By Brian Albright, Field Technologies magazine
Replacing paper-based inspections with a tablet-based solution streamlines Peoples Natural Gas’ field asset inspections and saves hours of data entry.
Utility companies manage thousands of assets that are geographically dispersed and exposed to the harshest of elements. All of these assets have to be periodically inspected to ensure that they can provide reliable service, and that inspection process requires a massive data collection effort repeated on a varying schedule, depending on the type of asset. For companies that still rely on paper inspection forms (yes, they are out there!), that can mean hundreds of man hours per year spent rekeying data from these inspection documents to get it into back office systems.
Peoples Natural Gas provides gas service to approximately 700,000 homes and businesses in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky. Its infrastructure includes thousands of regulating stations, valves, and other assets that have to be inspected by field staff. In addition, the company regularly has to find and mark the location of its gas lines to accommodate excavation and construction projects across its service territory.
Paper Forms, Manual Processes Give Headaches
Previously, Peoples Natural Gas used a combination of laptops and paper forms to perform inspections and other field activities. For gas line locating, technicians used eight-year-old rugged laptops running a mapping software in offline mode. But even though the field workers were equipped with laptops, there was no real-time connectivity to the technicians. “They would take paper inspection forms to the field, carry paper maps in their trucks, and they would record the results of field work on paper and bring them back to the office,” says Joe Brado, director of IT applications at Peoples Natural Gas. “The supervisors would either enter the data themselves or ask another data entry person to do it.”
Now the company has deployed a rugged tablet-based solution that has reduced reliance on paper inspection documents and maps, and helped automate the process of locating and marking gas lines for its customers. The solution has eliminated several hours per week in data entry.
Making The Move To Real-Time Information
Peoples Natural Gas is using the new tablet-based solution for two primary functions. First, field technicians use the solution to perform inspections of regulating stations, valves, and other field assets. Other technicians use them for damage prevention, the “call before you dig” gas-line locating services for which they use the mapping information available on the tablets to locate and mark buried lines.
The rugged tablet-based solution was put in place in 2013. At the time, Peoples Natural Gas was looking for a mobile device that was more convenient for the technicians to carry than the laptops they previously used, that was rugged enough for field use, and that could provide real-time field data capture. “We wanted to improve the overall efficiency of the field processes,” Brado says. “We wanted to ensure that field technicians capture the right data in the field and eliminate the data entry mistakes that are inevitable when someone is trying to read somebody else’s handwriting to key in data from paper forms.”
An important element of the new solution was to provide online access to map data, which would improve both the inspection process and line locating. “It was our goal to bring real-time data into the hands of our field employees,” says Paul Pachuta, IT analyst at Peoples Natural Gas. “Before, they relied on paper maps, and it was up to the supervisors to keep those maps current and up to date. That can be challenging to do with paper maps. Now we have current-to-that-day information in the field at all times.”
Leveraging Existing Software Solutions With Mobile Device Upgrade
Much of the software the company needed for its mobile solution was already in place when the IT staff began looking for the new mobile hardware. The company was already using TransLore Locate software for damage prevention activities, and simply needed to port that application from the laptops to the new tablets.
Peoples was able to use its existing FieldSmart View mapping solution to provide access to map/GIS (geographic information system) information, as well as to build the inspection forms. The company had also already deployed the Ventyx Service Suite system for work order management — it just wasn’t using the mobile application of the solution. The mobile component, which ties directly into the back office Ventyx solution the company was already using, was something that could simply be added on to the portions of the solution the company was already leveraging.
“Half of the people we rolled this solution out to had limited laptop experience or none at all, and this was the first time they had worked with a workforce management application.”
Paul Pachuta, Peoples Natural Gas
Rugged Tablet PC Selection
After evaluating various tablet options, Peoples selected and deployed the Motion F5 Series rugged tablet. Pachuta and Brado headed up the hardware selection team. They tested several different devices out in the field, and used the feedback they received from their mobile workforce to guide their selection.
“The thing that really sold us on the Motion tablet was, first and foremost, that it could handle the software we were running,” Pachuta says. “It also had the most user friendly form factor.”
Once the F5 was selected, the company also needed to ensure a real-time wireless connection to the field. To do so, Peoples Natural Gas has deployed Sierra Wireless GX440 modems in all of the technicians’ vehicles. The applications used in the field enable technicians to work offline when they are out of wireless coverage, and data is synced back up with the server when they enter coverage again.
According to Brado, the company piloted the solution in one field office with four users. “We let them run about two months to make sure the solution was going to work the way we intended it to, and then once we were comfortable it was, we started rolling out the other locations one by one,” Brado says. “The phased rollout took about three months to complete.”
Training Key To Overcoming Challenges With Employee Acceptance
To date, Peoples Natural Gas has deployed 100 rugged tablets. Pachuta says the biggest challenge the company faced was employee training. Many of the technicians using the devices had very little computer experience, which made training a challenge — but crucial to acceptance and adoption. “Half of the people we rolled this solution out to had limited laptop experience or none at all, and this was the first time they had worked with a workforce management application like Ventyx,” Pachuta says. “It took some additional training and time to get them comfortable with how to use the solution.”
