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Workforce Automation: Where Rubber Meets Road

Fortnightly Magazine - May 2007

or may not get quicker restoration,” Thomas says. “But at the end of the day we will more effectively manage our crews. The system will provide dispatchers and field technicians with more information, so they will know if something was missed.”

Eventually UI might take the next step of integrating its OMS and workforce management systems together with its distribution-automation systems, including those provided by ACS in Atlanta. “No doubt the technology is there,” Thomas says. “With radio-controlled reclosers and distribution automation, dispatchers can make decisions about switching and restoring customers without getting a new crew out. That might become part of the long-term strategy.”

NStar Fleet Automation

Boston-based NStar recently deployed a new fleet-automation system to serve its 1.1 million electric customers and 245,000 gas customers. Its new Sapias Inc. mobile-resource management system is focused on improving outage-response time as well as the efficiency of maintenance and construction processes.

The system places sensors on mobile workforce equipment—such as bucket trucks—along with GPS, cellular and Internet technologies that allow dispatchers to collect and record real-time data about the equipment’s location, operation, and status. Dispatchers and fleet managers use this information to optimize work processes and monitor safety and efficiency protocols.

To test the system before the complete roll out, NStar deployed the Sapias equipment in its Cape Cod fleet, monitored the results and made work-process changes that reduced excess mileage and truck downtime. Based on this test, NStar then deployed the system to its entire mobile workforce, serving 81 communities.

“They used to put a pool of operations and maintenance jobs into a geographic area,” Harris says. “People would pick jobs to do in their area. With our system they focus specific crews and work in priority order, which allows more efficient routing. Miles driven went down and productivity went up.”

Additionally, Sapias improved NStar’s asset-management capabilities by providing data about vehicle utilization. With this data, NStar can schedule vehicle service according to hours of usage and error codes, and it can deploy underutilized vehicles to locations where they are needed, reducing the need to buy new vehicles.

NStar eventually may integrate the Sapias data with its CIS, so call-center operators can provide customers with more detailed information about outage-recovery efforts. NStar proved such capabilities in December, when a storm hit Cape Cod and caused a significant outage. “An NStar corporate affairs person was on site, logged on to our system,” Harris says. “He was able to tell government officials where crews were, how many were working on the outage, and what areas were already restored.”

Such capabilities will not only help utilities like NStar improve their efficiency and customer-service capabilities, they also might bring government-relations benefits as companies demonstrate the payback on technology investments.

Entergy Economy

Utilities frequently merge to capture greater scale economies. Where two utilities must buy and upgrade separate CIS systems, a merged utility can use just one—passing the savings on to customers and shareholders.

Utility business processes, however, notoriously are difficult to integrate. Particularly when merging assets are separated by geography, capturing scale economies is much easier