Digitalization in the utility industry: The current climate
The utility industry is often considered a risk-averse, safe, and predictable bet for investors. However, the heightened focus on ensuring undisrupted supply and safety often acts as a detriment to embracing emerging, but sometimes unproven technologies. That said, it would not be entirely correct to state that utility companies have not adopted digitalization. Network management systems, asset management databases, and visualization platforms such as GIS have become commonplace among modern utilities.
However, to meet the evolving challenges of the industry, such as decarbonization, increased regulatory reporting, and aging assets, utility companies are under pressure to do more with less. And in this dynamic business landscape, the ability of a utility to make better use of real-time information and provide quicker data-driven decision-making capabilities could be the key differentiator in the years to come.
Despite its importance, the process of gathering field data is often overlooked and in some cases has remained untouched by digitalization. A substantial portion of asset information needs to be physically collected out in the field—a task traditionally performed by engineers and technicians. These field workers constitute up to two-thirds of a utility company and according to a Boston Consulting Group study, contribute to 40% of a company’s wage bill and represent 60-80% of their capital expenditure (for field equipment and replacement).
Additionally, utility companies are required to record data on building and installation of new assets, decommissioning of assets, as well as maintenance and repairs carried out on their network of infrastructure. All this information is eventually reported back to the regulator and forms the basis for business and investment decisions. A failure to comply with this regulatory requirement has severe financial implications for the company.
So, as utility companies take their next steps towards digitalization, they must integrate their systems and the field force better to remain competitive and be more productive.
Challenges with data recording and the field force
A common perception within the utility industry is that the field workforce is often not tech-savvy and prefer traditional methods for data collection over digital technologies. This thought process has dissuaded many companies from introducing digital tools leading to continued reliance on paper-based systems for data collection.
A typical data collection system requires the field force to record information on paper forms, which are then scanned and sent to a central database. Following this, a central team is responsible for interpreting the hand-drawn sketches and notes before entering the data into an enterprise system. Inevitably, manual interpretation is time-consuming, inconsistent, and prone to errors, all of which lead to additional cost and delays.
The utilities that did go ahead and deploy digital solutions for their field technicians were faced with less than satisfactory outcomes due to faulty implementation and overly complicated systems. Some of the early solutions were typically developed by software engineers who had little understanding of the process and what field engineers need to perform their job effectively. This led to the development of complex tools which were challenging to use, thus resulting in user apathy. The problem was further exacerbated by poor application design, which often led to incorrect data entry, irrelevant data collected, and corruption of data.
The key to designing an effective system is to remember that a field engineer’s primary role is to maintain assets or respond to problems and not to spend an undue amount of time to understand the technology for collecting data.