Utilities firms are looking to Big Data and smart technology to move away from costly reactive maintenance. Marina Stedman, ClickSoftware, explains why...
Utility companies that typically manage vast networks of locations, staff, and supplies have the unenviable task of keeping the lights on regardless of what Mother Nature chooses to throw at them. It is an industry sector that is constantly investing and innovating but the impact often goes unnoticed, with customers and regulators only really paying attention when something goes wrong, a service is not delivered or when their bills increase.
The unpredictable nature of many countries’ climates and weather means that utility companies face many challenges to keep everything on an even keel. Add to that the fact that many organisations in the sector utilise subcontractors to support their engineering and maintenance activities, it leaves these companies largely operating in a vacuum, reacting to events when they occur.
This is corroborated by a recent OFWAT report that stated that 90 per cent of maintenance work is reactive and 33 per cent of down time losses are a result of unplanned maintenance, which costs utilities organisations 50 per cent more to deliver than planned maintenance.
These are huge figures in a sector that is traditionally run on very tight margins. It is a situation that is not sustainable, especially in the face of mounting consumer and political opposition to increasing bills and the well-known risks and issues of maintaining supply. Instead, we are seeing more and more companies pursuing a proactive system for both planned and unplanned maintenance.
The ability to manage and schedule field service staff while on the move is one of the key technologies driving the transition. The proliferation of connected devices integrated with sophisticated scheduling software is transforming the way that utility companies work in the field. With instant access to staff availability, asset data and interpretive scheduling software, the decision and communications process can be managed on a real-time basis.
The key for this new proactive approach to maintenance is in the immediacy of data collection and the availability and interpretation of that data
Previously companies would require field workers to manually complete job data on sheets on site and only be able to update central databases from a central location. That equated to a lot of downtime and wasted effort. There was also a reliance on data being accurately completed on-site and then transcribed into the central office system, something which is not always easy to do in remote off-site locations.
Engineers using smart, mobile devices can now log data as they go along, provide progress reports, take photographic evidence, collect signatures after jobs have been completed and order in supplies all while still on site. This helps utility companies to have more visibility over the way both direct and subcontracted work is completed, to help them schedule resources with maximum accuracy and plan for next jobs and actions. Using real-time big data to analyse and then schedule people with the right skills to the right tasks in a way that minimises downtime and no longer requires them to return to a central point will help utility companies move from being reactive to proactive.
As staff are able to instantly update job status and see new jobs being scheduled while out on the road, a more finely tuned operation will create value for both the company and the customer.
In addition to the smart devices engineers now carry with them, we are starting to see the introduction of smart objects. Connected pylons, life buoys, sensors in the road and automatic weather sensors will all become available. These devices will be used to track a multitude of environmental factors that are key to the smooth operation of a utility company. As well as external smart devices tracking environmental factors, we are already seeing these kinds of devices in our own homes with smart meters that show both the consumer and the utility provider what’s being used.
Taking a proactive approach to scheduling based on a combination of environmental, logistical and organisational big data, delivered directly to field staff via mobile smart devices is a developing science but one which many forward-thinking utilities firms are introducing today.
However, given the speed at which smart technology and big data interpretation is developing, we expect to see the number of reactive responses start to drop and be replaced with pro-active, forecasted and tailored scheduling. It will be a virtuous circle as more preventative work will reduce the number of reactive situations companies need to manage. The cumulative effect will be less pressure on operating margins, more effective use of skilled field resources and ultimately a better customer experience.