Three Types of Tools Utilities Could Employ Right Now to Help Ensure History Doesn’t Repeat Itself

And three steps every utility decision-maker should take to inject more confidence in one’s preparedness and stability.

Two utility workers look at an ET85 rugged tablet on the ground while another crew member in a bucket services a power pole
by Eric Williams
May 17, 2022

“What if?” That’s probably the start of every question that keeps utility executives, operations managers, and even front-line workers up at night. What if…

  • we can’t sustain or increase capacity to support peak or long-term demand? 

  • a plant, line or renewable source goes offline unexpectedly?

  • our infrastructure proves incapable of supporting current demand in the middle of a summer heat blast or winter freeze? 

  • our systems are hacked and we lose control, and the health and safety of our customers and communities are threatened as a result? 

  • we can’t locate the source of an outage or safely reach the equipment to restore service for a day or two? 

  • our worst-case scenario becomes reality? Or we can’t even foresee that worst-case scenario because it’s beyond our fathomable risk factors? 

But I believe the question that more urgently needs to be answered is, “What can we do right now to be ready for anything?”

I came across this NIH-published paper recently talking about the “Culture of Preparedness,” which suggests that individuals, families and business alike should be “developing plans, creating disaster kits, conducting drills and exercises, volunteering and completing training, and updating plans and kits as situations change.”

Mind you, this was published in 2019 – before the pandemic, the Texas winter storm, the record-setting wildfire seasons, and the many other crises we’ve been contending with ever since. So, it’s not meant to elicit panic or call out our collective unpreparedness in the wake of recent disasters. 

Quite the opposite. It’s intended to keep us focused on reality, on the here at now. We can’t consign “an emergency plan update” to a one-time project. For utilities in particular, preparedness must always remain a near-term priority, for even the smallest incident could become a large service disruptor and impact communities. 

What can you do today to be better next time your utility system is strained or disrupted? 

  • Assess the unknowns and be prepared to act in the moment.

  • Learn from the regrettable.

  • Implement a more agile response mechanism across your facilities and field workforce.  

If these objectives seem out of reach given your current operating model, then consider how a few select technology investments can help ground your business in reality by providing the actionable insights needed to…

  • foresee service-threatening incidents and address them before they become problematic.

  • get the right people in place as quickly as possible to diagnose and resolve acute system and infrastructure failures.

  • ensure you have the right inventory on hand at warehouses so field technicians can repair or replace aging, damaged or underperforming assets the moment an issue is identified.

For example, predictive analytics and remote operational technology (OT) monitoring software can help you keep a pulse on system performance and dispatch a specialist to investigate an anomaly or confirmed issue. Additionally, radio frequency identification (RFID) and barcode scanning solutions can help you more effectively track on-hand inventory, utilization rates, and even installation and maintenance histories for infrastructure. Each time a technician brings an asset online, inspects it or services it, they can quickly read an RFID tag or scan a barcoded label and report status and maintenance actions. Likewise, any time a part leaves the warehouse, it can be reported so that replenishment becomes more automatic. 

There’s one caveat: you must ensure your workers are equipped with the tools needed to automate reporting and follow through on new actionable insights generated by your intelligent software systems. These include, but are not limited to:

- Mobile computing solutions tailored to the deskless workforce – Utility crews are among the most mobile field workers in the world, yet they are often tethered to a vehicle or “office” when it comes to technology. I know they each have some sort of mobile device in hand, but is it plugged into your organization’s business systems and capable of running your specialized apps? Can it connect to cellular networks – and stay connected – in rural areas? Can it safely be used around electric, water, or gas infrastructure and in vehicles? Or survive all-day exposure to rain, dust, snow, sunshine, and humidity? Do you own the device and have control over everything that happens on it? And can you locate it when it appears offline? 

If the answer isn’t yes to all the above, that device isn’t a “solution.” At best, it’s a distraction. At worst, a liability. Besides, the folks charged with monitoring systems probably won’t be standing at a workstation all day long. They’ll be out walking the plant or conducting site visits in remote or rural areas. Make sure they aren’t out of touch when they leave their desks or vehicles. If an alert comes in that something is awry, they can tag in the right people on the ground and then consult in a remote expert manner using a virtual reality-type app.

