On the Move in the Energy and Utility Industries
New mobile technologies and best practices point the way to bigger operational benefits.
Field workers at energy and utility companies were road warriors for decades while workers in other industries remained safely ensconced in their offices. In fact, Electric Energy Online, an industry publication, estimates that two-thirds of a typical utility company’s head count consists of field employees.
Given this head start, it’s no surprise that these mobile pioneers continue to find new and innovative ways to use mobile applications and capitalize on today’s latest mobile solutions. “Evolving mobile technologies and increasingly robust wireless networks are enabling discretely new behaviors,” says Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.
Fortunately, a combination of the latest technologies and field-proven best practices are helping energy and utility companies justify expanded investments in mobile apps for field workers, while also making it easier to design, develop and manage these programs.
Energy and utility companies are driven to expand their mobile capabilities thanks to a host of benefits. Increased productivity ranks at the top of the list. For example, thanks to mobile apps, field technicians can access work orders and calendars on the go. They can also search central databases for inventory lists, service bulletins and other reference materials without waiting to return to the office. “Mobile apps provide a self-service component that allows for quicker problem resolution, elimination of redundant data capture, and faster and more efficient communications between teams and management,” says John McGill, vice president of business development for Lextech Global Services, which creates mobile apps for energy and utility companies, as well as those in other sectors.
The best solutions solve multiple issues simultaneously, McGill says. For example, a single tablet can capture and display data, access videos, and capture photos of equipment and drilling sites — activities that used to require multiple devices. “This reduces the cost of equipment and maintenance of the various components,” he says, adding that app-enabled device consolidation sped up workflow processes by nearly 25 percent for one Lextech customer.
Another productivity benefit comes from eliminating the need for field workers to re-enter the data they capture during the day once they’re back at their desks. This not only reduces data-entry errors, it increases job satisfaction for workers who spend less time on tedious chores. “The significant quality-of-life benefits for the field employee can’t be overlooked,” McGill says.
Mobile apps can also keep field staff apprised of emerging equipment problems before they become full-fledged emergencies. “If a pump on a rig begins to fail, Internet of Things sensors can send a notification to a back-end system, which then sends an alert via a mobile app to the appropriate field engineer,” says Clare Grant, general manager of Red Hat Mobile, which offers a platform for developing and managing mobile applications.
Mobile apps offer many potential benefits, but to fully realize them, energy and utility companies need to pay close attention to three important areas.
Develop the Right Apps
Several options help field workers get the mobile apps they need. Companies may find industry-specific programs in app stores that specialize in business resources. “One source is IBM's Mobile First portfolio, which includes new business-specific enterprise-class apps for iOS resulting from its partnership with Apple,” King says.
If a prefab app doesn’t cut it, energy companies and utilities can develop custom apps using internal resources or by tapping the help of an outside specialist. For in-house development, products such as the Red Hat Mobile Application Platform provide client-side development tools for designing user interfaces and application features and functions. Mindful of the difficulties firms may have attracting skilled mobile app developers, Red Hat includes a forms builder and plug-in mobile applets for signature capture, data input and barcode reading. “The platform offers development tools that are easy to use by people who don’t have the deep skill set of a mobile development specialist,” Grant says.
Companies can drag and drop the desired components into a central production area to create a specific workflow with links to relevant databases. Applets such as signature capture, barcode reader and customer data input further enhance and individualize the applications.
The platform’s back end uses application programming interfaces to integrate new apps with specific industry databases used by mobile workforces.
Field Workers Drive Mobile Success
Although the input of the IT team is vital for mobile success, smart CIOs know when it’s time to listen rather than advise. “Don’t build what you think field personnel need; build based on what they tell you at every stage of the process, from concept and design to testing, rollout and ongoing feedback,” says John McGill, vice president of business development at Lextech.
Close collaboration between business representatives and IT teams will help companies identify mobile use cases and prioritize the ones that have the potential to deliver the greatest business value, adds Clare Grant, general manager for Red Hat Mobile.
“These discussions should also look at current workflows and examine ways to update them using mobile apps,” she says. “Companies may be able to completely re-engineer workflows to overcome the constraints of outdated and paper-based processes that have been in place for years. The right mobile app brings a whole new way of working to field engineers.”
Capitalize on Modern Mobile Devices
“Discrete new technologies are also having an impact on field workers,” King says. “Ruggedized laptops and tablets are providing workers access to full PC-quality performance regardless of where or what kind of work they're performing.”
Consumer mobile devices are also making an impact as they replace the proprietary “bricks” that field workers typically lug around. Standard smartphones and tablets, including models from Apple, Microsoft and Samsung, enable hardware consolidation by offering powerful computing and image-capture capabilities, along with inputs for peripherals such as barcode scanners.
But because consumer-grade devices weren’t designed for harsh field conditions, energy and utility companies often must ruggedize them to withstand impact, moisture and extreme temperatures. Kensington, Otter Products, Urban Armor Gear and others offer protective cases for smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices.
Mobility expands the enterprise perimeter, sending proprietary data over wide-area networks and to endpoint devices that represent attractive attack vectors for cybercriminals. “The fact that organizations are under such constant attack from well-organized and funded hackers means that ignoring security is akin to committing professional suicide,” King warns. “As a result, employing maximally secure mobile technologies is literally business critical.”
To protect data traveling across networks and on endpoint devices, energy and utility companies can elicit the help of third-party security professionals. For example, CDW offers a variety of security services, including assessments that use white hat hackers to find and plug gaps. Engineers can also work with companies to design and implement modern security architectures tailored for large numbers of mobile workers.