Huntsville Utilities serves a community of more than 340,000 people by pumping 10.8 billion gallons of water, distributing 5.8 billion cubic feet of natural gas, and supplying 4.7 billion kilowatt hours of electricity annually. The utility's three systems -- water, gas, and electric -- share management, customer services, billing, meter reading, accounting, and purchasing resources. In 1995, the company equipped field service technicians with handheld devices and used digital mapping applications (available at its headquarters, not on the handheld devices) to help field workers perform their jobs more efficiently. The solution met with nominal success because some field service techs preferred manually capturing meter readings rather than using the small devices. By 2004, after receiving numerous user complaints about the functionality of the devices (e.g. slow search capability and inadequate battery life), the company decided to find a new mobile form factor that all of its field service techs would use.
RUGGED TABLET PCs MEET FIELD WORKER REQUIREMENTS
After checking into several mobile computing devices and soliciting input from its field service techs, the utility company selected Xplore Technologies' Xplore iX104 Tablet PCs. "The device's full Windows operating system enabled us to develop applications once, as opposed to creating one version for PCs and another version for the mobile devices," says Ron McLeroy, technical services manager at Huntsville Utilities. "Plus, the application uses an interface that looks similar to our paper forms, which made training easy and the device adoption rate high."
Currently, Huntsville Utilities' field service techs use the tablet PCs to turn on/off service, perform meter rereads (the company has a separate system for meter readers who only read meters), and verify customer classifications (e.g. commercial, residential, or irrigation class of service). Additionally, collections for outstanding payments are performed using the Xplore tablets. Notations on electronic service tickets are also made, and new service tickets are downloaded by field service representatives via the tablets. Problems can be verified to determine whether a full crew should be dispatched. Finally, maps are installed on the tablet hard drives, and field service representatives have access to a map-viewing application, which was not available on the handheld devices. The mapping application shows GIS (geographic information system) information such as distribution lines (e.g. location of underground water, gas, or electric lines) and enables field workers to receive service area information.
"The tablet PCs have enabled our field service reps to streamline data collection and reporting procedures from what previously took 2 to 3 minutes, to seconds," says David Stair, field services manager at Huntsville Utilities. The ability to see maps and determine the most efficient route between stops is the biggest benefit. In the future, the utility company plans to add routing software to optimize this function.