Related Read:

We’ve Learned a Lot in the Last Year, Including the Real Purpose and Value of Rugged Head-Mounted Displays

- Barcode scanners and RFID readers that are built for constant use in harsh environments – They must be able to read labels and tags that are damaged, dirty and in less than perfect condition, and they must work in hot and cold, dry and humid, clear and dusty climates alike. Rugged enterprise-grade handheld mobile computers can serve as reliable barcode scanners, and you can easily attach an industrial-grade RFID sled to have a single-device solution. Rugged tablets can also capture barcodes in poor conditions. Both form factors enable workers to snap high-quality images of damaged assets for reporting purposes or consult with remote experts when help is needed with a task.  

- The right supplies for your workforce technology systems. Even the best RFID reader won’t do you any good if a transformer, meter or other part is tagged with the wrong type of RFID label. Likewise, some barcode labels are made for wet, humid or otherwise extreme environments that are normal for utility assets. Make sure you consult with a supplies expert when choosing your printers and readers to ensure all solution components will be appropriate for your application and compatible with the environment.

If you don’t pair these fundamental hardware components and supplies with the right software applications, it’s going to be difficult for your teams to become more predictive, proactive, and responsive. Your best-laid emergency response plans will also be impossible to execute. Sending crews into a situation blind or empty handed will only compound the situation. You must be able to get the situation resolved on the first truck roll – to the warehouse and then onto the point of failure (or anticipated failure). 

Something else to consider: your team may be spread thin in both preventative and emergency response operations. But if utility crews can get the information they need with the push of a rugged tablet or mobile computer button, then the labor and skills gap threatening your operational capacity right now will be easy to close. You won’t have to worry about sending a whole crew to every site. You’ll just need to send enough workers to manage the physical components – such as operating heavy machinery or swapping out transformers. The other expertise can be delivered virtually via augmented reality, video chats or good old-fashioned text and voice-based communications. Diagnostics can be completed and decisions made by specialists sitting one hundred miles away. Detailed step-by-step guidance can then be pushed to crews on the ground via mobile apps, helping to upskill novice workers on the spot and expedite work order completion. 

How Are You Going to Prepare for Any Situation?

Preparedness has become an anthem during the pandemic and recent 100-year natural disasters. But seasonal demand surges, storms, fires and other disruptive incidents plague utilities every day. Though you can’t mitigate all incidents, you can be better prepared to resolve them quickly before they have lasting consequences on people’s lives and property. 

If you want to avoid déjà vu in 2022, invest in new workforce technology infrastructure that makes it easier to manage the OT systems and infrastructure assets core to your generation, distribution and customer service operations. Break old habits, such as relying on pen and paper to keep tabs on warehouse inventory. Choose technology that you can trust to protect your data – enterprise-grade solutions built and certified to reduce vulnerabilities for governments and utilities. And place as much value on the software you choose as the hardware selected to run it. 

Your team can only take action on what they know to be true, so it’s important they’re being fed the right intelligence in real time. They shouldn’t have to spend hours trying to pinpoint the location or source of the issue. Nor should they have to figure out the solution via trial and error. The more data you can gather via technologies at the edge and at the core of your operations and analyze in an automated, centralized way, the more actionable insights you can then distribute back out to the edge. “Best next step” decisions can become more automated and based on facts, whether those steps are preventative or reactive. Hypothetical situations can help you prepare for every potential worst-case scenario, but your team shouldn’t be making decisions based on hypotheticals when you’re on the brink of – or in the middle of – a crisis. Yet, that’s exactly what they’ll have to continue doing if you don’t get the right technologies online today to give them broad, real-time operational visibility and prescriptive guidance.

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Editor’s Note: 

If you’d like to meet with Zebra utility experts and you’ll be at Distributech 2022, stop by booth #550. Many of the workforce technologies Eric discussed will be available for interactive demonstration, including handheld mobile computers and rugged tablets running custom SAP applications from Synactive and a field maintenance app from American Barcode and RFID (AB&R). If you’d like to schedule a formal meeting with members of Eric’s team who will be onsite, you can contact us here

If you won’t be attending the show, Zebra’s utility/energy team would be happy to meet with you at your convenience. Let them know what works best for you.

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Eric Williams
Eric Williams is currently the Senior Manager of North America Sales, Critical Field Service & Tablet, at Zebra. He is responsible for managing Zebra’s North America Energy, Utilities, and Rail Sales Team as well asmanaging Zebra’s Rugged Tablet Sales Team, influencing Marketing, Strategy, and Go-to-Market. Eric has been with Zebra for more than 15 years and has close to 25 years of experience within the Enterprise Mobile Computing industry.
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