Integrator Uses Handhelds, Software To Save Utility $2.4 Million
DB Microware designs a work order management solution including 150 handheld computers for a gas and electric utility company.
As an integrator of field force automation solutions, it's rare that you will find a customer that processes 400,000 work orders a year by hand. Yet, that's exactly the challenge integrator DB Microware (Plano, TX) faced with its client Northeast Utilities (NU) (Berlin, CT), a provider of gas and electric distribution services.
DB Microware had been working with NU since 1991 for route restructuring/management and meter reading solutions. "Typically, work order management does not include meter reading," explains Steve Feeney, director of sales and marketing at DB Microware. "The difference between the two is that all meter reading is on-cycle, which means they know 25 years in advance what day they are going to read a meter. In contrast, work orders are typically off-cycle, generated daily by a customer problem such as a meter check read."
NU would route work orders daily from its headquarters to the appropriate district office. At each district office, an employee would arrive at 5 a.m. to print work orders received the night before and then sort and distribute those orders to the field staff. Field workers would then arrive and manually map out their service calls for the day. Once finished with a job, the field staff would submit paperwork to be filed for billing purposes. Using this process, it took two to three days to complete a simple work order (e.g. inspect wiring, install or remove a meter) and three to seven days to complete complicated orders (e.g. new construction with transformer-rated meters).
Sell The Advantages Of CE-Based Handhelds
When NU identified a need to move to a paperless work order management system, DB Microware worked with the company to define specifications for the program. The final solution included handheld computers and a software product known as FieldNet.
With the new solution, work orders are uploaded to handheld computers via a handheld's cradle. Other data such as a site's energy consumption history, hazards, or specific notes about an order are also loaded onto the handhelds. NU has 60 types of work orders, each requiring a field technician to complete some type of form on the handheld once the job is finished.
Originally, NU was using DOS-based terminals for the FieldNet application, but DB Microware sold the company CE-based DAP Technologies (Vanier, Quebec) ce5320 handhelds in 2001. "The DOS-based terminals were limited on software and hardware upgrades," Feeney explains. "By the end of the year NU will be using 150 of the DAP handhelds."
A New System With A Familiar Look
Feeney says one of the most challenging parts of this installation was the FieldNet interface to the client's homegrown customer information system (CIS). NU's CIS includes a meter reading history database, billing, and service order information. "Probably the biggest difference between our competitors and us is that we customize the CIS interface so the client has very little changes to make to its CIS system," Feeney states. "We also designed FieldNet to be similar to Northeast's meter reading program so it wasn't difficult for the client to learn. We ended up providing approximately two weeks of train-the-trainer education."
Speed Up Cycle Times
NU estimates the FieldNet work order management system is saving it $2.4 million a year from all of the labor and time previously used with the paper-based system. In fact, the company was able to redeploy one person in each district as a result of this new system. Furthermore, simple work orders now are completed within 24 hours, and complicated orders take two to three days. "The only paper this system generates is a bill," concludes Feeney.