders and ultimately help streamline workforce deployment workflows. Integration across the environment will help eliminate workflow bottlenecks and enable support for innovative new technologies as they emerge. The most sophisticated solutions in the industry today are web-based, offer expansive support for mobile devices deployed in field operations, and are built to scale.
The ideal digitization platform should also capture and standardize data from a breadth of resources, including drones, satellites, mobile devices, and manual documentation. Support for new, emerging industry AI and machine learning solutions is essential to have as well.
Optimally, the platform should also automate business processes from end to end – including scheduling field personnel, tracking work in progress, assessing performance, managing assets, and identifying opportunities for improvement.
Meeting the Challenge with EpochField
While there are many digitization solutions on the market today, few offer the functionality, flexibility, and scale needed to meet the vegetation management demands of the utility industry.
A web-based, enterprise-wide solution, the EpochField workflow automation and management platform is tailored for utility companies and can be configured to an organization’s specific needs. EpochField comes with full-featured modules for field workflow creation and management, work order and workforce scheduling, and asset map data distribution to the field, and is built for seamless integration across the infrastructure, from field mobile devices to on-premise servers and cloud-based applications. As the use of emerging technologies becomes more widespread, EpochField will continue to adapt to these and other data collection sources to provide utilities with the critical data needed for ongoing decision making.
As a foundation for network and asset workflows, EpochField offers features like offline viewing, high-performance maps, and configurable work order forms, allowing utility personnel to easily view their assets on a map-centric interface, wherever they are located – in the office or in the field.
As a result, utility companies can meet the complex challenge of vegetation management head on, dramatically increasing system uptime while preserving lives, property, and the environment surrounding the power grid.
Click here to schedule a demo today.
Utilities and telecommunications companies have been under pressure to digitize in order to remain competitive and support the mobile workforce for many years. For too long, the norm for field operations has revolved around paper-based processes, physical maps, and duplicate data views. Of course, the pandemic has forced many companies to re-evaluate their technology landscape and re-examine the impact of technology-driven solutions on a remote workforce. But the years following COVID-19 have proven that nearly anything can be streamlined and digitized with the proper technologies in place.
The efficiency gains and cost savings to be had from digitization are too great to ignore. This is especially true for field operations. In order to overcome barriers – both internal and external – it’s critical that organizations have a comprehensive project plan that addresses the varied elements needed for successful digitization. Preparing for digital transition of field operations is a process and one that should have a set of measurable milestones and results from the outset. Executives also need to engage with their teams to understand the challenges fieldworkers face and work with them to find solutions that make sense for both sides.
If you’re looking to transform your field operations into the next phase of digital execution, here’s a checklist your team can use to ensure the transition to digital management is smooth and results in more effective, efficient operations:
- Understand the business case for upgrading to digital tools. Lay out the short-and long-term goals and align digitization plans to them to ensure priority work is transformed first.
- Assess your current state and identify areas of improvement. Conduct a thorough audit to identify the most pressing challenges that digitization will address and develop a roadmap to the ideal operational state.
- Develop a plan to implement digitization in a way that makes sense for your organization. Form a task force for the transition and include team staff members who will be working directly within the digital systems; comprehensive involvement gets everyone engaged and focused on the same goals from the start.
- Train and equip your field workers with the tools they need to be successful. Identifying early adopters to champion training, celebrating learning steps, and acknowledging change management wins will help keep teams motivated.
- Monitor and optimize your digitization efforts over time. Schedule regular evaluations aligned to planning, implementation, and execution milestones to course-correct or leverage successes throughout the system.
- Work with an implementation partner that can help you assess your organization’s needs and ensure the best roadmap with the least interruption. Make sure your partner offers configurable solutions that solve the unique challenges your teams face every day, from the back office to the frontline. Also, ensure you’re getting increased visibility and productivity in every part of the process.
Each of these steps is important in achieving success with digitization in field operations, but it’s also important to keep in mind that every organization is different and will have its own unique challenges and needs.
You know it’s time to update your process, but where do you start? Learn more about how to get your operations ready – download our latest guide: Digitization in Mobile Workforce Management: Overcoming 5 Barriers in Field Operations now.