Magazine Article | October 23, 2006

Charging Forward With Wireless

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

One of Ontario’s largest electricity distributors enjoys improved reporting capabilities via wireless data collection.

Integrated Solutions, November 2006

Making decisions based on facts rather than guesswork is critical to the success of any operation, utilities included. With this in mind, Hydro One, one of the largest distributors of electricity in the Canadian province of Ontario, wanted to find a solution that would allow it to collect the data it needed to meet the challenges of operating in a highly regulated industry.

Headquartered in Toronto, Hydro One is responsible for about 30% of electricity distribution within Ontario. It provides a collective 25,000 megawatts of electricity to about 1 million customers and has approximately 4,500 employees in work centers across the province.

“As is true elsewhere in Canada, an electricity regulator regulates the rates we can collect  based on the state of our lines, the amount of money needed to maintain and upgrade them, and more,” says Ian McIntyre, Hydro One’s manager of program and work management. Until about three years ago, much of the information collected by Hydro One’s field personnel was held at local work centers, often in paper-based files. “People in our individual work centers sometimes knew where that information was when, for instance, we needed to see when certain equipment had last been serviced or decide what to replace and what not to replace. However, getting accurate, timely data back to our central system was difficult,” states McIntyre.

Additionally, information gathered by field personnel in the course of equipment inspection and maintenance wasn’t always complete. Data recorded in the field had to be rekeyed when workers returned to the office, causing delays in accessing reports and introducing the potential for inaccuracies.

To start, Hyrdro One issued a RFP for a data collection system that would allow mobile workers to collect equipment inspection and maintenance information. Hydro One also wanted an application with at-source validation capabilities, to ensure that all data was clean at the point of entry and, in turn, could be interpreted correctly once in the system. Echo by Infowave, from Infowave Software, was chosen from among three semifinalists as Hydro One’s new data collection platform.

A customized interface, created for Hydro One by integrator Deloitte & Touche, links the Echo solution to the work management solution component of the company’s back end enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. Each day (or in some cases, each week), about 250 workers access assignments by synching their Symbol Technologies PPT2800 Pocket PC devices running Echo with the work management module of the ERP system. An additional 250 workers download their assignments to IBM T-Series laptops, which also run Echo. A migration from the PPT2800s to Symbol Technologies MC-70s is now in the planning stages.

Once they arrive at a given job site, workers are guided by the software through a range of data collection tasks, such as inputting condition ratings for switching equipment and transmission lines or entering details of a maintenance endeavor. Based on user-defined parameters, the system may also prompt a worker to input additional comments. For example, if a piece of equipment is found to be malfunctioning, a message requesting supporting information and validation of that fact will appear on the device’s screen.


“Depending on the kind of job, the Echo system can guide workers through 6 to 30 screens,” McIntyre explains. Once workers have filled in all mandatory fields on all forms, a final validation is performed. Upon returning to their offices, personnel transmit the data they have collected by once again synching their handhelds with the ERP system or uploading the data to Echo through a Web interface. Subsequently, data can be pulled out and formatted into reports via a number of reporting tools.

McIntyre says the system has been instrumental in improving the quality and quantity of data captured by field service personnel on the job. In the past, less than 50% of work order task packages (documents) were returned with a full complement of detailed and accurate information; today, that number stands at over 90%.

“With more data, and correct data, it is far easier for us to decide what needs to be maintained and what should be replaced, as well as to take any other corrective measures where necessary and to put together a solid case for requested rate increases,” McIntrye elaborates. “We have all the information we need, when we need it.”

Because data collected at job sites is automatically transmitted to the system rather than manually rekeyed into its databases, Hydro One also has been able to reduce labor expenditures by eliminating two full-time data entry positions. Supervisors need not manually check and validate data, further streamlining human resources expenditures. Collectively, this represents a savings of $500,000 as compared to the previous system. “We’ve done some translation of our overall benefits to dollar savings and come up with a figure in the order of $2 million to $3 million on the tangible and intangible sides,” McIntyre concludes.