In January 2011, a giant lake of floodwater 86 km (55 miles) long washed over the state of Victoria in southeastern Australia. Powercor had never experienced anything like it before. It was the worst flooding since records began some 130 years ago. Before long, floods inundated 30% of the state, causing widespread outages across Powercor’s network.
At one point, 43,000 customers were out of power, 8,000 of which were as a result of a zone substation being removed from service. This unprecedented event occurred only a few months after the utility’s faults group went live with its first mobile workforce management system.
As crews raced to cope with the sort of natural disaster that might happen only once every 200 years, work orders managed through the new mobile software increased by 60% over the previous week. With such a major spike in work order volume, there was considerable concern over the crews’ limited experience with the new mobile software. Would the system scale quickly enough to handle the extra load? Were the crews sufficiently familiar to become adept in using the new mobile software and devices? And, did field crews have confidence in the new system to manage their schedules in the midst of a crisis of this proportion?
These concerns prompted management to identify the flood as an escalation event, which gave crews freedom to revert to the more familiar paper-based system they had used previously. However, only a few crew members chose that option, while the majority pressed on with the new mobile system. Consequently, despite the huge increase in workload, the crews were able to achieve the same ratio of complete jobs to generated work orders that they had achieved during the prior normal week. It was a successful conclusion to a severe and unexpected stress test of the new system, which came through with flying colors.
Validated without reservation in the catastrophic floods of 2011, Powercor’s mobile workforce management journey continues on, with results including increased field worker and dispatcher productivity, access to more accurate and timely data for driving better decisions, enhanced governance, improved network safety and shortened outage times.
First Step to Mobility
Powercor’s initial experience with mobile workforce management software stemmed from a government mandate requiring utilities in Victoria to replace all their manually read electricity meters with remotely read interval smart meters by 2013. Powercor and its sister utility, CitiPower, together supply more than 1.1 million distribution customers across the state, with CitiPower serving the state capital of Melbourne and inner suburbs and with Powercor operating throughout western Victoria. Approximately 86% of Powercor’s network is rural.
Historically, ongoing meter replacement programs at both Powercor and CitiPower were managed manually. But, this new program, involving exchanging more than 1 million meters in service, was far too complex and time sensitive to be managed by a paper-based process. Therefore, in 2009, Powercor and CitiPower rolled out their first mobile workforce management system, specifically to schedule and dispatch crews tasked with replacing existing meters with smart meters across their combined service areas.
The advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) installation provided a perfect proving ground for a mobile workforce management system. The system would have to manage high volumes of work and new work types, and support a team of 24 dispatchers and schedulers. In addition to enabling the long- and short-term planning, scheduling and dispatching of work to the field, the system also would need to enable the capture of data to reconcile meter information in the host systems.
Moreover, in the early technology evaluation phase, CHED Services, the technology and services arm of Powercor and CitiPower, recognized the opportunity to derive further benefits from the software by extending it to support the management of faults.
With this in mind, CHED Services was looking for the following key technical attributes in a software system:
- Scalability. The AMI field force was projected to peak at 200 workers by the end of 2010, handling projected volumes of 1,500 to 2,000 meter installations per day to meet progressive regulatory targets set through to the end of the rollout. If the solution was to be extended to support the management of faults, it would have to scale more field workers and handle unpredictable spikes in its usage.
- Ease of use. The recruitment and training of meter installers was complete at a rate of 20 or more a month, and the installers, together with the scheduling and dispatching personnel, had to be proficient with the system as quickly as possible. Thus, the system had to be intuitive, easy to learn and easy to use. The same efficient and well-managed training would be required should the selected solution be extended to support the management of faults.
- Flexibility. Utility workforces perform all types of work, both long cycle like the AMI project and short cycle like fault repair. The solution needed to support both practices equally well. It also needed to support both direct employees and a contract workforce.
- Open standards based. This attribute was critical to facilitating integration with Powercor’s back-end host systems, regardless of the business process that had to be supported.
Following an extensive evaluation, Powercor selected Service Suite from Ventyx for its ability to deliver the key technical attributes CHED Services was seeking and for Ventyx’s record of providing software solutions to power utilities. The project for enabling field deployment of AMI meters went live in October 2009, after a three-month, 10,000-meter installation pilot period. The substantial time and cost savings as a result of the solution’s wireless dispatch capabilities, and the workforce productivity advantages the system introduced, enabled the AMI project to proceed successfully on its aggressive schedule.
These benefits led CHED Services to expand the scope of the Service Suite implementation to serve as the foundation for other field mobility operations.
