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Good facilities data is necessary to maintain high standards

Geoff Zeiss

Geoff Zeiss
Director of Technology, Autodesk

Q What are the key challenges in the utility sector where Autodesk products may provide solutions?

A The 2005 GITA Technology Review reports that field force automation was among the top three applications for the electric, gas, and water industries. A plausible explanation for the critical importance of field force automation for utilities is the aging workforce. At a recent Autodesk Eastern Utility Forum one of the critical areas that was identified by participants, which included power, gas, and railroad companies, is the aging workforce. This is a bigger problem for utilities than for other industries.

But in my opinion the solution for this is ultimately going to involve IT. The key is what I would call intelligent desktop solutions. Intelligent solutions like these help younger workers be productive, but without the necessity of years of on the job training to acquire the knowledge that more experienced workers have absorbed through many years of experience. These systems integrate the production of a construction drawing, engineering analysis, and generation of a bill of materials and job estimates in a single, accessible package. In the context of the aging workforce problem that utilities are facing, the critical benefit for the future is that with basic AutoCAD skills a relatively inexperienced person can efficiently perform the design, engineering, and financial estimating tasks that are required to complete a work order. The key business benefit is improved quality of service to the customer.

Another commonly faced hurdle is the “as-built problem”. This problem is often the result of having different teams responsible for engineering design and maintaining as-builts or records. The engineering design folks typically use a CAD tool to design network infrastructure. The records folks use a traditional GIS application to maintain a record of the network infrastructure after it is constructed. The problem arises because almost invariably the engineering design deliverable is a piece of paper called a construction drawing. (It is actually paradoxical that the engineering design team uses sophisticated digital design tools, but the end result is a very old-fashioned piece of paper.) The construction drawing is used by the construction contractor to build the network infrastructure. After construction is complete, the construction drawing comes back to the records team as a piece of paper called an “as-built”, which may have been marked up or red-lined because the contractor may have had to make minor changes to the original design. A member of the records staff digitizes the as-built into the records database. At most organizations there is a backlog of as-builts waiting to be entered into the records database, and the backlog can stretch anywhere from 45 days to several years.

Yet another problem is the field problem, which involves the business process by which facilities information is passed to the personnel in the field and updated information from the field flows back to the records team. Utilities and telcos have a lot of people in the field. They are sometimes called install and repair staff, troublemen or linesmen, or field maintenance staff. They are usually customer-facing. In fact in many cases, they may be the only people you meet face to face from your local utility or telco. The fascinating thing is that the field staff usually know more about the location, detailed properties, and condition of network infrastructure than anyone else in the organization because they work with it daily. Not only that, but the field staff need accurate, reliable data to be productive. An interesting statistic that many utilities and telcos capture is “returns”, which is the proportion of work orders that require one or more return visits. For many utilities and telcos returns amount to between 25 and 30% of all install and repair jobs. This is expensive and it means that instead of a crew completing on average 5 work orders per day, they are only able to complete 4 work orders.

Q What are the challenges of the utility and telecom sector in the Middle East and South East Asian region?

A In addition to the common problems I have outlined that all utilities and telecoms face, there are problems specific to Middle East and South East Asia and other rapidly developing areas. In some jurisdictions, build-out is occurring at such a rapid rate that as-builts are hopelessly backlogged and or not captured at all. This means that there is no effective record of where underground facilities are located. Because in many areas, there is so much construction going on at such a rapid rate, there is a high risk of cables and pipes being dug up. This can be dangerous as well as expensive. Secondly, in some areas regulation may be ineffective, so that utilities and telcos do not feel a real need to capture information about the location of their facilities. In the long run this is expensive because field staff do not have the information they need before going out to a problem site. Secondly it can be dangerous. Thirdly, it results in a lower standard of quality of service. Good facilities data is necessary to maintain high standards of service, ensure safety, and support efficient operation.