Training was conducted in small groups at each location, along with some one-on-one training when necessary. “We did more in-depth training with the supervisors so we could use them as our first point of contact for questions,” Pachuta. “We also leveraged our existing support network for IT problems.”
For inspection work, the back-end management system generates work orders for all monthly inspections. Supervisors for each office assign the work to specific employees. The Ventyx system issues the work orders to the F5 tablets.
< “They open the order, and there is a button on the screen that takes them into the FieldSmart map and form,” Brado says. “They record inspection results in the form, and when they are done, they submit that electronically, it gets transmitted back to the server, and updates the management system back in the office.”
The solution works slightly differently for damage prevention assignments. The service calls come via Pennsylvania’s One Call System, which manages requests for utility checks at excavation and building sites. As those calls come in, work order tickets are issued through the TransLore system. “They can use the TransLore system to check the map, find the location of the lines, and then mark them,” Brado says.
Loading the new inspection forms was simply a matter of copying the original paper forms into the system. “We did take the opportunity to do a content review and made some minor changes to things on the old forms that were no longer relevant,” Brado says. “We also made it a better fit for the tablet interface in terms of layout.”
Peoples needed to have asset histories attached to the valves and regulating stations in the inspection system so that the information could be accessed during new inspections, which meant migrating the existing paper trail into the electronic system. “We had a lot of paper documentation, sketches of valves, and inspection histories, and we had some college interns scan those documents into electronic form,” Brado says. “We attached those to individual valve and regulating station records, so the employees in the field can bring up those attachments and look at them.”
“There’s no paperwork floating around, and no extra data entry steps involved. We have a realtime view of what’s happening in the field.”
Joe Brado, Peoples Natural Gas
Eliminating Paper Saves Hours Of Tedious Data Entry
Thanks to the F5 tablets and new mobile software, data capture is more efficient, and inspection data is immediately updated in the back office system. “There’s no paperwork floating around, and no extra data entry steps involved,” Brado says. “We have a real-time view of what’s happening in the field.”
That real-time visibility has also helped improve efficiencies in other areas. “In the old process, there was a lot of wait time involved if we needed to update the information,” Pachuta says. “If what they saw in the field didn’t match what was on the forms, they would have to call the office and go back and get a new map. With real-time access to current drawings, we have cut out that wait time and stopped a lot of that back and forth travel, and the unintentional errors that occur when you are looking at outdated information.”
Back office data entry has been reduced, as the data on the 15,000 inspections the company conducts each year now flows seamlessly into the database. Office staffers have saved several hours per week in data entry time, and in addition to saving time the accuracy of the information is improved as well. “Our primary goal was improving accuracy,” Pachuta says. “We wanted the least number of people to touch the data to minimize potential errors, and we’ve accomplished that goal.”
Peoples is planning to roll out the solution to technicians working for another gas utility the company has acquired, and Brado says there are plans to further leverage the rugged F5 tablets for other applications within the organization. “We have people that go out and do test readings for corrosion protection systems, and there are 25,000 test stations in the field they survey on a periodic basis,” Brado says. “We want to work that process into the mobile solution. Another big one is leak management. If there is a leak, we have to go out and investigate and generate repair orders. We want to automate all of that in the field using the tablets.”
Using rugged tablets, Peoples Natural Gas has been able to eliminate hours of data entry per week, improve the accuracy of inspection data, and provide real-time access to GIS map data that has made line location and inspection tasks more efficient. By leveraging existing software applications and modeling existing work flows, it was able to do so in the most cost-effective and least disruptive way, while creating a platform to expand mobility into other applications.
Tablets Take Over
Peoples Natural Gas, a Pennsylvania-based utility, wanted to eliminate paperwork from its field inspection and damage prevention processes. The company already had the right software tools in place, including the Ventyx Service Suite work order management solution, FieldSmart View mapping for inspections, and TransLore Locate for damage prevention/line marking.
What the company needed to mobilize these activities was a rugged tablet that could withstand the often harsh conditions the technicians work in, provide enough processing power to meet the company’s needs, and run multiple Windows-based applications.
Peoples selected the Motion Computing F5 Series rugged tablet PC. “We compared it to other tablets on the market, and what sold us on Motion was, first and foremost, that it could handle the software we were running in terms of processor speed and memory,” says Paul Pachuta, IT analyst at Peoples Natural Gas. “It also had the most user friendly form factor.”
The Windows 7-based tablets weigh just 3.3 pounds and the company found the slip-free grip and molded handle helpful. “The tablets are not overly bulky,” adds Joe Brado, director of IT applications. “They are easy to hold and work with.”
The tablets include the Intel Core i7 vPro processor, and come with up to 256GB solid-state drive (SSD) memory and up to 8GB of RAM. To withstand the often inclement outdoor conditions the technicians work in, the tablets include a magnesium-alloy frame, are fully sealed and IP54 rated, and meet the MIL-STD 810G standard. The 10.4-inch XGA LED backlit display is made from Gorilla Glass, and is optimized for outdoor visibility.
The F5 tablet provides a 180-degree viewing angle, 10-finger touch or pen input, and includes an integrated digital camera, which the technicians can use to document equipment damage. For more information on the F5 and other tablets Motion provides, visit www.motioncomputing.com.