In October 2010, the Service Suite implementation was extended to encompass Powercor’s fault operations. This included integration of the utility’s outage management system (OMS) and mobile software for the 300 fault crews tasked with restoring faults in the distribution network. Then, just three months later, Powercor experienced the unprecedented floods of January 2011.
With the volume of work orders increasing by the minute, Powercor’s old paper-based faults system would have been overwhelmed. The new system enabled crews to take on additional work and restore power to tens of thousands of customers in a timely and efficient manner. Further, as the emergency and Powercor’s response to it unfolded, the system enabled accurate information to be fed back to the utility’s mission-critical management systems for timely stakeholder reporting. There were several reasons for the success:
- More intelligent dispatch. Whether it is a widespread disaster, like the 2011 floods, or merely a dead possum on top of a rural pole causing a localized fault, dispatchers are able to determine and send out a crew with the relevant set of skills
- so repairs are made quickly and correctly.
- Better on-site information. Any necessary fault or site history can be forwarded to the crew’s mobile device at the time of dispatch, along with information on tools and parts required as well as best practices for fixing the fault. With this information available to crews on site, work can proceed much more rapidly.
- Real-time data capture and updates. Previously, under the paper-based system, time sheet data was captured in the field by crews but not much else. The rest of the information required had to be routed to the dispatcher, who would record it in the OMS — a manual process presenting opportunities for inaccurate and missing data. With Service Suite, Powercor has the ability to capture accurate data and receive real-time updates from field crews through entry into their mobile devices while on the job. As a result, the new system allows dispatchers to spend a lot less time taking calls to clean up jobs after the fact and more time focusing on their dispatching duties. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of this capability in responding to the flood-driven outages.
- Easy, stable integration. Service Suite implementation is integrated with Powercor’s relevant host systems, including its OMS, in a stable and low-maintenance fashion. The software interfaces with the utility’s Oracle Fusion middleware, which in turn connects the solution to any required host system.
- Simplicity. After using the new system for just three months, field workers were already comfortable with the mobile software and well versed in its capabilities. Hence, they doubled down on its use during the crisis instead of reverting to the old manual system.
Service Suite’s performance during the 2011 floods was a defining moment for mobile workforce management at Powercor. Already, Powercor has expanded the number of users of its new faults management mobility process. Instead of crew members sharing a single mobile device, Powercor has increased the number of devices so there is now one device per two-person vehicle, leading to even more efficiencies.
Powercor also is planning to upgrade its deployment to the latest version of Service Suite. Office-based trials of that new version are underway now with an internal team. Taking
advantage of further features of the software is also under
consideration. For example, if a mobile device is stationary for a predetermined number of minutes, the dispatcher can first send a call to check on the worker’s safety and then mobilize a crew if necessary.
Business Benefits Realized
Powercor is experiencing significant productivity increases across crews using the new mobile solution. Without such a system in place, it is impossible to standardize activity and optimize scheduling and dispatching. With mobile automation, workers cannot only access information on service history as well as required tools and parts, but they also can be guided through the inspection to diagnose the issue and repair the fault. Instead of scribbling notes during their work for later recall, workers now can now leverage drop-down menus and simply tick off software boxes on their mobile devices to speed work and improve data capture. The system can even capture data and increase efficiency outside of the job. For example, with time sheets now on the mobile devices provided by a complimentary product, workers now tick off a box in real time to record their arrival and departure from the fault, along with stand-down and fatigue times.
The cost savings enabled by the new system have been widespread. Examples include the elimination of 4,500 phone calls in a typical month. Data entry costs have fallen as a direct result of that alone. Real-time updates and more accurate data exchanges have increased Powercor’s visibility across its field operations, resulting in more meaningful reporting and better-informed operational and strategic decisions. More accurate data capture, with a complete audit trail, also supports better compliance reporting.
Safety has been enhanced significantly around the components of a real or potential fault. For example, a worker can tick off a software box in real time on the mobile device about a tree pruning requirement, which automatically e-mails the right contractor through the middleware to speed resolution of the safety issue.
Powercor has fewer and less lengthy outages as a result of more efficient and accurate inspections as well as a faster time-to-repair rate across its extensive service area, resulting in enhanced customer satisfaction for a utility with a history of customer service excellence.
Alan King ([email protected]) holds a bachelor’s degree in business information systems management and is a certified project manager. Currently, he is the mobility solutions manager at Powercor and has more than 10 years of experience in IT systems management. King specializes in process re-engineering through mobility solutions and has experience across multiple industries in providing end-to-end scalable solutions that interface to host systems, ensuring accurate and timely delivery of data.