Connected Plant

Boosting Productivity in the Utility Industry with Mobile Solutions

In the utility industry, downtime and outages—from losing power to water shortages and burst pipes—can impact a customer’s day-to-day life, causing safety concerns and costly damages. This is especially true during sweltering summer months or freezing winter seasons caused by extreme weather and climate change.

Today, digital transformation is shifting customer expectations as they demand visibility and real-time updates into their utilities, and personalized services to meet their needs. Utility companies must prioritize their mobile workers who are at the forefront of the customer experience by providing them with the technology and digital tools needed to meet and exceed these expectations.

Digital Tools for Optimized Performance

The job of a utility worker takes them into the field, with many using their vehicle as a remote office when they travel between sites, and their mobile devices often experience unavoidable drops, spills, and transit vibrations along the way. To withstand these challenging environments and streamline field operations, utility workers need mobile devices that leverage digital tools such as geographic information system (GIS) mapping and digital log keeping.

For example, vegetation managers and line workers often work under direct sunlight while traversing through rural landscapes, so the mobile solutions they depend on must have a bright display for information on the screen to be easily viewable. When there are winter storms and heavy rains, having a display that distinguishes between raindrops and touches with a finger or glove allows workers to record data efficiently. Working in extreme hot or cold environments is a nightmare for most devices because they aren’t built with processors capable of running normally when outside the temperature-controlled vehicle. Rugged mobile solutions capable of operating in these conditions must be prioritized to avoid downtime.

For maintenance workers who need to investigate gas leaks, suspicious odors, or flooding, they need a trusted tool that is C1D2-certified to be able to operate in hazardous conditions and meet compliance requirements. Technologies such as GIS mapping and powerful image processing tools can also support workers without risking their own well-being. Real-time data is key for maintenance crews to send reports to a command center and request additional support if needed.

Despite the different work requirements, log keeping is an important part of the job. Rugged mobile devices benefit utility workers by enabling them to collect data regardless of the environment and report on the information accurately to fill communication gaps and compliance requirements.

Increased uptime is another benefit. Utility workers are constantly on the move and they often work far away from an electrical source to power their devices. Rugged mobile solutions with long-lasting replaceable batteries help them schedule inspections and maintenance without losing power, which increases efficiency in even the most rugged and remote conditions.

Advanced Connectivity for Real-Time Data Capture

Utility sites can range from old rural junctures to modern smart cities and everything in between as the industry transforms amid digitization and infrastructure upgrades.

Connectivity—whether 4G, 5G, or CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Service) spectrum—enables utility workers to receive critical information at their fingertips, remotely log activities, and provide updates on the state of power lines and other infrastructure in real-time. This information can be recorded on a mobile device, communicated across teams, and transferred to a central database. For projects that involve complex data and visual graphics, connectivity is key because a minute saved is a minute that can be put to better use—whether keeping an oil rig running or quickly restoring a community’s power after a storm.

While connectivity is crucial in the field, what’s also needed is a mobile solution that can provide high processing speed and computing power. Design tools and software applications such as computer-aided design (CAD) and GIS are often used when creating utility workflows, visualizing electrical and power distribution, and analyzing datasets. These tools generate robust data such as weights, dimensions, and geometries, so the mobile devices utility workers operate must have high processing power. When large files can be uploaded and downloaded quickly, utility workers can be even more productive on the job.

When returning to their vehicles to wrap up their day, rugged mobile solutions also let workers easily manage the data and graphics collected, develop and send reports, and track the status of ongoing projects.

Customization and Flexibility for the Future

The energy and utility industry collects a vast amount of customer data through phone calls, surveys, reports, online activity, and service history. How utility companies analyze and act on these datasets determines how well they can serve their customers in today’s increasingly digitized world.

A key characteristic of digitization is the heightened focus on real-time engagement and giving customers visibility into the utility operations in energy and electricity networks. This challenges companies to minimize downtime, be digitally available, and maintain ongoing conversations with their customers.

For utility workers using predictive technologies in their workflow, rugged mobile devices can help identify growing risks and reduce the rate and consequence of incidents through software support. With visibility into data patterns, utility workers can communicate real-time updates to customers who may be affected. This is important, especially during natural disasters such as wildfires, hurricanes, and floods, when customers demand instantaneous responses, personalized services, and ongoing support.

Given various customer needs, rugged mobile solutions support utility workers by offering customized tools and features that cater to different job requirements. From hardware and software integration to deployment services and support, customization is a critical way utility companies can meet the industry’s ever-evolving needs.

Technology Is Ever-Evolving

Looking ahead, emerging technologies will continue to shape the industry. As a result, utility companies need to understand the effects of future technological developments on their workforce. Technology investments must stand the test of time to create long-term value as workers’ needs evolve.

As a legacy industry, utilities will always face unique challenges—from the impact of climate change to unexpected natural disasters. Fortunately, mobile technology can alleviate some of the biggest challenges workers face by providing the digital tools needed to increase productivity, enhance connectivity, and customize the worker experience.

Chad Hall is strategic account manager of Utility & Enterprise Mobility Solutions with Panasonic Connect North America.

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