Mobile Data Is The Linchpin For CPS Energy's Field Crews

By  Teresa Von Fuchs — April 09, 2009

CPS Energy services approximately 685,000 electric customers and 320,000 natural gas customers in and around San Antonio, Texas. As the nation's largest municipally owned utility, CPS is always looking for ways to streamline costs while improving customer service.

Mobilizing field processes has long been part of CPS's strategy to remain viable in a deregulated, competitive market.

Back in 1995, CPS began automating aspects of its field processes by putting mobile data terminals in the hands of some field service crews. "We started where most utilities start," says James Trevino, CPS's Manager of Technical Services and Electrical Engineering, "looking for a mobile solution mostly to improve customer service and efficiency, particularly in our trouble ticket department."

The mobility solution soon expanded to some maintenance teams based on CPS's initial productivity gains, and providing its various field crews remote access to key applications is now an integral part of the company's maintenance and construction operations.

While CPS has refined its mobile strategy with every step along its automation path, Trevino is certain that one of the company's best moves was choosing hardware from Itronix in 2001. During the company's initial plan to expand its mobile solution to maintenance departments, including investing in quite a few more units, CPS had sent out a proposal for competitive bids to various hardware vendors.

"While Itronix's products had comparable pricing and ruggedization specs, the main differentiator was the company's maintenance and support package," says Trevino. "Recently, when we were looking into upgrading some older devices, we did a cost comparison again and were still most impressed with Itronix, especially after being familiar with their commitment to continued support."

CPS started with the Itronix's first line of GoBooks in 2001. The utility most recently upgraded to the newly released GD6000 which, among other new features, is Itronix's first computer to use the GD preface since the company was acquired by General Dynamics in 2005.

CPS sees no reason to stop at the 475 Itronix units it already has deployed. Trevino and Bonnie San Miguel, Mobile Data Support Manager for CPS's Energy Delivery Services department, recently deployed mobile units to contractors who work on street light maintenance crews.

CPS has been outsourcing street light maintenance to contractors for years because of the high volume of work, explains San Miguel. "Being able to distribute the work orders via the GoBooks has been a real big win for us," she says.

Before CPS deployed mobile units to its streetlight teams, contractors were driving into depots from all over the city, picking up paper job orders and then going out into service areas. The extended drive times were expensive for CPS, and not very efficient.

Also, crews working in the field recorded job info on paper work orders. At the end of their shifts, they'd drive back into the depot to deliver these, and CPS staff would have to manually update information in the central system. It could take up to six weeks from when a customer called to complain a streetlight is out until it was fixed.

"Since we've implemented direct dispatching with the GoBooks, the number of orders that contractors can fulfill in a day has increased dramatically," says San Miguel.

Now, contractors can see work orders as soon as they get in their vehicles, without having to drive to the depots. They then go straight to their first location. As soon as a job is completed, a repair tech updates the job on the GoBook, and that information is immediately updated in the company's back-end system. No more manual data entry, and fewer duplicated work orders.

Where CPS previously had 30 two-man crews repairing streetlights, and a completion time of four to six weeks, now it has 10 single-person crews and boasts 24-hour turnaround times, resulting in major cost savings and a huge customer service win.

The streetlight division is just one example within the maintenance and construction departments that have benefitted from mobile data. CPS plans to roll out mobile data solutions to its remaining construction departments.

In fact, mobile data has become the linchpin for the utility's outage management system: "This equipment in the field is a critical link in the whole emergency response process. The equipment has to be reliable, durable, the whole nine yards, because if dispatch is in continuous communication with emergency crews in the field, they are able to provide real time info on restoration time, which goes back over to our customer info system, which keeps people up to date about when power will be restored."

CPS says it has found a partner for its mobile solutions in GD Itronix: "We've put a lot of time and energy into getting them the feedback they need to maintain the level of support that we expect and also how to improve products for this industry going forward."

Soliciting feedback from customers like CPS is part of what drove GD Itronix to create the new GD6000.

As CPS's mobile solution has expanded and developed, it needed more than just a rugged computer. While the utility was looking for a device durable enough to thrive under extreme conditions, it also needed a computer that could support increasingly sophisticated applications and information systems.

So while the  GD6000 is rugged enough to withstand San Antonio 's notoriously hot days, intense vehicle vibration and the hard knocks of field work, it also offers integrated GPS, WWAN, WiFi, Bluetooth and an Intel Core 2 Duo T9400 processor powerful enough to run serious GIS applications from the hip. And the GD6000 is light enough to sling over your shoulder and carry around all day.

See more uses cases and trends around rugged devices in the field in our Field Service Central report, Real-World Rugged.


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